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Otis Taylor shines new light on an ancient instrument

Banjos and stinging blues



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  • Photo by Stacey Moore

This is the story of the alligator and the scorpion. You see, there's a scorpion who wants to get across a river, but the only way to make that trip is on an alligator's back. In exchange for passage, the scorpion promises not to sting the alligator. "Good," says the gator, "because you know what will happen if you do." Halfway across the river, the scorpion, of course, stings the alligator. "Why'd you do that?" asks the alligator. "Now you're gonna die." The scorpion has but one response: "It's just my nature."

Otis Taylor, a Boulder, Colo.-based songwriter, blues/roots musician and record producer, offers the story near the end of a long weeknight phone chat to explain his habit of steering interviews in his preferred directions. He shares it right after he (good-naturedly, but nonetheless directly) points out the futility of a hypothetical question I've asked. But the fable could also apply to Taylor's nature to take his own path, one full of twists and detours and—when he tires of something—abrupt stops.

One early turn, not long after his family moved from Chicago to Denver when he was a child, led him to the Denver Folklore Center, Mississippi John Hurt and the banjo. A little later came a guitar and a harmonica, youthful blues bands, an excursion to London (quite the sharp right turn), a return to the States, and a hard-rock group with Tommy Bolin of The James Gang and Deep Purple. And then Taylor tired of it, stepping away from music for nearly two decades. He focused instead on gigs as an antiques dealer and—inspired by a book about turn-of-the-century African-American world champion Major Taylor—the coach of an amateur bicycling team that sent two riders to the national team.

When Taylor returned to music in the mid-'90s, his nature led to stark and intense records, composed of blues songs so stripped down you could see bone. His writing peeled away layers too, exposing raw nerves on the way to the heart: 2001's White African examined race relations, with songs addressing the lynching of his great-grandfather and the death of his uncle. With each record, Taylor blazed a trail, or at the very least carved a trailhead, moving from self-described "trance-blues" to special blends that draw on jazz and back-mountain country, on the internal and the universal. This summer, he'll release a new album that mixes love songs and disassociative jazz, presents guest spots from British guitarist Gary Moore and pianist Jason Moran, and makes more room for the vocals of Taylor's bass-playing daughter, Cassie.

Joining Taylor...

Most of Otis Taylor's collaborators on Recapturing the Banjo will join him for the show at Duke, meaning there'll be a whole lot of talent on stage with a whole bunch of awards—ranging from Grammys to W.C. Handys—on their mantles.

ALVIN YOUNGBLOOD HART: The first line of Hart's bio says it best: "The Cosmic American Love Child of Howlin Wolf and Link Wray." Hart's also been getting rather cinematic of late, serving as Samuel Jackson's guitar tutor for the movie Black Snake Moan, acting in The Great Debaters, and contributing to the soundtracks of both. His collaboration with Taylor on "Deep Blue Sea" is one of Banjo's many marvels—ancient yet fresh, jaunty yet lethal.

COREY HARRIS: Like the other Banjo artists, Harris' music is restless and multifaceted, the result of abounding curiosity and, in Harris' case, frequent world travels. Reflecting his wide-ranging interests are his work with Billy Bragg and Wilco on the two Mermaid Avenue records and his most recent release, Zion Crossroads, a celebration of roots reggae and other echoes of his African visits.

DON VAPPIE: New Orleans' Vappie is a skilled musical multi-threat (mandolin, guitar, bass, vocals), but it's as a jazz banjoist and leader of the Creole Jazz Serenaders that he's earned his greatest acclaim. He's clearly no stranger to collaboration: His versatility has led to tours and appearances with Wynton Marsalis, the Red Clay Ramblers and fellow culture preservationists BeauSoleil, among others.

OTIS TAYLOR'S BAND: Backing Taylor will be his daughter Cassie on bass and snaking harmonies, guitarist John Richardson, and Ron Miles on trumpet. Ann Harris, a gifted fiddle player from Chicago, will be special guesting. —Rick Cornell

It's his current release, Recapturing the Banjo, that brings Taylor and most of his collaborators on the project (a gifted congregation that includes Guy Davis, Corey Harris, Alvin Youngblood Hart and Don Vappie) to Duke University. The record seeks to bathe an old instrument in some new light and, in Taylor's words, "reconnect the music back to the people who brought it here in the first place." It's a bit of history that Taylor didn't always know, despite his early attachment to the banjo. "When I was young, I didn't know the banjo came from Africa. When I was playing it, I didn't even know that," he recalls. "A year ago, I asked one of my teachers, 'Why didn't you tell me?' And he said, 'I just didn't think of it.' So on this album, I'm just trying to spread the word that the banjo came from Africa, that black people do play the banjo."

Taylor and company also illusrate that the banjo isn't a one-dimensional instrument bound by its historical associations. "I want to let people know it came from a long time ago, but it doesn't have to freeze in time," Taylor says. "It's not all bluegrass or old-timey, you know. It's ragtime and psychedelic and jazz." To that end, Recapturing offers an interpretation of "Walk Right In," written by African-American banjo player Gus Cannon, on which New Orleans-based jazz banjoist Vappie takes the lead, followed two songs later by a banjo version of "Hey Joe."

Hart spikes his "Prophet's Mission" with what sounds like Stevie Wonder's monumental "Superstition" riff revisited by banjo, while Guy Davis displays his clawhammer technique on "Little Liza Jane," with Taylor accompanying on mandolin. Traditional songs share space with new compositions, including seven by Taylor, each number confident with a distinct personality. And the stories told—of a Southern black man on the run from the Ku Klux Klan, of Chief Tecumseh, of a white sheriff, of an African-American cowboy—are profound and penetrating.

Even with all that, perhaps the most impressive achievement is how the whole enterprise plays out on the perfect middle ground between education (music historian Dick Weissman's liner notes are excellent) and celebration. How did Taylor strike that balance? Direct as always, Taylor responds, "I'm just not an academic person, so it's not hard."

Oh, and it's just not his nature.

Taylor joins "Recapturing the Banjo: The Black Banjo Project" at 8 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 22, at Page Auditorium. Tickets range from $5-$34. For information, see www.dukeperformances.org.

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