The Taj Mahal Trio comprising Taj (vocals, guitar, keys, banjo), Kester Smith (drums) and Bill Rich (bass) will be appearing at The Allen Room at Frederick P. Rose Hall, home of Jazz at Lincoln Center, Broadway at 60th Street, New York on Friday and Saturday, Feb. 25 and 26, 7:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.
Composer, multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Taj Mahal is one of the most prominent and influential figures in late 20th century blues and roots music.
Though his career began more than four decades ago with American blues, he has broadened his artistic scope over the years to include music representing virtually every corner of the world — west Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America, Europe, the Hawaiian islands and so much more. What ties it all together is his insatiable interest in musical discovery. Over the years, his passion and curiosity have led him around the world, and the resulting global perspective is reflected in his music.
Born Henry St. Claire Fredericks in Harlem on May 17, 1942, Taj grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts. His father was a jazz pianist, composer and arranger of Caribbean descent, and his mother was a gospel singing schoolteacher from South Carolina. Both parents encouraged their children to take pride in their diverse ethnic and cultural roots.
His father had an extensive record collection and a shortwave radio that brought sounds from near and far into the home. His parents also started him on classical piano lessons, but after only two weeks, young Henry already had other plans about what and how he wanted to play.
In addition to piano, the young musician learned to play the clarinet, trombone and harmonica, and he loved to sing. He discovered his stepfather’s guitar and became serious about it in his early teens when a guitarist from North Carolina moved in next door and taught him the various styles of Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins, John Lee Hooker and Jimmy Reed and other titans of Delta and Chicago blues.
Springfield in the 1950s was full of recent arrivals, not just from around the U.S. but from all over the globe. “We spoke several dialects in my house—Southern, Caribbean, African—and we heard dialects from eastern and western Europe,” Taj recalls.
In addition, musicians from the Caribbean, Africa and all over the U.S. frequently visited the Fredericks home, and Taj became even more fascinated with roots—the origins of all the different forms of music he was hearing, what path they took to reach their current form, and how they influenced each other along the way. He threw himself into the study of older forms of African-American music—a music that the record companies of the day largely ignored.
Taj won two Grammys for his albums “Señor Blues” (1997) and “Shoutin’ in Key,” in 2000.
Taj joined the Heads Up International label in the fall of 2008 with the worldwide release of “Maestro: Celebrating 40 Years.” As the title suggests, this 12-track set marks the 40th anniversary of Taj’s rich and varied recording career by mixing original material, chestnuts borrowed from classic sources, and songs written by a cadre of highly talented guest artists. This anniversary gala includes performances by Ben Harper, Jack Johnson, Ziggy Marley, Angelique Kidjo, Los Lobos and others— many of whom have been directly influenced by Taj’s music and guidance.
“The one thing I’ve always demanded of the records I’ve made is that they be danceable,” he says. “This record is danceable, it’s listenable, it has lots of different rhythms, it’s accessible, it’s all right in front of you. It’s a lot of fun, and it represents where I am at this particular moment in my life. This record is just the beginning of another chapter, one that’s going to be open to more music and more ideas. Even at the end of 40 years, in many ways my music is just getting started.”