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Why antiques dealer returned to the music scene

'Woke up this morning and one of my antiques business's best customers persuaded me back into music" is never likely to cut it as a blues lyric.

OTIS TAYLOR: His songs often touch upon dark and personal topics.
OTIS TAYLOR: His songs often touch upon dark and personal topics.

It is, however, the truth behind Otis Taylor's return to the professional stage where he can present songs with a much darker, and equally true, narrative.

There are songs in Taylor's catalogue about the lynching of his great-grandfather, the shooting to death of his uncle - an act that prompted Taylor's family to move from Chicago to Colorado - and his mother being arrested for selling heroin.

There might have been one about the antiques dealer who sold a vinyl copy of his own album on the now highly collectable Blue Horizon Records, which promoted Fleetwood Mac's early career as well as championing American blues musicians including Otis Spann and Elmore James. Taylor's signing to the label as a young hopeful, by contrast, came to nothing.

"My father was a big jazz fan. He and I came over to London to see Blue Horizon around 1969 to 70 and there was talk of making records," says Taylor, one of this year's Edinburgh Jazz Festival's concert attractions. "But I don't know what happened, maybe I wasn't pushy enough. I certainly didn't know enough about the music business, which is why I eventually decided to concentrate on antiques."

The Taylor who chats affably on the phone and warns he's likely to float off at tangents, a promise he fulfils more than once, seems removed from the persona he presents on the 13 albums he has released since he was persuaded to appear at a local coffee house's benefit night some 20 years ago.

On record he's often concerned with issues that have affected black people in the US and his lyrics are enriched by historical perspective as well as personal experience.

The historical references reflect his interests, he concedes, but he also jokes that there's only so much history in his music because he's old. He's 65, which hardly qualifies him as Methuselah, but it does make him old enough to have encountered blues legends Mississippi Fred McDowell and Rev Gary Davis when they passed through Denver.

"They'd play at the Denver Folk Center and I used to go down there and hang out because there were people there who gave guitar lessons," he says. "I actually started on the banjo, which at that time was seen as a poor white person's instrument, although I subsequently discovered that it came from Africa."

Taylor finds an amusing irony in the people who taught him to play the blues being white, although he's mixed race himself and is proud to note that he had a Scottish grandmother. He used this element of his background to compelling dramatic effect on Maybe Yeah, from his album Pentatonic Wars and Love Songs, which boasts a snare drum tattoo that's part Scottish pipe band drum corps precision, part New Orleans groove.

The sense of drama in his music, he says, comes from his time at the Sundance film institute in California where he gained a composition fellowship after having developed his interest in antiques into a business.

It was after one of his regular clients, Kenny Passarelli, the Denver-based bass guitarist with Stephen Stills, Elton John, Joe Walsh, Hall and Oates and so on, cajoled him into playing a few songs as a favour for a coffee shop-owning friend that Taylor decided he might have a chance of making a living as a musician after all.

"Kenny was always asking me to bring over pieces I thought might interest him and every time I went over we had to jam. That was the deal," he says. "So this time I was over at his house he said he was playing a benefit gig, that we should work on a few of my songs and he'd play bass for me."

The audience liked what they heard so much that they wouldn't let Taylor leave the stage. Buoyed by the response, Taylor recorded Blue-Eyed Monster, his first album - his wife apparently told him it would be his last - and has gone on to enjoy reasonable success with what he calls "trance blues", a loose form of blues that allows room for lots of spontaneity.

"I'm lazy," he says. "I get other musicians to play on my songs for their input. It's like when we play live, I don't tell the band what song I'm going to play. I don't even tell them what key we're in. That way they can react to the song honestly and we get a more dramatic atmosphere. I tend to give more direction in the studio, so that in the way that music lets the audience know something's about to happen in a film, listeners get a sense of narrative."

His own music has been used in films for just such a purpose. Public Enemies, Michael Mann's 2009 biopic of gangster John Dillinger, with Johnny Depp in the starring role, turned Taylor's Ten Million Slaves and Nasty Story into an iTunes hits. It didn't impress Mrs Taylor, though.

"I've made 13 albums and my wife still says that I don't write songs, I just tell stories," he says. "But for me music is like painting. I don't preach or tell anyone what to think. People can go and look at a Rembrandt and take whatever meaning they want from it - and that's the kind of experience I want them to have with my music."

Otis Taylor plays the Queen's Hall on Monday July 21. Edinburgh Jazz Festival runs from Friday, July 18 to Sunday, July 27. www.edinburghjazzfestival.com

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