Otis Taylor – The old folks started it
Taylor’s previous work had revealed a restless intelligence, and showed him to be a combination of ’60s folkie and sonic experimenter. Born in Chicago to jazz-loving parents on July 30, 1948, Taylor moved to Denver in the early 1950s (“It wasn’t so uptight, and it was a lot nicer than Chicago,” Taylor recalls), and in 1963 discovered the Denver Folklore Center, a music store, concert hall and instrument dealer.
“It was four blocks from my house, and every day after school I’d sit there and listen to records and play their instruments”, he says. “It was a really wonderful experience, and my home away from home.”
Taylor began playing the ukulele and the banjo, and it’s satisfying to imagine the young musician checking out, say, Jimi Hendrix’s version of Boudleaux Bryant’s “Hey Joe” (which Taylor, Hart and Davis perform on Recapturing The Banjo) as he hung out with the assorted folkies who congregated at the Folklore Center in the late ’60s. He bought a house in Boulder in 1967 and skirted semi-fame late in 1969 when he traveled to London to make a pass at recording a blues-rock album for Blue Horizon, the British blues label whose roster included Fleetwood Mac.
The project didn’t pan out, probably because Taylor was already a fully formed musician. He returned to Colorado, where he played with future James Gang guitarist Tommy Bolin in a short-lived group called the T&O Short Line. Dissatisfied with the music business, Taylor quit playing in 1977 and made his living as an antiques dealer specializing in graphic and decorative arts before returning to recording and performing in 1995. (During the ’80s, Taylor coached what he says was a “half-black, half-white” team of Boulder bicycle riders. Leery of taking a fall that might hinder his playing, he’s foresworn serious riding as his musical career has progressed.)
Recapturing The Banjo advances Taylor’s art in ways that previous records, which featured circular, repeating riffs as often played on mandolin and banjo as on guitar, only hinted at. Collections such as 2004’s Double V and last year’s Definition Of A Circle added rock guitar and cello to the open-ended structures Taylor favors.
“A lot of my songs have chord changes, but they go in a circle,” Taylor says. Definition often seemed panic-stricken, as on the terrifying “Looking Over Your Fence”. Recapturing adds the banjo’s dry and somehow foreboding timbre to songs that embody and transcend a complex set of musical and social associations.
“The banjo has many stereotypes to overcome,” Vappie says. “A lot of black people hate the banjo, because it has come to stand for a very oppressive time. It’s a long story: Here’s an instrument that was part of a culture — part of a people — who were taken from where they are and brought somewhere else. And over time, those people had learned to hate something that was part of them, part of their past.
“The banjo we play in New Orleans is influenced more by the Caribbean than, say, by African music,” Vappie continues. “African music went to the Caribbean, and then mixed with the Creole of the Caribbean: the French, Spanish, whatever. And then it came to New Orleans. In the Caribbean, they play tenor banjo more, and they play it with a plectrum. I got to hear some African banjo playing recently, which actually sounds closer to bluegrass, to the five-string fingerpicking kind of thing.”
On Recapturing The Banjo, Taylor’s knack for editing pays off in tense, swinging performances. Taylor alludes to what he calls his “secret methods” of recording. (As he did previous records such as Double V and Definition Of A Circle, Taylor produced the new album at Boulder’s Immersive Studios.) “I don’t work like anybody else,” he says. “OK, let’s put it this way. Until the last part is done, nobody believes it’s going to be a song.”
Taylor doesn’t reveal his methods. “Then I have to tell you my secret,” he laughs. But he admits to being a relentless self-editor, putting down a lot of tracks before cutting out extraneous parts. He seems to have relished the experience of working with Vappie and company. “Everybody tested me in the studio,” he says. “Everybody tested me in some little way, to see if I was in control.”
He seems to have been, and this might be why the best performances on Recapturing The Banjo are among the most unbridled of Taylor’s career. “Absinthe” is a Taylor original about “a guy who’s gone crazy, and there’s a difference between being drunk and gone crazy.” With Hart’s lap steel sliding in and out of focus on top of three banjo parts, and Ron Miles’ cornet crying over a New Orleans second-line rhythm, it seems simultaneously antique and modern. “Got a cat with no back/He kinda acts insane/Take him to my sister’s house/She done moved away,” Taylor sings.
The massed banjos on “Absinthe” communicate real dread. Even the genial “Walk Right In” brims with disturbingly jaunty accents, until you remember that the song, recorded in 1930, is one of the earliest hipster anthems. “Don’t you want to lose your mind?” it inquires, before Vappie and Harris comment on each other’s licks.
“As for blues, the biggest attitude is call-and-response,” Taylor says. “That’s the roots of the black experience, and people kinda don’t understand that. That’s the bottom line of the blues.” So, on “Bow-Legged Charlie”, when Taylor sings “Run, Charlie, run,” and the banjo answers with a high, trilled figure, that’s blues as fundamental as it gets, since the hero is a black cowboy on the run from police.
In fact, Taylor’s insistence on reducing blues down to one chord, or a few chords (he says he deliberately left out a chord in his version of “Hey Joe”), might serve as his update of traditional call-and-response. He’s fond of running his riffs up and down mountains until they stop, or get exhausted. The value of Recapturing The Banjo might be that it makes you hear the banjo as just another instrument pressed into service in the name of forward motion.
“Some people call me the Edgar Allan Poe of blues,” Taylor says. “When you’re original, people just find the strangest combinations to describe you. One day somebody will go, ‘You know, he’s kinda Otis-sih, isn’t he?’ Maybe one day they’ll use me to describe somebody.”
Edd Hurt is a writer and parlor-room blues piano player, and lives near Nashville. He’s spent enough time in and around Boulder, Colorado, to know that there is no way anyone could ever get him on a bicycle at that altitude.