Otis Taylor has a riveting singing style that’s as if he were saddling up the song and taking it for a ride. Sometimes the journey is a judicious amble, as if the path is pockmarked with the potholes and poison rattlesnakes of painful memories that are duly noted as Taylor gently pirouettes past them. Sometimes it’s a chooglin’ trot that oils Taylor’s thoughts and joints with the steady pace of the rhythm. Sometimes it is a triumphant, spiritual canter, reminiscent of Richie Havens’ incantatory sprees.
Now 61, Taylor began as a banjo player until he realized the instrument was a staple of minstrel shows, and shifted over to guitar (he’s since reclaimed the instrument in dramatic fashion on his 2008 album “Recapturing The Banjo”). He quit the music business in 1977 to become a successful antiques broker, but returned 18 years later, currently with a vengeance, having issued a record every year of this aughts decade.
His latest, “Pentatonic Wars and Love Songs,” is a steady charmer, featuring his swirling, repetitive “trance blues” approach marvelously melded to nuanced improvisations of some of the planets finest jazz musicians. “I’m Not Mysterious,” a tale of a 8-year-old black boy who falls in love with a white peer and wants to walk her home from school, features pianist Jason Moran, drummer Nasheet Waits, cornetist Ron Miles and bassist Taurus Mateen. The same crew plus three are aboard for “Young Girl Down The Street,” a stanky blues that has Miles’s dusty bugle announcing with Jonn Richardson’s searing electric guitar lines, footnoted by Taylor’s twangy acoustic.
Taylor is able to recruit such unconventional top-drawer talent because the spare, steady backbone of his songs easily accommodates and encourages digression without getting sidetracked, and because his topics don’t flinch from the tough stuff of race, class, and gender conflicts. He’s written about the lynching of his great-grandfather, has album titles such as “White African” and “When Negroes Walked the Earth,” and isn’t shy about picking the scabs that poverty leaves on a person’s psyche. But he resists typecasting. Along with the songs mentioned earlier, “Pentatonic” includes a classic, contemporary (and solo), murder ballad, “Dagger By My Side,” and a circular, incanting groove workout entitled “Mama’s Best Friend,” sung by his daughter Cassie, about a woman who leaves her husband for a lesbian lover.
Taylor will be at the Dakota for four shows in two nights beginning with a pair of gigs this evening. Here he is casually jamming with students at Columbia. Here is an upbeat rendition of “Walk On Water” from the new disc. And here is his song “Ten Million Slaves,” one of two Taylor tunes on the recent “Public Enemies” soundtrack.
Otis Taylor at the Dakota Jazz Club + Restaurant, tonight and Wednesday night, Sept. 29 and 30. Tickets are $25 for the 7 p.m. show, $17 at 9:30 p.m.