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Album review: Otis Taylor's 'Pentatonic Wars and Love Songs'

June 22, 2009 |  7:22 pm
Otis_taylor_240_ "People say they like to go to the edge," the multi-instrumentalist Otis Taylor recently said in Guitar Player magazine. "But I believe you have to go to the edge and fall off, because if you don't fall off, you will not know where the edge is."

Those words aptly define the 61-year-old Boulder, Colo.-based bluesman's musical approach. Gentle upon first listen, blending the austerity of Delta blues with the expansiveness of free jazz, Taylor's ancient-sounding, avant-garde "trance blues" has a dangerous pull.

Love is the subject on Taylor's 11th album, "Pentatonic Wars and Love Songs." Its songs cast the universal emotion as gentle on the surface, with a riptide, and some bubble with quickening desire. Others, like "Dagger by My Side," about a man who kills his mistress, capture far-gone pain, plain and eloquent.

Taylor's fragmented, moaned and groaned lyrics are like prayers inscribed on paper boats carried forward by a river current. His collaborators -- including the guitarist Gary Moore, the pianist Jason Moran, the cornetist Ron Miles and Taylor's daughter Cassie, who plays bass and sometimes murmurs a lead vocal -- modestly state their parts to create a hypnotic whole.

It's a strange and subtle sound, not for those who turn to the blues for nostalgia or a party soundtrack. Fans of Cat Power, the late Chris Whitley or the freak-folk scene will appreciate it. But the eeriness of these songs doesn't diminish their emotional immediacy.

"I'm not mysterious, girl," Taylor sings in one, about an 8-year-old black boy kept from courting his white schoolmate. "Pentatonic Wars and Love Songs" is as simple as that -- and as entangled in the cruelties of history and the heart.

-- Ann Powers

Otis Taylor
"Pentatonic Wars and Love Songs"
Three and a half stars