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Taj Mahal: Four decades of Blues with a smile

Taj Mahal performing “The Blues is Alright” Sept. 5 in Lowell, Mass.

Taj Mahal sheds sunshine on the blues in more ways than one. He can pare the music down to its cotton-pickin’ essence as a field holler. Or he can spin it to span the globe, landing his finger down on a wide variety of indigenous tropical rhythms, from the Caribbean to New Orleans to Hawaii, to various parts of Africa.

But the sunniest source of the Taj Mahal blues comes from within the man himself. Now 66 years old and just shy of six-foot, six-inches tall, his cavernous frame commands the stage with a relentlessly infectious, feel-good vibe. I’ve seen him in a wide array of settings — in a fancy orchestra hall dressed in a Hawaiian shirt and pointed bamboo cooley hat cradling a tiny ukulele, and baking under the sun in a muscle-tee and baggy shorts pouring his vocals through the microphone — and the dominant constant is that he makes folks want to laugh because they feel so good.

If that seems like a contradiction — that someone can have such a visceral connection to the blues and yet radiate such positive energy — Taj is happy to set things straight. “You have personal tragedies that affect you, but that is not the music. The music works to soothe all those things. I was an 11-year-old kid when I lost my dad and the blues was a great comfort to me during that time,” says Taj, born in Harlem with the name Henry St. Clair Fredericks and raised in Springfield, Mass. He’s speaking by phone from the road, in the midst of tour with his trio that will stop at St. Paul’s Fitzgerald Theater Sunday. “I have lost other people dear to me, family and friends, but the music I bring to the stage is who I am. My family is multicultural — my mother was American, my father Caribbean — and my people have a history of being resilient and upbeat. That is the blues. That is what I am.”

Sure, there have been times when Taj hasn’t been able to connect with his audience. Asked to name his lowest point onstage, it doesn’t take him long to respond. “I played in front of about 25 people in Independence, Iowa, in ’77, or maybe it was 1979, playing a solo show, and these people were just incorrigible,” he remembers with a muted chuckle. “Finally I said, ‘Wait a minute; I came to have a good time and you aren’t, so sayonara!'”

40th anniversary
That’s not going to happen at the Fitz. For one thing, Taj is touring behind a sparkling new album, “Maestro,” his first in five years and one that celebrates his 40th anniversary as a recording artist with a bountiful list of top-notch guest stars from around the world. African vocalist Angelique Kidjo and the Malian kora master Toumani Diabate enliven “Zanzibar,” co-written by Taj and Kidjo. Los Lobos provide the musical backing on the nasty blues track, “TV Mama,” and the reggafied “Never Let You Go,” with Taj’s daughter Deva Mahal joining him on vocals. Ziggy Marley and his band help put more Jamaican lilt into “Black Man, Brown Man.” A Crescent City supergroup known as the New Orleans Social Club, including members of the Meters and the Neville Brothers plus jazz pianist Henry Butler, guests on two other songs. And young pop stars Ben Harper and Jack Johnson contribute vocals on electrifying blues-rock tunes “Dust Me Down” (written by Harper) and “Further on Down the Road,” respectively.

Taj Mahal performing “Slow Drag” at the 2008 Monterey Bay Blues Festival.

But the best thing about “Maestro” is the coherence and synergy of these multiple ensembles and seemingly disparate styles, which are united by Taj’s abiding presence and rich musicological history. The program isn’t a grab bag and the guests aren’t performing perfunctory homages (the musical version of book jacket blurbs from fellow writers). Instead, these are folks from across the spectrum of this multicultural universe who know Taj was literally decades ahead of the curve honoring the indigenous roots of the sounds they grew up with as children. That’s why there’s no disjunction as the songs slide from Ziggy’s “Black Man, Brown Man” to Kidjo and Diabate’s “Zanzibar” to Los Lobos’s “TV Mama.”

Fittingly, Taj book-ends “Maestro” with his own black American musical heritage, opening with a cover of “Scratch My Back” (made famous by Otis Redding) and closing with Willie Dixon’s “Diddy Wah Diddy.” As plans for a 40th anniversary theme were first broached, he says, “I didn’t want it to be schmaltzy. A year ago, we had nada for this project. Then I went in with the New Orleans Social Club on this Fats Domino tribute [‘Hello Josephine,’ which is also on ‘Maestro’] and that’s how it started. The point is keeping it real, you know?”

To that end, the current tour is being undertaken with bassist Bill Rich and drummer Kester Smith, the sidemen who have performed on and off with Taj for at least three of his four decades on the road. The promo picture shows the trio all dressed in natty suits and ties. But the smiles on all of their faces best presages the music to come on Sunday night.

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