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Otis Taylor: Simmering And Hypnotic

As a genre rather than a root, the blues — perhaps the most hauntingly profound art form Americans have ever produced — is often reduced to background music for sports bars and Tex-Mex chain restaurants. One of the few bluesmen working today who remains worthy of the music's arcane, melancholy origins is Otis Taylor, a Colorado-based singer, songwriter, guitarist and banjoist whose modal "trance blues" often evokes West Africa more than Chicago, Memphis, Texas or the Delta.

On Pentatonic Wars and Love Songs, Taylor's new album, he exchanges some of his locomotive rave-ups for a more simmering brand of hypnotism. As the record's title makes plain, these are love songs, but they're of the hard-boiled variety: They reflect on love that's unrequited, tortured, conflicted, mischievous, even murderous.

The lead cut, "Looking for Some Heat," works in a classic blues milieu. Taylor has modernized the blues' lyrical tradition by singing about race in a way that would have been impossible in the prewar era. But here, he works from the standpoint of a familiar character: the nomadic everyman who travels far and wide in search of love and warmth, only to find that he's best off someplace far less exotic. In this instance, "heat" means love, but it also means sunshine, and Paris, Texas, would do just as well as Paris, France; or Germany, or Russia, or Canada.

Musically, this is blues minimalism dressed up by expert musicians: a couple of verses and a single riff, through which some of jazz's most distinctive young voices meander. On cornet is the supple-toned Ron Miles, a longtime collaborator of Taylor's, and on piano is Jason Moran, an A-lister whose lyrical accents and slight staccato chords seem too artful to come from a working blues sideman. Filling out the rhythm section is the rest of Moran's Bandwagon group, drummer Nasheet Waits and bassist Tarus Mateen.

Today, young jazzmen of Moran's caliber aren't as mindful of contemporary blues as they once were, and they don't have to be; the jazz and blues scenes are more divergent now than they've ever been. But this alliance is superb, and it speaks volumes about the unassailable relevance of both men.

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Evan Haga