Otis Taylor,
Definition of a Circle
(Telarc, 2006)

Otis Taylor's album Definition of a Circle is just seven seconds into the opening track when guest Gary Moore announces his presence with a screaming guitar note that clearly states, "this is not your standard blues album." But then combining one of the blues' most enigmatic talents with this ex-Thin Lizzy rocker is certain to produce a sound that's anything but sedate.

Moore adds his chops to just three tracks on Definition of a Circle, but a similar raucous energy is evident on the track "Looking Over Your Fence" courtesy of Charlie Musselwhite's wailing harmonica. And the dissonant interplay between Ron Miles' cornet and Otis Taylor's and Hiromi Uehara's dueling pianos on "Long Long Life" is equally untamed. In fact, the entire Definition of a Circle album has a sonic power that grabs hold of the listener and refuses to let go.

But with one's audience reeled in so tightly, it's important to deliver on the lyric front as well, and this is where Taylor sometimes underperforms. He has a tendency to settle for a single phrase repeated rather than choosing to explore a larger narrative. There are times when this minimalist songwriting approach works quite well and times when it clearly does not. Contrast the tracks "My Name is General Jackson," which at nearly four and a half minutes contains a mere 44 words, with "Lifetime of Freedom," the album's closing track, which runs over five minutes and gets by on almost the exact same word count. The lyric for "Lifetime of Freedom" comes across as a barely controlled rage against injustice, with so much more implied behind the simple declaration, "Burn my house, take my land / Take my life, if you want to take my freedom away." Nothing more need be said.

On the flip side of this equation, simply repeating the words, "My name is General Jackson / I want to marry your daughter / And if you love her / Won't you please let her go" strikes me as desperately inadequate in this story of a man pleading with the father of the woman he loves. And the addition of the line, "Oh don't you remember / Oh don't you remember / When we were young / When we were young" makes the protagonist seem all the more pitiful.

But the successful songs far outnumber the failures on Definition of a Circle. "They Wore Blue" is the story of an African-American man from the North in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Taylor's use of Civil War imagery in the lyric is powerfully evocative. The track also soars on the dynamic organ work of Brian Juan, which tag-teams with Taylor's guitar for a '60s-style extended jam to close out the track. Providing a counterpoint to the despondent lead vocal on this track is Taylor's daughter/bassist Cassie, whose airy voice is an ideal balancing component.

Cassie also contributes vocals to "Few Feet Away," described as "a lullaby from a father to his bi-racial child." This quiet track is another stand-out with exceptional instrumental contributions from Ron Miles on coronet, Nick Amodeo on mandolin, Brian Juan on piano and Zach Miskin on cello. It's this inspired and unusual approach to instrumentation that makes Taylor's albums truly special, a shining beacon of the potential breadth of the blues genre.

The final song I want to isolate in this review is "Love & Hesitation," the third of the Gary Moore tracks.

More than half a century ago, rock 'n' roll began appropriating components of blues and turning them into a hugely profitable entertainment industry. Well, here, in his own small way, Taylor takes something of what rock 'n' roll has wrought and reclaims it as part of the blues. Moore delivers scorching lead guitar riffs throughout the track while Taylor, on second guitar and vocals, proves that the blues is the proud progenitor of this wild and cocky musical urchin.

Definition of a Circle is a wonderful album, not because it's perfect -- most listeners will find something here not to their liking -- but because it's a bold, ambitious recording that mixes musical genres with brash abandon and concocts a new, vibrant, daring interpretation of the blues. Otis Taylor is a visionary, and these 12 songs allow us a glimpse of his startling insights into what is too often an overly constrained musical form.

review by
Gregg Thurlbeck

30 June 2007

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