Taj Mahal – Maestro (Heads Up, 2008)
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Maestro celebrates Taj Mahal’s 40th anniversary as a recording artist, and true to contrarian form, Mr. Mahal has elected not to follow the traditional route for this sort of release — best-of, re-recordings, etc. — and opted instead to head into the studio with a few special guests to cut some new sides and prove he hasn’t been around too long to kick a little ass. The dozen-song album follows a protracted layoff between recordings for Mahal, which is unfortunately nothing new; since alienating his label in the ’70s — and filing a precedent-setting lawsuit against Bill Graham to boot — he’s flitted in and out of the periphery here in America, often recording for rinky-dink outfits or labels without U.S. distribution.

In Heads Up, Mahal has found a label that isn’t a household name, but boasts a pipeline to the deep pockets of the Concord Music Group, as well as an eclectic, jazz-tilted roster that includes Fourplay, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Hugh Masakela, and George Duke. A label comfortable dealing with artists who don’t fall squarely into a single genre, in other words, which is exactly what Mahal needs to give Maestro an outside shot at selling a healthy number of units. Well, that and the famous names attached to the songs — Taj enlisted the aid of some trendy guests this time around, including Ziggy Marley, Ben Harper, and Jack Johnson.

It shouldn’t surprise you that none of the three names I just mentioned add much to Maestro; they’re all outshined by the slightly more below-the-fold additions, including the New Orleans Social Club, Los Lobos, and Taj’s longtime cohorts the Phantom Blues Band. It’s an album that’s necessarily less adventurous than the globetrotting stuff he’s been recording for the past decade or so (if you don’t yet own a copy of 1998’s Kulanjan, repent immediately), and the amount of gloss on the record will be disconcerting to anyone who still spins Take a Giant Step or The Natch’l Blues on a regular basis, but all in all, it isn’t a bad record; it offers a sort of superficial summary of what Taj has been doing for the last several decades — namely, sifting through global roots music traditions to create an intoxicating blend of folk, blues, soul, and whatever else he happens to feel like playing at any given moment. Don’t believe the ukulele or the banjo can be used in the context of the blues? Think again, smarty-pants — Taj knows no rules and respects no borders.

Ultimately, Maestro isn’t the first record I’ll be pulling out when I feel the urge to listen to some Taj Mahal, or probably even the fourth or fifth, but it makes for a decent introduction to the wild, wonderful world of a singular artist who has somehow managed to escape global thermonuclear fame. Give his freshly repainted take on Otis Redding’s “Scratch My Back” (download), recorded here with the Phantom Blues Band, a try — then go out and start building your Taj collection.