Octave Records has released Banjo… by blues master Otis Taylor. One of the most compelling blues artists working today, singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Taylor is the winner of five DownBeat awards, and Living Blues, W.C. Handy and other awards. He has spent a lifetime creating his signature trance blues style, rooted in blues and blues/rock yet reaching far beyond with mesmerizing grooves and deep improvisations.
Banjo… features six new songs and five reworked versions of old favorites. The album embodies Taylor’s powerful musical style and unflinching lyrics. On Banjo…, Otis Taylor sings and plays acoustic and electric guitars, acoustic and electric banjo, harmonica, and other instruments. He’s accompanied by his long-time band mates: J.P Johnson (lead guitar), Nick Amodeo (electric bass, mandolin), Brian Juan (Hammond organ, piano, and Chuck Louden (drums). While tipping its hat to what’s gone before, Banjo… isn’t a standard 12-bar blues album – Taylor isn’t shy about letting a one-chord John Lee Hooker-style groove take hold, or use unconventional instrumentation, like the surprisingly effective Moog synthesizer on “Travel Guide” or the cellos (courtesy of guest musicians Beth Rosbach and Joseph Howe) that underpin “Little Willie.”
Banjo… was recorded in pure DSD 256 at Octave Studios in Boulder, Colorado. Octave’s facility utilizing its recently-upgraded recording chain, based around a Pyramix digital audio workstation. The album was produced by Otis Taylor and associate producer Joe Kessler, recorded and mixed by Jay Elliott, and mastered by David Glasser.
Otis Taylor delves deeply into past stories and current concerns. “Write a Book About It” offers a grandmother’s advice to her Black grandson: watch what you do. “Travel Guide” finds a world traveler wanting to bring his lover home to New Orleans.” In “12 Feet Under,” which showcases Taylor’s acoustic guitar and banjo playing in stunningly clear, up-close-and-personal sound, a good man sits down with the devil. “Resurrection Blues” is devastating: Taylor literally puts himself into Jesus’s shoes, while J.P. Johnson absolutely rips up the guitar. Though the album is at times harrowing and always intense, it ends on a wise note on “Live Your Life”: enjoy what you’ve been given, and take time to laugh.
Banjo… features Octave’s premium gold disc formulation, playable on any SACD, CD, DVD, or Blu-ray player. It also has a high-resolution DSD layer that is accessible by using any SACD player or a PS Audio SACD transport. In addition, the master DSD and PCM files are available including DSD 256, DSD 128 and DSD 64, DSDDirect Mastered 352.8 kHz/24-bit, 192 kHz/24-bit, 96 kHz/24-bit, 44.1 kHz/24-bit, and 44.1 kHz/16-bit PCM. (SRP: $19 – $39, depending on format.)
I talked with Otis Taylor about the release of Banjo…
Frank Doris: The obvious question: why did you call the album Banjo…?
Otis Taylor: It’s not a banjo album. The banjo is just a name for the attitude. The history of the banjo follows the history of African Americans in this country, coming over on the slave ships with the banjo, and playing in the fields, and the minstrel shows, and Jim Crow, and playing the blues.
FD: Lyrically this album really gets down to the nitty gritty. You don’t pull any punches.
OT: (laughs) I just report stories.
FD: Were you thinking of an overall theme for the record, of Black history in America? Or did it kind of evolve?
OT: Well, I tend to do that anyway. The last album was like that too. I’m 74, I’m kind of just doing the things I feel, you know? I’m better at Black History than white history.
FD: The feeling, you really get it on this album. It just grabs you. This is heavy.
OT: That’s what I kind of do. The good part is that sometimes critics like it, but sometimes it’s a little too much for people.
FD: Maybe the world might be more ready for it now. Everybody’s been through a lot with the pandemic. The world situation today is not inducing a lot of calm in people, you know? Maybe they’re ready for a dose of reality.
OT: But this is what I’ve always done, you know? Few words…I don’t put in a lot of words, I don’t have choruses in my songs.
FD: A lot of the songs are one chord or a couple of chord kind of grooves.
OT: Trance blues.
FD: Right…you’ve always been into that.
How did you get started playing music?
OT: I started playing at 15. The Denver Folklore Center was four blocks away from my house. That was Harry Tuft’s place.
FD: You went to London for a while in the 1960s, got a record contract that didn’t work out, came back, and quit the music business in the late 1970s. But then you returned to performing in the 1990s and have recorded more than 15 albums since, and won all kinds of awards and had your songs on movie soundtracks.
How did you wind up getting connected with Octave Records?
OT: Through Gus Skinas [Octave Records’ mastering engineer].
FD: Did you record Banjo… at Octave’s new studio?
OT: Yeah, I did.
FD: You did. Because the sound is fantastic.
OT: I was happy with the sound.
FD: On “12 Feet Under,” where you’re doing a duet with yourself with banjo on the left and guitar on the right, the sound is really exceptional.
OT: It was a little too clear for me for the guitar, because of such sensitive microphones. But when the banjo came in, it was perfect.
FD: Why’d you name the song “12 Feet Under” instead of “Six Feet Under?”
OT: Bury me real deep, you know?
FD: “1964” sounds autobiographical.
OT: It’s a true story about a friend named Billy Hilliard. I was always fascinated by Billy. He was a white guy married to a Black woman. A hipster, beatnik kind of guy. He met these Moroccans at the New York World’s Fair and they were just partying all the time. So, he decided to go with them on the ship on the way back. (laughs)
FD: You have some interesting choices of instruments on the songs, like the kazoo on “Write A Book About It” or the Moog synthesizer on “Travel Guide.” That’s probably like the most “non-blues” instrument that you could imagine. How’d you wind up thinking, let’s put a Moog on this track?
OT: I try things as a surprise, like you didn’t see ’em coming. For lyrics as well as sounds.
FD: The Cello on “Nasty Letter,” I can’t believe how it ties the whole song together.
OT: That song’s been in two different movies (Shooter and Public Enemies). So I had to do it completely different than the one that was in the movies.
FD: What really blew my mind was “Resurrection Blues.”
OT: I redid that song too. The original has 10 million hits on YouTube.
FD: How did that spring into your mind? “I woke up this morning, I didn’t eat, I didn’t sleep. I found out I was Jesus.”
OT: People don’t wanna suffer before they die. I don’t wanna be Jesus ‘cause Jesus suffered, you know?
FD: In “Hit From the Left,” is that a boxing reference?
OT: Duck. Right. It’s a song about protest. I’m super happy you got rid of your shoes, which has to do with the Kung Fu TV program, where he never had any shoes on. He had his hat on and beat up everybody. (laughs) I put in all these weird references. It would be hard to catch, and understand where I’m coming from.
FD: The song has a line, “you love in silence and you hate out loud.”
OT: You hate people out loud and you love quietly. Love is a quiet thing and hate is a violent thing.
FD: The closing song, “Live Your Life,” though profound, is almost upbeat after the intensity of the rest of the album.
OT: It’s a handsome kind of song, you know?
FD: Have you known the musicians on Banjo… for a while? Did you just play live in the studio, or did you do a lot of overdubs or takes?
OT: I might track with drums, bass and guitars, and everything else would be put on top. I produced the album.
FD: The guitar player, J.P. Johnson. Whoa.
OT: I’ve known him since he was 16. He could only come up for two hours [to do the album]. So we did all that recording in two hours.
FD: Maybe that’s why it sounds like his playing has such a sense of urgency.
OT: Oh, there was a sense! (laughs) And the Hammond organ had a problem and we had to jury rig it. And at first I thought I only had a week to do the record.
FD: There are six originals on Banjo… along with six remakes. Did you write the originals just for this album, or have they been kind of brewing for a while?
OT: I’m running out of ideas. So I just had six [new] songs.
FD: (laughs) It happens to the best of us!
OT: I’ve always gotten really good reviews. And they’re always waiting for the time that people are gonna say, “Otis finally lost it. You know, he’s just not Otis anymore.” So you try to do your best.
FD: You have a good reputation.
OT: And they want you to f*ck up so they can give you [grief]. So I have to just to do a good job. I hadn’t been the studio for four years, so it was like, whoa. And I lost my voice a month before I started recording [Banjo…] ‘cause I had COVID.
FD: You pulled through. This album has so much feeling.
OT: I like to do one or two takes and don’t wanna see a third take. First take gives people a chance to see if they understand the song. Second take, I want it done by then. Very seldom do I do a third take. I expect it to be done [quickly] because you lose the emotion. Even the engineer’s more excited when he’s first hearing the song.
FD: The feeling is everything.