Otis Taylor – Pentatonic Wars and Love Songs (2009)

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Otis Taylor might very well be the greatest bluesman of the 21st century. Not the best blues-rocker, not the best Delta bluesman or soul-bluesman; just the best straight-up bluesman. That’s because when I listen to any Taylor record, I hear strong echoes of the Delta blues, while detecting a restless musician who pushes the dusty genre forward with unusual instrumentations and combinations with other primal forms of music.

He’s rarely demonstrated that formula better than he does for Pentatonic Wars and Love Songs. Even more so than the last Taylor reviewed here, Below The Fold (2005), Taylor takes chances and comes out a winner every time. Amazingly, his adventurous spirit never leads him away from his individual approach to the blues: lines and riffs that repeat insistently so you don’t lose the message or the emotion. And a sad, soulful and sometimes simmering voice that’s able to pull it all off convincingly.

Pentatonic lives up to the latter part of its title, with the songs offered here all about love, but the love stories are often somber and often dreary. Songs celebrating the joy of love don’t appear that often, because Otis Taylor’s music is not about celebrating. Musically, it’s very much organic and rootsy, but also … jazzy. You don’t need to have sharp ears to notice that the piano player is better than average, and sure enough, the credits say it’s Jason Moran. The drums are not manned by some slouch, either; Nasheet Waits contributes his distinct, subtle percussion work to the proceedings. But perhaps the unorthodox addition to Taylor’s blues is Ron Miles’ cornet. It really does bring home the connection between early jazz and early blues in the first part of the prior century. When Taylor stretches out as he does on the rumbling, model piece “Walk On Water,” it’s Taylor’s vocal alone that distinguishes the song from avant garde jazz. A few tracks later, it’s just Taylor on acoustic guitar for “Dagger By My Side,” and yet both are logically a product of the same man. Irish blues-rock guitarist extraordinaire Gary Moore also contributes to a handful of tracks, too. And as has become now routine, Taylor’s daughter Cassie plays bass and lends her lead vocals to a couple of tunes.

Alas, it’s really impossible to adequately describe what puts Otis Taylor at or near the top of the heap among undiluted blues artists. His music has to be listened to understand. When the blues is done right, it forces you to listen intently to appreciate in a way words can never do. Pentatonic Wars and Love Songs is a good example of the indescribable blues.

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron

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