Babatunde Lea will not forget 2003. Shortly after releasing Soul Pools , his fourth recording as a leader, his inspirer 'Babatunde Olatunji' passed away. Lea's beat, conversely, is livelier than ever and honoring in high spirits the induction of Olatunji into jazz's pantheon of collective memoirs.
Conceptually speaking, Lea's latest recording is akin to the curing properties experienced in his prescient and life-changing initial encounter with Olatunji almost half a century ago. It seems to nourish both his desire for, as well as his particular views on healthier means of relating to self and others. When asked to connect the dots between such an aim and the compositions and the performances themselves, Lea said: 'After many years studying the rhythms of the African Diaspora, I have peeped that through many of the African cultures lies the understanding that there is no separation between mind, body and spirit. In fact, that is when health ensues. I contend that polyrhythms are a metaphor for universal culture. Polyrhythms are connected. So are we as human beings. We just don't fully realize it because it needs to be taught, just like one needs to be taught rhythms by a master drummer. I strive to make my compositions functional, which is an African take on the arts. The purpose I try to imbue my music with is that our growth as human beings should strive toward an anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-homophobic, egalitarian, democratic universal society and I don't care how many life times it takes to get there! I consider myself an activist as well as a musician and consider myself an 'agent of change.' My wife 'Dr. Virginia Lea' and I have a non-profit organization called the Educultural Foundation. Our purpose statement is that we teach critical thinking about social and cultural issues through the Arts. We have programs and curricula ready to go into any institution of learning and present them. You can get more information on the Educultural Foundation by logging on to www.motema.com .'
Soul Pools comes with a second CD recorded Live at Rasselas, with Ernie Watts as guest. Commenting on this 20+ minute strong and tight performance, the percussionist says that he met Watts at the '02 Playboy Jazz Festival, 'where we were both members of Bill Cosby's All Star Band, Cos of Good Music. As a big fan of Ernie's, when I got a couple of gigs in L.A. and San Francisco I asked if he would join in. He couldn't make the L.A. gig but he could make the San Francisco date, the one at Rassela's on Fillmore. I can very easily say that that gig was one of my most rewarding performances ever and we got it on tape. Imagine that! Hilton has been on my last three recordings and we have become quite good friends. He hires me now for gigs with his trio. Earlier this year, we did a few gigs in Europe with it. Geoff Brennan is an old friend of mine from his days in San Francisco. He has since relocated to New York. I picked him because he is one of those rare bass players that know the language of the Afro Caribbean rhythms and straight-ahead Jazz. I am very blessed with my current touring band, The Babatunde Lea Quartet with Ernie Watts on tenor sax, Hilton Ruiz in piano, Geoff Brennan plays the bass and me on drums and percussion. When we play it is more an experience than a musical outing. I am high, from the music, for days after every gig.'
In a release described by the leader as 'somewhat of a milestone,' Lea recounts, 'it had a very rocky beginning, with some personnel changes and new friends made. It made my vision a lot clearer and my path more committed, nonetheless. Each of these musicians gave strength and inspiration to me. As I continue to grow, I try to realize and understand the gifts of each of these master musicians as time goes on. What I do understand is that each possesses profound understanding of rhythm, harmony, communication and the absolute necessity of the spirit being in the music.' In that regard, it isn't that surprising that Lea begins his description of the production contributions of Frank Lacy, as well as his playing, by making reference to a mystical group: 'Frank Lacy in my mind is like a whirling dervish. If they can ever create perpetual motion, it might look something like him. Frank brought enthusiasm, harmonic depth and interesting ideas for arrangements to the mix. He was like a spark plug that kept us all up and focused. His compositions added greatly to the overall presentation. In all of Frank's performances on the CD, you can hear the spirituality, commitment and virtuosity of his playing.'