That’s not a coat that Otis Taylor is wearing on the cover of his latest CD, Contraband, released on Telarc a couple of months ago. Not a Sasquatch costume, not a blaxploitation set piece.
“It’s a rug!” Taylor explained to us last week. “They threw it on top of me; it was still too dirty. We were two hours late for the photo shoot in New York — someone typed in the wrong ZIP code and we ended up in Coney Island or something. Wrong time of day to get into New York. … I look like I’m 500 pounds. Like Solomon Burke gone hip.”
And there’s heft between the folds, as the CD kicks off with a galloping, full band rendition of “The Devil’s Gonna Lie,” Taylor’s husky baritone delivering his usual less-is-more lyrics (“The Devil’s gonna lie / When he needs to”), spreading across an arrangement with backup singers, two guitars, organ and Ron Miles’ cornet punctuating sly and subtle chordal landmarks.
Taylor unleashes his band as well on the CD’s namesake cut, “Contraband Blues,” a stone-heavy vignette of the desperation of escaped slaves languishing in Civil War camps across Union lines.
People, but not people.
“It’s about … people being treated like animals, like cattle, you know? It tells a story, it gets a story out there. You’re free but you’re not free. You’re cattle. They didn’t call them people, they didn’t call them prisoners of war. Or refugees from a war zone. They called them ‘contraband.’” Taylor pauses a little, talking about this one.
We tell him we think it’s the center of the CD (and others have suggested it as well), the pivot around which everything else — thinly sketched vignettes like “Blind Piano Teacher,” odes to exhausted desire like “Yellow Car, Yellow Dog,” all of it — revolves.
Characteristically, though, Taylor shrugs it off.
“Eh, I’m not that deep,” he says. “You know that.”
Maybe that’s an illusion, a function of sequencing, or production; Taylor’s songs are often held together by the barest of lyrical thread, a repeated phrase merely suggestive of context, a story half-told or half-remembered, murmured as often as declared. When they work, salted across his trademark one- or two-chord arrangements, they engage, and frequently compel, the listener to create the story. The genius behind Taylor’s music is that it can take the listener someplace quickly and effortlessly and leave you there among ghosts to find your own way back.
And sure, the songs all come from someplace.
Historical record, a film (he partially credits “Blind Piano Teacher” to a Jet Li movie, of all things), a newspaper clipping, something he once heard. But if the craft is subtle and the results profound, Taylor admits that making the records themselves and getting them into critics’ hands doesn’t come without some second-guessing. His re-entry into the music business in the mid-1990s after years of dealing antiques and cycling has been met with plaudits and awards, festival appearances, a healthy following in Europe.
A few years ago, someone on Jazz.com called him the “King of Acoustic Blues,” an oddly awkward title for someone who plies a trade so consistently inspired by the anonymous.
“Kenny Passarelli [who played on a few of Taylor’s early recordings] once told me, ‘You’re either working your way up, or fightin’ to come down.’ Great wisdom there,” Taylor says. “What happens, is, as you make more records and get good reviews, it’s like you’re waiting for someone to say, ‘Boy, he just couldn’t do it this time.’ It’s kind of like, you get a high off it. You take a chance and it works. Every time you want to do something different, but yet the same. It gets harder; it doesn’t get easier.
“Every time I do a new album it gets harder, three times harder than the last album. …The photographer who does all my album covers told me, ‘there’ll never be another album as good as [2010’s] Clovis People,” he laughs, wryly appreciating a genuine compliment that also predicts the artist’s inevitable decline.
So every album has to be better than the last one. Really?
“It doesn’t have to be better, it has to be as good.
And it has to be different. The hard part is the concept, it has to be different. You want people to hear the album and read the liner notes and leave with something. You know? I’ll leave the Contraband project or the [Recapturing The] Banjo project, and I want to know that they’ve learned something.
“Something that made them think about what I did.”