Wellington Jazz Festival, Town Hall
March 5 | Reviewed by Brannavan Gnanalingam

THE SET DESIGN for the Town Hall was impressive. The stately room, too infrequently used as a music venue given its wonderful acoustics, had been transformed into a jazz club through an elevated stage, impressive lighting, and a constructed, intimate atmosphere. Which was perfect as Otis Taylor, the highly regarded singer-songwriter from Colorado, threw down his blues to a near capacity audience. With able support from his daughter Cassie Taylor and Jonn Richardson (plus a bit of New Zealand assistance), he forced the crowd to throw off their Steve-Buscemi-from-Ghost-World-shyness and sing and hoot and dance.

Taylor’s last album, Recapturing the Banjo, highlighted the fact that the banjo is an African instrument – not the Appalachian instrument it’s often presumed to be – and this was one of the first things Taylor announced to the audience. Taylor played the banjo in the first part of the set, tracks off his newer work, but was clearly having tuning problems (by all accounts, the banjo doesn’t ‘sit’) and made his switch to the guitar a little early. Which was a shame, because his banjo sounded great – he certainly didn’t play it the twangy way most people associate the instrument. The distinctive phrasing and interplay disappeared into a rather conventional blues set as Taylor picked up the guitar (a little disappointing given how his blues has been extremely innovative and distinctive throughout his career). That said, his performance and musicianship never wavered.

‘Writing The Blues For Children’ workshop – Otis Taylor on harmonica amongst the kids.

To be fair, there was plenty to get the crowd excited. The highlight was the “Maori-Chicago blues” fusion, where Taylor got two friends from the crowd to perform alongside his harmonica playing. A “Hey Joe” cover was more of a Jimi Hendrix homage, than an homage to the garage rock original, and he played it despite having few covers in his repertoire. The other performers were excellent. Jonn Richardson sounded like he was torturing his guitar, and pulled off some impressive solos. Cassie Taylor showcased an impressive voice (both while singing, and while filling in with the banter), and you could tell her and Otis Taylor were family by their interplay. A cellist provided compelling support too. The drums, set up for the next show, were never touched. The rhythms and crowd did all the work that was necessary, and they were consequently never missed. Taylor spent his whole set exhorting the crowd to follow his lead. Most were initially reluctant to echo his screams and movements. By the end however it must have worked, as the platform that most of the crowd was on, was threatened with collapse by the audience’s desperate pleas for him to come back.