Otis Taylor – The old folks started it
“I don’t work like anybody else. OK, let’s put it this way. Until the last part is done, nobody believes it’s going to be a song.”
Blues might travel best as a form recently arrived and itching to get to know the territory. As with jazz, the tension between the demands of repertoire and the pull of innovation helps define the form in its modern guise. And it could be that blues as tonality and manipulation of timbre might trump blues as homage to a mythical Chicago or Clarksdale, blues as a matter for guitars. That’s not to say the old songs don’t sound good, or that there aren’t new ones to add to an already huge storehouse. But sometimes a banjo is just the thing to express a bluesman’s joy or dissolution.
On Recapturing The Banjo (out February 5 on Telarc), Otis Taylor layers the instrument on songs by Memphis jug-band master Gus Cannon and Boudleaux Bryant, and runs scared with blues form on originals that take the tradition somewhere. For the 59-year-old guitarist, mandolinist, singer, producer, former antiques dealer, onetime bicycle racer and, yes, banjo player, the record affords the chance to work with some of this era’s finest blues musicians — Alvin Youngblood Hart, Guy Davis, Corey Harris, and New Orleans tenor-banjo expert Don Vappie. In addition, all-purpose neotraditionalist Keb’ Mo’ contributes a tune and adds fingerpicking licks to a couple of songs. It’s a mind-boggling array of five-and-four-string tones and riffs on a dense, driving record.
If there are nods to banjo tradition — specifically, an African-American tradition that takes in New Orleans-style four-to-the-bar rhythm playing and the half-fingerpicked, half-chordal “crossed notes” approach of bluesman Papa Charlie Jackson — Taylor does indeed recapture the banjo. Perhaps retool is a better verb, since Taylor uses the instrument both as a reproach to listeners who associate the banjo with the kind of manufactured nostalgia at which minstrelsy excelled, and as a counterpart to the experiments of pioneers such as British jazz artist Chris Barber, a trombonist and arranger who, in his ’60s work, often paired electric guitar with banjo.
The tradition carries unmistakable racist overtones. This is ironic, since Africans arriving in the Caribbean and, later, on the North American mainland began reinventing an instrument used by griots in western Africa. A prototype of the modern banjo existed in Jamaica and Martinique by the early 18th century.
As for its African origins, these seem fairly clear, although writer Ned Sublette, in his book Cuba And Its Music, suggests otherwise: “That the banjo-lute is not part of the musical culture of forest Africa perhaps argues against an African genesis for the instrument.” At any rate, in the popular mind, the banjo has come to be associated with an antiquated “folk” tradition that takes in antebellum good times on the plantation and hokey tourist-trade Dixieland jazz.
As Taylor explains it in a Nashville hotel room (he was in town in November to play the Station Inn as part of the Americana Music Association conference), Recapturing The Banjo allows him to jump-start the historical continuum while relaxing — if that’s the word — with material that stands ready for recontextualization. Recapturing could serve as an antidote to the fatalism of listeners who say the blues is dead and ask what the banjo has to do with it anyway.
“I used to have this old saying: ‘I don’t play dead people’s songs,'” Taylor laughs. “I didn’t even do any covers on my last two albums. So, historically, I’m just doing my thing. [Recapturing The Banjo] was a collaboration with other people, so I had to pick the right songs. ‘Deep Blue Sea’ is a traditional song, and so is ‘Little Liza Jane’, so we definitely did some covers.”
The disc begins with one of Taylor’s terrified narrators. “Ran So Hard The Sun Went Down” lurches along with four banjos commenting on action that could be the product of collective memory or specific nightmare. “Spoke to the wrong person that day/Went back home and hid away,” Taylor sings, and then adds, “Looked at the window and what did I see/Tar and feather, comin’ after me.” Hart, Harris and Vappie skitter along on top of a nervous two-chord blues.
As with nearly every song on the album, “Ran So Hard” benefits from the understated swing of New Orleans native Vappie, a specialist in “tenor” or four-string banjo playing. Vappie, 51, grew up in the Crescent City “playing blues and jazz and funk and all that other stuff, like my generation played,” he says from his Covington, Louisiana, home. As an exponent of a local tradition that includes banjo players such as Louis Armstrong sideman Johnny St. Cyr and Danny Barker (a versatile musician who worked with Sidney Bechet, Red Allen and Cab Calloway), Vappie brings refined sensibility and prodigious technique to Taylor’s music.
“On some things for this record, Otis had ideas, you know, ’cause he sorta has a vision,” Vappie says. “He’s the guy with the vision. On other things, he’s, like, ‘What would you do here?’ So he sorta left it up to individuals to put in their own thing.”
Vappie suggested “Les Oignons” (The Onions), a Haitian children’s song New Orleans musicians have played for decades. “That’s part of the New Orleans jazz repertoire,” Vappie says. “The reason we chose that is because it’s also a song that’s still played in Haiti. I don’t know when it was brought over, but the only person who ever recorded any of this stuff was Danny Barker and [New Orleans clarinetist] Albert Nicholas, and [bassist] Pops Foster. They did some recording together in the ’40s.”
Taylor’s version of Gus Cannon’s “Walk Right In” stands as the record’s most relaxed moment. “I had to do that one,” Taylor says. “How could you not play a Gus Cannon song? If you’re describing the black banjo experience and not playing Gus Cannon, you’re like a sinner, immoral.”
With its deep-seated blues feeling, Recapturing The Banjo does indeed describe that experience. And it sits in a lineage of modern records that strive to do away with received ideas of just what makes the blues what it is. James Blood Ulmer’s 1983 album Odyssey, a drummerless work that features fiddle juxtaposed with electric guitar, fits here, as does Hart’s 1998 disc Territory, which included a Captain Beefheart instrumental alongside “John Hardy” and made hash out of distinctions between blues and folk music.