photo: Eric Herzog
About a dozen or so years ago when I first came across the impossibly great blues guitarist Melvin Taylor, I noticed how much his guitar playing owes to jazz and particularly George Benson as it does to blues guitar icons like Albert King, Freddie King and Otis Rush. Especially early on in his discography, you could even find a few instrumentals that overtly tilt toward the jazz side of things but he’s mastered the blues side so well, there was no burning need form him to change genres. After years of making blues records, mostly singing on them and mostly made with his backing Slack Band, Taylor decided to mix it up a bit and a couple of years ago made his own Shut Up And Play Your Guitar record called Beyond The Burning Guitar. A two disc set of twenty-four intrumentals recorded with Bernell Anderson of keyboards and Senor Jefe on drums — as Taylor also plays bass — Beyond is a deeper dive into his jazzy side.
To be sure, Taylor’s brand of jazz is not the straight ahead variety; there’s no jazz standard litmus test songs performed here like “Cherokee” or “Impressions,” as virtually all these songs were penned by him, and the arrangements have a contemporary, clean feel that puts the music in a spot perhaps not that far removed from much of the blues records he’s made in the 90s and early 2000s.
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There’s two sides to this album, and I don’t mean just the CD sides. There are the songs and the backing arrangements, and then there’s Taylor’s playing. The former is competent enough, but also background music bland. On the other hand, when Melvin does his thing on guitar, it’s anything but bland. Imagine Mario Andretti racing Formula One with a Honda Accord; likewise, Taylor is a very skillful driver, but the vehicle is slowing him down. It can be a little frustrating because man alive, his licks are so sweet.
Some of these songs are remakes from his early blues albums, especially the jazziest of those blues discs, Melvin Taylor Plays The Blues For You, such as “Tribute To Wes,” and “Talking Anna Mae,” while “Escape” is culled from his first album Blue On The Run. Other tunes appear to be rewrites of other people’s songs: “Rock In Blues” is Ten Years After’s hit “I’d Love To Change The World” slightly modified, while “The Mann” sounds like Michael McDonald’s “I Keep Forgetting.” A number are tunes are instrumental blues in the vein of those Freddie King sides from the 60s, such as the “Hideaway”-like “Escape,” “Groovin’ In Paris,” “Sweet Blues,” and the aforementioned “Talking To Anna Mae.” Mostly, however, these songs are anonymous RnB groove vamps with few chord changes.
Beyond The Burning Guitar does nothing to diminish my view that Melvin Taylor is a virtuosic, often awe-inducing guitarist equally comfortable in the blues, jazz and rock streams. He just needs the material and backing deserving of his vast six-string skills. He’s just too deadgummed good to be playing smooth jazz.
Beyond The Burning Guitar was re-released on June 1, by Eleven East Corp. Visit Melvin Taylor’s website for more info.