“Some of us were gifted by our ancestors to be in a long line of musicians,” says Taj Mahal. “It’s in your DNA. Others are lucky to find it and put in the dedication that it takes to be able to get there. So that’s my life as an 81-year-old—still playing music, still enjoying it, still getting to do the things I want to do.”
With his latest release, Swingin’ Live at the Church in Tulsa, Taj adds to his legendary legacy with an extraordinary set recorded at the Tulsa studio best known as the home base of the late, great Leon Russell. The ten songs reach across multiple genres that he has explored in his incomparable career, and feature his long-time quartet—bassist Bill Rich, drummer Kester Smith, and guitarist/Hawaiian lap steel player Bobby Ingano—augmented by dobro player Rob Ickes and guitarist and vocalist Trey Hensley.
“It was a great opportunity to capture this particular sextet, and also pay tribute to Leon and all that he did, and my friendship with him, at one of the premier studios on planet Earth,” says Taj. “Certain bands have a certain sound, so I was glad that I was able to not only play live, but have it be in the Church where we mix this stuff, too—when I saw that was what the possibility was, I was thrilled. It’s a great venue and it feels wonderful to be involved in it.”
In a career spanning seven decades and almost 50 albums, Taj Mahal has not only helped popularize and reshape the scope of the blues, but he has also personified the concept of “World Music” since years before the phrase even existed. From a base of traditional country blues, Taj has explored and incorporated reggae, Latin, R&B, Cajun, Caribbean, gospel, West African, jazz, calypso, Hawaiian slack-key, and countless other musical styles into his astonishing body of work.
Along the way, he has become proficient on about 20 different instruments and collaborated with a vast range of musicians including the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Etta James, Angelique Kidjo, Ziggy Marley, and masters from such countries as India and Mali. For his work, Taj has won four Grammy Awards (out of fifteen nominations), been inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame, and was a recipient of the Americana Music Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
Growing up in a musical family in the vibrant immigrant community of Springfield, Massachusetts, Taj first became aware of Oklahoma’s central role in American music through a family friend named James Brewer. “He was one of the coolest guys that we ever met,” says Taj. “Dressed sharp all the time, played alto a little bit with those territory bands out there like Ernie Fields and Bennie Moten.” Later, he solidified a connection to the region’s musicians through guitarist and close collaborator Jesse Ed Davis, who introduced him to such Tulsa-based players as JJ Cale, Bobby Keys, and, eventually, the force of nature known as Leon Russell.
Russell purchased the distinctive church with the stone façade in 1972, converting it into a recording studio and home office for his Shelter Records label. Artists including Tom Petty, Jimmy Buffett, Willie Nelson, Stevie Wonder, and many more worked in the studio. Current owners Ivan Acosta and Teresa Knox completed their renovation of the space in 2022, dedicated to showcasing the legacy of the “Tulsa Sound” and creating opportunities for the next generation of musicians.
“Through my friend Claudia Lennear—who sang with Joe Cocker on the Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour, on which Leon was the bandleader—I was hearing about Teresa and what she was doing,” says Taj. “That she had restored the Church and was making it a big tribute to Leon and what he meant to the area and was really trying to turn this entity into a destination to record and to play. Teresa was interested in having me come out there and see the studio, maybe record in it. It was on the back burner, and then we kind of put it on the front burner and turned it up a little bit, and the next thing we know, we had the perfect setting for a live and exciting recording.”
He and his band responded with a set that ranges from some of the songs he is best known for—“Corinna,” “Queen Bee”—to the instrumental “Twilight in Hawaii” (representing his long association with the Aloha State’s musical traditions, especially through his Hula Blues Band) to a glorious closing jam on T-Bone Walker’s “Mean Old World” that stretches beyond the ten-minute mark. Though the selections only hint at the scope of Taj Mahal’s musical exploration, they give a sense of the approach that still sustains him night after night, project after project.
“I’ve always had this thing where if you play the songs that everybody wants, they go to sleep on you,” he says. “And as soon as you start playing something different, all of a sudden, they get scared that you’re leaving them. So I’ve always kept them on their toes.
“You’re not going to disrespect me or the music by having me stay in one spot so you feel comfortable,” he continues. “The people that made this music, my ancestors, were uncomfortable making the music that makes you feel comfortable now. So it’s time that we all make an exchange here, and you stretch out and realize how wide, how intelligent, how creative, how beautiful this music is. You can’t go back in my catalog and hear no whining going on. It’s all about lifting the spirit, positive towards women, positive towards yourself, positive toward life, toward other people, other languages, other cultures.”
Taj studied Animal Husbandry at the University of Massachusetts before heading to Los Angeles in 1964 to pursue music. He began his solo career with such pioneering projects as The Natch’l Blues and the expansive double album Giant Step/De Old Folks at Home, demonstrating his ambitious sense of possibility for American roots music.
Over the decades, his records became even more adventurous, incorporating global influences including Mumtaz Mahal, a 1995 collaboration with Indian classical musicians, and 1999’s Kulanjan, a project with Malian kora master Toumani Diabate that Taj felt represented his musical spirit truly “arriving full circle.” He won back-to-back Grammys for Best Contemporary Blues Album with Señor Blues and Shoutin’ in Key.
The 21st Century has seen Taj working with many of the remarkable musicians who were directly influenced by his work and his example, including Keb’ Mo, Los Lobos, and Ben Harper. His reunion with Ry Cooder on 2022’s Get On Board won his latest Grammy, for Best Traditional Blues Album, and his most recent studio release, Savoy, is a collection of classic jazz songs.
“I don’t record stuff that I don’t like,” says Taj. “A lot of people record songs that somebody brought to them, so they’re doing it because they have to. I don’t play no song because I have to. I play songs because I love them, and I want to share them. There were a lot of good songs to be able to do that on this album. It’s really nice to be able to record that and know that we have a good record of what it was that we did.”
With Swingin’ Live at the Church in Tulsa, all the variables came together—a well-seasoned band being pushed by talented guests sitting in; a musically sophisticated audience; a venue that not only offered a sense of history, but also top-of-the-line acoustics as both a performance and recording space.
“People don’t pay me for the music,” says Taj Mahal. “They pay me for what it takes me to get there. I would gladly play music for free if I could be heard, but I found I can make a living at it. And then I can come to a place like the Church, and it’s all the great things at one time.”