Otis Taylor, iconoclastic bluesman: Something Else! Interview

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A musical alchemist and stirring modern-day storyteller, Otis Taylor is just as apt to experiment well beyond the Delta tradition as he is to explore the raw passions of this nation’s fight for racial justice. This isn’t your grandfather’s blues.

Witness the forthcoming Contraband, due February 13 from Telarc/Concord, this haunting mixture of ominous guitar and banjo work (yes, banjo), wildly inventive syncopated rhythms, and a series of raw themes dealing with searing personal demons, the scourge of war, and the scalding verities of love. Collaborators include cornetist Ron Miles, pedal steel guitarist Chuck Campbell and djembe player Fara Tolno of West Africa — in itself, a road map to the musical complexities of Taylor’s work.

No small amount of the album’s roiling emotions can be traced back to a furious bout of solo recording in advance of major surgery. In April 2010, just before the release of Taylor’s Clovis People Vol. 3, doctors discovered a cyst the size of a softball pushing against the Boulder, Colo.-native’s spine. He recorded seven of the songs included here while enduring excruciating pain, forming the acoustic backbone of Contraband, then went in to have it removed.

Healthy now, Taylor completed the album and is now preparing for a new tour. He joined us for the latest Something Else! Sitdown to talk about his rediscovery of the banjo, working with famous players like Tommy Bolin and Gary Moore, and the future of blues music …

NICK DERISO: Describe your journey back to the banjo, an instrument that for too long had lost its association with the African-American experience. You described it, as an album title in 2008, as “recapturing the banjo.”
OTIS TAYLOR: The funny part about it, I started playing banjo when I was 14 and half, right? And I didn’t know until about 15 or 16 years ago that the banjo came from Africa. I saw my teacher, and I asked him: “Why didn’t you tell me?” And he said: “I didn’t think it was any big deal.” Nobody told me. They knew, but nobody ever talked about. It gets institutionalized. All the bluegrass guys never talked about it, either.

[GIMME FIVE: Iconoclastic bluesman Otis Taylor takes a deeper dive into a handful of individual recordings like ‘White African,’ ‘Truth is Not Fiction’ and ‘Contraband,’ and others.]

NICK DERISO: As old-timey as that can sometimes sound, though, it’s part of a larger mosaic in your sound that includes something akin to avant-garde jazz with its trance-like grooves.
OTIS TAYLOR: When I was a kid, my favorite blues guys were guys like Howlin’ Wolf, some of the Willie Dixon stuff, John Lee Hooker. Those were my favorites. I wasn’t a big B.B. King guy, because it had more chord changes — it was so smooth. I was into the funky stuff. “Boogie Chillin?’” No chord changes! That was trance music! So, I’ve always been looking for that. It’s not an accident. I’m always trying to get another sound, something different than the last album. I’m looking for sounds, or combinations. Old-timey music to me sounds very African. It’s all interlocked. When I play banjo, I play it the same way I play guitar. I play the guitar the same way I play banjo. Nobody plays like me on the banjo. I meet famous banjo players, and they say: “What the hell are you doing?” When I play guitar, it’s the same way: “What are you doing?” It’s all one thing to me. There’s something in the way I strum, no matter what I pick up.

NICK DERISO: Over the years, you collaborated often with Gary Moore, who recently passed. What was that like?
OTIS TAYLOR: It was a real experience. I learned about touring at a high level — and how to be a diva. I learned that promoters weren’t treating me good enough! (Laughs.) I learned a lot about touring. They traveled with their own chefs! He ended up playing on three of my albums. Gary could play any kind of music — Irish music, jazz. People don’t know how talented he was a guitar player. He could play anything. If it had stings on it, he could figure it out. He was one of those people. Musically, I don’t think it changed anything for me. We were playing different music. But whenever I play my guitar, I always think about Gary. He told me once: “Your signature is your tone.” So, whenever I try to play lead, that always comes into my head. I think: “I gotta work on my tone.” It’s something that’s engrained in me now.

NICK DERISO: Early on, you also worked with childhood friend Tommy Bolin in a pre-Deep Purple project called T&O Short Line. Did you see him as a blossoming heavy metal god?
OTIS TAYLOR: There was no heavy metal back then. Tommy was heavy metal, as one of the pioneers. Before he came along, there was no such thing. When I was young, there were two kinds of music – bubblegum and blues rock. There was Herman’s Hermits and Paul Revere and the Raiders, and in the middle was the Beatles. Then there was the Rolling Stones, Eric Burden. They were blues-rock bands. Then Cream came along and got more aggressive with it, and that guitar sound turned into heavy metal. When it came to Tommy, everybody said I impacted him more than he impacted me. I try to tell people, and it’s so hard: When you know a kid from when you’re 10 years old, can it really impact you? We were really just being kids. I had a chance to meet Fred McDowell, and Son House — and they were just old black people to me, old guys from the neighborhood. They were stars, but most of the kids didn’t like their music, because it was old fashioned. They were just happy to talk to me because I was really into it. So that impacted me. When I met Tommy, he wasn’t a star yet. I remember we were playing this bar, it was sound check. And Tommy came in and said: “I just got a gig with Deep Purple.” We were so happy for him. “We know somebody who’s a star now.” It was a big deal. But my influences were further back.

NICK DERISO: What does helping to expose a younger generation to this music, through the Blues in the Schools program that your wife created, mean to you? Are the children receptive?
OTIS TAYLOR: They’re receptive, but you have to work them just right. When they come into the classroom or auditorium, they’re not your fans, you know? You have to win them over. If they start getting wiggly in their seats, you have to tighten up! Seriously, though, it’s the hardest gig I have to do. But it you talk to 500 kids and five of them like it, then that’s five more kids you have who like the blues. And if they like they blues, they will like it for their whole lives. It’s not something that’s going to be a fad. It’s not fad music. We have to try to reach them, or we’re all going to be resident artists at retirement homes — because that’s where the music will be.

NICK DERISO: The blues establishment, in many ways, is lost in the same history-obsessed maze as the jazz establishment. By being so hung up on what came before, they risk killing off the genre. There has to be an embrace of the new — the new characters, the new artists, the new sounds.
OTIS TAYLOR: When you’re talking to blues fanatics, ask them a question: “What if the greatest blues musician hasn’t been born yet?” Then you’ll find out where they’re coming from. Do you really think things aren’t as bad in the ghetto right now – with kids killing kids? Is that any less depressing? They say we have freedom these days. Sure, freedom for kids to shoot you with guns. (Laughs ruefully.)

NICK DERISO: That’s like a line from a poetry slam.
OTIS TAYLOR: I just made that up! Write that down and send that to me so I can remember it! (Laughs.) That’s how you tell, though. Say that to somebody and you can tell how closed minded they are. If they start talking Robert Johnson this, and Robert Johnson that, then you know. The music, back then, couldn’t do what we can now. They weren’t talking about lynchings. They talked about love, because that was what the record companies wanted to hear. They didn’t talk about revolution. They didn’t talk about the brutality of the existence. They didn’t say much about Jim Crow, just “Spoonful” or “Big-legged Woman.” If they had talked about that other stuff, they would have brought their whole house down. I mean, look at what happened years later when Billie Holiday did “Strange Fruit.” There were race riots. That’s what happened when you talked about that stuff.

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