Blue notes

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 July, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 July, 2010, 12:00am

'I just thought it was a cool title,' Otis Taylor says of his latest album, Clovis People Volume 3. 'I went back to my musical past. That's why I called it Volume 3. There is no volume one or two. My music only goes back about 10 years, but there's something about revisiting the stories of the past from a new perspective that I find compelling.'

Taylor has actually been around a lot longer than 10 years. He was born in 1948 and has been playing since his mid-teens. He took a break in 1977 before releasing his first solo album in 1997, Blue-Eyed Monster.

His imagination was stirred when stone-age tools were found near his home in Colorado. They are thought to have been made by the Clovis People, so called because the first remnants of their presence in America, some 13,000 years ago, were found near Clovis, New Mexico, in the 1930s. 'I thought it was cool that ancient people were walking on my land,' he says.

The connection between this album and prehistoric America is not immediately obvious. Themes include a boy being shot dead in a school playground, an angry mother confronting a drug dealer, slavery and the well-worn blues theme of cheating lovers.

He recalls childhood visits to the Denver Folklore Centre - one of the few places, he remembers, where blacks and whites could mix while he was growing up. Taylor was born in Chicago, but the family moved to Denver after his uncle was murdered. His great-grandfather was lynched.

Jazz and blues called him early. 'I was raised around jazz musicians,' he recalls. 'My dad worked for the railroad and knew a lot of jazz people. He was a socialist and real bebopper.'

Taylor is one of few blues artists who is serious about taking the music into different territory.

With Recapturing the Banjo, in 2008, he reclaimed for the blues an instrument first fashioned by slaves, in imitation of something similar from Africa, but now played by folkies and bluegrass musicians.

The production of his albums, which he does himself, is unlike that of any other blues artist. You can hear banjo and acoustic guitar, as well as his daughter Cassie's bass, Ron Miles' plaintive cornet, Chuck Campbell's pedal steel guitar and Valerie Franzese's cello.

'I give people a starting point, and then they take it where they want to. That's true for the people playing my music as well as those listening to it,' Taylor says.

'That's how art should be. A person looking at a painting should be able to interpret it however he wants. The more words you put into a song, the less freedom the listener has to decide what it means.'

Take Three

Three unique blues albums from Otis Taylor:

White African (2002, Northern Blues): Taylor won the W.C. Handy best new artist debut award for this harrowing set of songs drawn from the darkest chapters of black American history.

Double V (2004, Telarc): Taylor turns to his own production for this trance blues set, developing more complicated arrangements involving cellos, violin and trumpet.

Definition of a Circle (2007, Telarc): jazz and blues influences mingle on a set with guests including Charlie Musselwhite on blues harp, Gary Moore playing blistering blues rock guitar, and jazz piano from Hiromi Uehara.