(As published in Real Groove ... )
It's weird to realize that a guy who's spent the last thirty years as a living encyclopedia of black musical styles and who goes by the name of a 350-year-old mausoleum in India actually did his growing up in that hotbed of funky ethnicity, Springfield, Massachusetts (pop. 164,000). It's also weird to discover that after thirty-five albums he still brings a sense of discovery to the songs he covers. But the thirty-sixth time's the charm: Señor Blues is the punchiest jazz-blues-gospel-soul album since critics mistook Ted Hawkins' The Next Hundred Years for the real deal several years ago. Jazz, blues, and gospel are inevitable from a living encyclopedia; Mahal was put on this earth, after all, to get first-rate results from second-hand material. But when it comes to soul--well, who'd expect a rendition of "Think" that rivals James Brown's, of "At Last (I Found a Love)" that rivals Marvin Gaye's, or of "Mr. Pitiful" that rivals Otis Redding's? By linking them with jazz (the sinuous Horace Silver-penned title track), blues (Freddy Simon's "I Miss You, Baby," Delbert McClinton's "Real Bad Day"), and gospel (Jon Cleary's pew-stompin' "Oh Lord, Things Are Gettin' Crazy Up Here"), he gives the soul cuts a context rather than a (mere) history. And by singing Hank Williams' "Mind Your Own Business" like Louis Prima and "I Miss You, Baby" like Ray Charles, Mahal proves he's the sizzlingest one-man musical melting pot currently recording for a Windham Hill subsidiary.