Upon first glance at the song titles of Taj Mahal’s latest album, one could be excused for initially wondering if renditions of 14 classic jazz/blues songs that have been cut dozens and dozens of times would be close to required listening.

Titled Savoy, after the legendary Harlem Ballroom that was the fountain of a musical explosion of black culture almost a century ago, the album rolls around titles like Do Nothin’ Till You Hear From Me, Sweet Georgia Brown, Lady Be Good, Caldonia and Summertime in what is a fourteen song set.

Toss any perceived predictability factor out the window. Instead settle into a Taj Mahal album like no other and bathe in a glorious recording that is built upon expertly, uniquely delivered renderings of classics that are as much the creation of producer John Simon and a cast of brilliant instrumentalists, as they are that of the featured artist. 

Out of the gate, Stompin’ At The Savoy is driven by soulful singing and a polished and swinging band that ingests these timeless pieces and then exhales them with a sense of pure purpose and joy with exacting precision.

The head turning arrangements are the work and artistry of Simon, whose body of work as a producer and arranger includes classic recordings from artists as varied as The Band, Big Brother & the Holding Company, Leonard Cohen, Gil Evans and John Hartford.

As Holger Petersen’s liner notes state, Simon chose particular horn players for specific pieces, and with that compass as part of the equation, tone and nuance throughout Savoy is as varied as dialects of a particular language.

Put Taj Mahal’s unmistakeable voice, and one of the greatest in the history of the blues, into the midst of this delectable instrumental brew and it’s guaranteed that any fan of this era of music, composed by heavyweights like Ellington, Goodman, Gershwin, Bigard, Arlen, Mercer, and Jordan, will be coming back for repeated listens.

The gravel in Taj’s voice is the focal point of I’m Just A Lucky So-and-So that also features a lovely flute solo that floats above the superb playing of the core band, which finds Simon at the piano, Danny Caron playing guitar, Ruth Davies on bass and Leon Joyce Jr. at the drums, as they are throughout the session.

The main man sings with total conviction and investment from start to finish. Even though his instrument shows a little wear in his advancing years,  Taj Mahal’s ability to insert a new turn of a phrase, or his instinct to deliver a unique way of responding to a classic riff is central to the success of this set of classics coming off with a fresh feel.

On Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good To You, which has been given some superb treatments over the decades, Taj delivers the lyric as though he’s reading a love letter he’s just penned, as the ghost of Charlie Christian, via the playing of Caron, binds the stunning piece together.

The lead vocal on Summertime gives the song a new spin and cadence that works wonderfully, while Simon’s arrangement embraces a sound that personified some of Miles Davis’s work in the late fifties.

Everyone on the session shines, whether it’s the bold clarinet playing of Sheldon Brown on Mood Indigo, which dovetails beautifully with a soothing vocal chorus, or the bluesy, swinging Grappelli-like violin work from Evan Price on the intro to Sweet Georgia Brown that gives way to some fabulous call and response between Taj Mahal and the horn section.

Trumpeter Charles McNeal, who has worked on some of Boz Scaggs’ best sides, shines on a number tracks, and Danny Caron’s nimble yet deadly guitar playing actually steals the spotlight on the Benny Golson classic Killer Joe. Maria Muldaur makes an appearance, helping her old friend Taj take Baby, It’s Cold Outside, out of the Yuletide frame it’s usually associated with. The two turn the song into a slow burning, sexually charged tour de force, as the arrangement eventually doubles down on the vocal duet with a gorgeous muted trumpet and violin conversation.

Add in some superb liner notes from Petersen that add interesting context to the creation of this work, along with some superior artwork and Taj Mahal’s Savoy is an essential piece of work for fans of this classic and timeless music. (Peter North)