Famed bluesman Taj Mahal has spent the better part of his career crafting so many great blues compositions and covering just as many. Now after such a long career in the blues community, Taj Mahal is changing things up with a new collection of jazz standards titled simply Savoy. Scheduled for release Friday through Stonyplain Records, the 14-song set finds Taj Mahal tackling a variety of standards both well and slightly lesser-known in successful fashion. The famed singer-songwriter-musician, formally known as Henry St. Claire Fredericks, Jr., is cited in information about the compilation as saying the songs featured in this record are not just random songs, but songs he grew up hearing himself, the child of two parents who were themselves musicians. That adds a certain level of significance to the songs, which span a time frame of nearly five decades. The earliest of the songs featured in the set is ‘Baby Won’t You Please Come Home,’ which was composed in 1919 by Charles Warfield and Clarence Williams. The most recent of the songs reaches back to 1954 in the form of the Benny Golson/art Farmer song, ‘Killer Joe.’ They are just a couple of the notable entries that make up the collection’s body. Another standout addition to the collection is Taj Mahala’s take of the Gershwin classic, ‘Summertime.’ This song will be discussed shortly. ‘Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby’ is another notable entry in this collection. It will be discussed a little later. The much more reserved, ‘Baby, Won’t You Please Come Home’ is also of note in its own right. It will also be discussed later. All three songs noted here play their own crucial role in the bigger picture of Savoy. When they are considered along with the rest of the record’s entries, the whole makes Savoy a record that despite being a covers compilation, a presentation that is still worth hearing.
Savoy, the new covers compilation from famed bluesman Taj Mahal is a presentation that does well to bring together the worlds of jazz and blues through his performances of the timeless jazz classics. One of the most notable of the covers featured as part of the set’s body is that of the 1934 Gershwin classic, ‘Summertime.’ Originally included in the equally timeless musical, Porgy & Bess, this take on the song actually stays true to its source material at least in terms of its tempo. Other than that, the two renditions stray far from one another. Where the original is more of a bluesy, big band composition, the version presented by Taj Mahal and company is much more swinging, with an overall arrangement that is more akin to works from the likes of the Dave Brubeck Quartet than George Gershwin and his musicians. It gives the song an almost wholly new identity, considering what Holliday’s Bess was expressing in the original song. That is not to say that the update presented here is bad, but it definitely is an intriguing take that is certain to engage audiences and generate plenty of discussion among listeners.
The group’s take of ‘Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby’ is another interesting addition to Taj Mahal’s new compilation. Originally composed in 1944 by Louis Jordan and Billy Austin, it is perhaps most well-known from the 1946 Tom and Jerry short, “Solid Serenade.” That rendition was performed with the vocal talents of Ira “Buck” Woods but is not the original. Though, it is still a fun song in its own right. The original song is an equally great composition that expertly blends elements of blues and jazz just as much as that famed rendition from Tom & Jerry. The steady use of the brushes on the snare alongside the equally steady walking bass line played on the piano and bass alongside the vocals and muted trumpet makes the overall song so rich in its simplicity. It is certain to engage and entertain any listener who was previously unfamiliar with the song. The take presented by Taj Mahal and company is just as fun as the two takes noted here. Mahal’s vocals are right there with those of Woods, what with his gritty delivery style and sound. There are also some differences in the instrumentation here, most notably being the addition of the trombones to the mix and some additional backing vocals. There is something about the use of the trombone alongside the trumpet and snare that gives the song a little bit of a New Orleans Dixieland vibe while the backing vocals gives the song even more of a unique swinging edge. The whole is a great tribute to the original song. At points, the sound and style of Mahal’s vocal delivery even conjures thoughts of legendary trumpet player and singer Louis Armstrong, which gives the song even more of a fun touch. The whole makes the song overall one of the most standout covers included in this record, without question.
One more song featured in this compilation is the group’s take of ‘Baby, Won’t You Please Come Home.’ Originally composed in 1919 by Charles Warfield and Clarence Williams, the song has been covered by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Dinah Washington, and even Bessie Smith and Nat King Cole. This song is perhaps the most dramatic update of the trio noted here. That is because the original song is a ragtime style composition complete with stride piano. Every rendition crafted since then has been much more subdued, including that of Taj Mahal and company. The schmaltzy use of the violin here alongside the gentle work on the drums and horns really does so well to make the song so rich. Audiences can really see the song’s subject on his knees even before the first words are sung. Once Taj Mahal comes in, singing with his trademark vocal style, the song gets even richer. The whole of the group’s performance here really hits hard in the best way possible. When it is considered alongside the other covers discussed here and with the rest of the set’s featured covers, the whole makes Savoy an overall enjoyable collection of classic jazz tunes that will engage and entertain any listener.
Savoy, Taj Mahal’s new covers compilation, is an interesting new offering from the famed bluesman. That is because from beginning to end it shows that while he has spent most of his career basking in fame through blues works, he has just as much talent handling jazz, as do the musicians who joined him for the record. The songs examined here make that clear. When they are considered alongside the rest of the record’s entries, the whole makes Savoy a piece that Taj Mahal’s established audiences will enjoy just as much as any jazz fan.
Savoy is scheduled for release Friday through Stonyplain Records. More information on the record is available along with all of Taj Mahal’s latest news at: