Otis Taylor : Recapturing The Banjo

otis_taylor_banjo.jpgMulti-instrumentalist Otis Taylor’s new album, Recapturing The Banjo, aims to reconnect the banjo with its African heritage via an all-star cast of African American banjo players consisting of Alvin “Youngblood” Hart, ‘Keb ‘Mo, Corey Haris, Don Vappie and Guy Davis. It is a celebration of various styles of banjo performance that shows reverence for the past while insistently begging modern day reverence.

The album is at once vibrant and haunting, with Taylor’s trademark penchant for vivid storytelling and hypnotic drone beat intact.  Every track is backed by Taylor’s daughter Cassie on bass and backup vocals that provide a ethereal backdrop to stories both dire and playful. Each of the players contributes an original tune or a traditional tune, and as a group they track the various styles of banjo that were common to black performers for decades.

Hart’s “Prophet’s Mission” is intoxicating in its repetition that delves deeply in the gut. The more upbeat tunes include inventive takes on the traditional “Little Liza Jane” and “Deep Blue Sea” as well as jug band pioneer Gus Cannon’s “Walk Right In.” And the cover of “Hey Joe” (yes, the one made popular by Jimi Hendrix) is big fun.

But it is Taylor’s original story-songs that chill the spine with a wicked eye for focused description.  “Ran So Hard The Sun Went Down” recalls a man running from a racist lynch mob, the overlapping banjos evoking the hurried and frantic escape of the protagonist; “Bow Legged Charlie” is a murder ballad involving an African American cowboy in the old West.

Though enlightening, educational and inspiring, Recapturing The Banjo is far from dry academia. It bristles with fire and verve, and stands on its own as a fine document of spirited performance.

Recapturing The Banjo is out now on Telarc.