Who you gonna call when you need a legendary blues musician on your project? These days it seems it's the ubiquitous Taj Mahal.
This venerable artist is in demand from New Orleans to Cape Town, adding his unique musical gumbo to all manner of concerts and recordings.
When Eric Clapton and jazz star Wynton Marsalis decided to team for a historic concert at New York's Lincoln Center in April to perform vintage works by W.C. Handy, Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith, they invited Taj along to open the show and join the duo on a couple of tunes.
The magical night was captured on the CD/DVD "Wynton Marsalis and Eric Clapton Play the Blues," released in September.
"It was exciting," Taj reports. "I know Eric from a long time ago in the late '60s when I opened for him, and we did the Rolling Stones' 'Rock and Roll Circus.' I was asked to be included at the Lincoln, and it was a lot of fun. I love everything Eric does, but I'm telling you their New Orleans arrangement of 'Layla' just slays me. It's so great. I was ecstatic with the band, phenomenal players."
Clapton and the American blues master have collaborated on a number of recordings including Taj's "Phantom Blues" album, and Clapton and JJ Cale's "The Road to Escondido," which won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album in 2008.
* Taj Mahal and the Hula Blues Band play the Maui Arts & Cultural Center's Castle Theater at 7:30 p.m. Friday. Tickets are $40, $50 and $60 (plus applicable fees) available at the MACC box office, 242-7469 or mauiarts.org.
"Eric is cutting one of my songs, 'Further on Down the Road,' for his next album," Taj continues. "I went down and put some harmonica and that secret ingredient in there."
More recently he joined an all-star ensemble of blues and jazz musicians in New Orleans, including trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis, along with Maui's Willie K and Amy Hanaiali'i, recording "Blues Planet," a double album of original, environmentally-themed blues music composed by marine artist Wyland.
"It was fascinating to watch Taj Mahal round out the songs with sheer genius," noted a NolaNiteLife article on the recording sessions.
The painter and musician's connection dates back to the 1970s when Wyland painted Taj with images of Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison in a mural on the side of the Golden Bear in Southern California's Huntington Beach.
"I'd seen his murals and bought his cards, and then we got together for this new project," Taj explains. "I brought the Phantom Blues Band down to New Orleans and we cut some stuff with other bands and Willie K and Amy. The ocean is all of our lives, whether we live there or eat out of it. It's the mother, and some of us are concerned and want to talk about it."
Happy to lend his talent to all manner of activist projects, Taj also joined an international team of musicians for "Playing For Change 2: Songs Around the World."
The two-disc CD/DVD package featured original songs written for the album, as well as reinterpretations of classics like Bob Marley's "Redemption Song," Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground" and John Lennon's "Imagine." Other artists on board included Senegal's Baaba Maal, Keb Mo, the Tuareg group Tinariwen, Jamaica's Stephen Marley and Mali's Toumani Diabate.
Collaborating with the Sierra Leone Refugee All Stars, Taj whipped up an smoldering version of the Stones' rocker "Gimme Shelter."
Then there's "Goin' Home: A Tribute to Fats Domino," where he sings "My Girl Josephine" with The New Orleans Social Club on an albums that featured Paul McCartney, Willie Nelson and Robert Plant; and "The People Speak" protest songs project, which includes performances by Jackson Brown, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Eddie Vedder.
"I just get in there and do what I can, everywhere I can," he says. "I'm always busy."
Born in Harlem, N.Y., in 1942 to a gospel-singing schoolteacher mother and a Caribbean-born composer father who was a big jazz fan; from his earliest days, Taj was immersed in the music that would become his career.
His passion for the blues began while he was attending the University of Massachusetts. Spending time searching out the living masters of the tradition, he studied an array of instruments including electric and acoustic guitars, bass, piano, banjo, dulcimer, mandolin, harmonica and flute.
Moving to Los Angeles, he co-founded a group with fellow blues aficionado Ry Cooder called the Rising Sons, and then recorded his first solo album in 1968. That year he joined the Rolling Stones, the Who, John Lennon and Eric Clapton to film "The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus."
In subsequent years, this Grammy-winning artist has toured and/or recorded with B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan and Bob Marley. In the late '90s he joined the Stones on their live album "No Security," singing the classic "Corrina."
Ever experimental, in the early 1970s he released a live album based around and entire tuba section, and in the mid-'90s he recorded the superb "Mumtaz Mahal" with classical Indian musician Vishwa Mohan Bhatt. A few years later he teamed with a group of African musicians from Mali for the primal blues of "Kulanjan." And in 2005, he released "Muktano" with the Culture Musical Club of Zanzibar.
To celebrate the 40th anniversary of his career, he released the Grammy-nominated album "Maestro," where the veteran bluesman was joined by Ziggy Marley, Jack Johnson, Ben Harper, Los Lobos and Angelique Kidjo.
As a longtime admirer of Hawaiian music, while living on Kauai, Taj formed the Hula Blues Band. This venture produced two great albums, "Sacred Island" released in 1996, and "Hanapepe Dream" in 2003, a soulful Caribbean/bluesy/Hawaiian stew accented with steel guitar, slack key guitar, and ukulele on such highlights as the classic "Stagger Lee," and Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower."
"It's a special thing," he says about the Hula Blues Band. "I heard the music as a youngster, but so much of what they played was almost cartoonish. The situation with Hawaiian music was very similar to early attempts by Europeans to do black music - make a caricature and downgrade the creativity. I was lucky enough to hear some real stuff on 'Hawaii Calls.' I remember hearing this music one night on the radio and my brain went, wow, I hope I get to travel one day and see who those people are. The music was so pleasing.
"I remember playing a gig in California and at a party later someone played 'Moonlight Lady,' and it sounded so beautiful. So I asked who it was by, and it turned out it was Gabby Pahinui and Ry Cooder and Bla and all those guys. I picked up a couple of albums, and that's how I got in touch with Gabby Pahinui. To me, Gabby was similar to Charlie Patton or Son House, someone from that deep in the culture. There's nothing that sounds like him."
After moving to Kauai in 1981, Taj began jamming with local musicians like Michael Barrett and Wayne Jacintho. "We'd have potlucks and sit around and they wanted to learn the blues turnarounds and I wanted to learn the hula turnarounds," he recalls. "I played on the Na Pali guys' first album with Fred Lunt, Carlos Andrade and Pat Cockett, and that was the nucleus of the (Hula Blues) band."
Looking forward to playing Maui again, Taj has added a new instrument to his eclectic repertoire.
"I'm playing ukulele these days," he explains. "I finally got there. I had to find my way into it and Pat Cockett helped me. I love the sound of the harmony strings. I've got the four-string, the six-string and the eight-string ones. I'm serious. They're out all the time so I can get my hands on them."
Willie K has a lot to celebrate on Sunday.
He's opening his own retail store - Uncle Willie's Kloset - and his recording studio (Maui Tribe Records), and hosting a CD- release party for his new "Warehouse Blues" album.
Plus it's his birthday, and over in the Spanish city of Marbella, the "Get a Job" comedy he stars in, has its European premiere.
So the Willie K empire is definitely expanding.
"Expanding and branding, that's the name of the game," he says, laughing.
"It's basically an extended closet," he reports about the store, "all Willie K logo stuff. It's a personal outlet for Willie K products from music to instruments to second- hand clothes. And the plan is to take in orders from big Hawaiian people."
Having dazzled us for years with his extraordinary talent and versatility, Willie finally felt it was time to tap his love for blues with an album of all-original material that pays tribute to some of the musicians he admires, from John Lee Hooker, B.B. King and Muddy Waters to Albert Collins, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Carlos Santana.
"It was with the intention of paying homage to all those I've enjoyed listening to," he says. "Some songs were written 20 years ago, some 30 years ago and some were written the day of the recording."
With solid backing from the core band of bassist Jerry Byers, drummer Kris Thomas, keyboardist Gilbert Emata and percussionists Mio Flores and Tam Sugayan, Willie unleashes his formidable guitar on some incendiary tunes.
And over the course of 17 compositions, he manages to explore many shades of blues from the Z.Z. Top grind of "Howling at the Moon" to the searing Peter Green/Mac influenced "Heart Aching Blues" ("that was because of Mick," he notes).
"It's not a traditional blues album, because it's got flavors of every other genre I've enjoyed," he says. "I'm glad I did it because I will have some more Hawaiian CDs out, but I'm just rocking out till I check out."
The multi-Na Hoku Hanohano Award winner has recently expanded his artistic endeavors to include movie acting, in the locally-produced "Get a Job," and the big budget romantic comedy "You May Not Kiss the Bride."
Having already won awards at a few U.S. film festivals, a Spanish subtitled version of "Get a Job" screens at the Marbella Internacional Film Festival on Sunday. And there's talk of a Polish version.
"It was just another gig, but I had so much fun," he says. "Every scene, I had a huge attack of gout and I was in so much pain, but you couldn't tell watching the movie. I loved doing it. It's great and we watch it at least twice a day with my 3-year-old. It's his favorite movie."
* The Willie K combo store opening/CD release party and birthday bash is set from noon to 4 p.m. Sunday at 270 Waiehu Beach Road at the Waiehu Beach Center. There will be a keiki zone and free food (Willie's famous kalbi ribs). Entertainment will begin at 12:30 p.m. with Indio and Avi, Jesse Tanoe and Friends, Napua Makua and Willie K and the Warehouse Blues Band. Kathy Collins of Mana'o Radio will emcee.