Michael Olatuja: Speak (2009)
At its very best, pop music is supposed to be inclusive, and open to a wide variety of styles and genres; that's what makes it pop right? But what is heard on the Internet and the airwaves is at best formulaic, at worst uninspired and superficial. Along with that diagnosis there's the almost Apartheid-like exclusion of any jazz influences, making an already dire sonic situation worse.
Thankfully and miraculously, Speak, the debut recording by the impossibly talented Michael Olatujaa Nigerian/British bassist, composer and arranger whose sideman gigs included Stevie Wonder, Terence Blanchard, Chaka Khan and The Brooklyn Tabernacle Choirbreaks that outdated mold on a number of levels. Backed by some first-rate London-based musiciansthe leader's vocalist/wife Alicia, drummers Troy Miller and Jerry Brown, keyboardist Jason Rebello (formerly with Wayne Shorter), saxophonist/ex-Jazz Messenger Jean Toussaint and a bevy of additional singersOlatuja delivers ten diverse, delightful and dancing tracks that effortlessly blend African Yoruba language and rhythms, hip hop-friendly beats and African-American religious strains, all anchored by Olatuja's supple, acoustic and electric bass lines that can trace their low-end ancestry to Ron Carter and Jaco Pastorius.
Buoyed by Olatuja's jazz-fluent bottom, Speak sings and swings with a verve and vigor that is both global and local; secular, and spiritual. The lead-off track, "Ma Foya," is arguably the most Afro-centric cut with its peppery percussion, contrasted by the Jill Scott-ish mid-tempo bounce of "Little Sister," complete with Walker's Ella Fitzgerald-licious scat, and the haunting organ fills on the reverent "Altar Call." The mid-tempo, Quiet Storm-friendly "Unconditional" features a succinct and soulful bass solo, and the anthemic "Yi Yipada," sounds almost Brazilian in its rhythmic texturenot surprising, given the leader's Yoruban roots and the influence that ethnic group bequeathed to that South American country via the slave trade.
The title track, featuring rapper T.Y., snaps with the kind of urban, syncopated sizzle that will, no doubt, give birth to some zesty remixes. The 6/8, McCoy Tyner-timed take on the gospel standard "Walk with Me," and the Bill Evans-esque, waltzy ballad "Mama Ola"the former, showcased by Alicia Olatuja's stirring contralto and the latter, laced with Rebello's poetic pianism and Toussaint's pity soprano lineswill disabuse those checking for Olatuja's jazz cred.
Speak is a propulsive, profound and pleasing record. But more importantly, it is a record that elegantly embraces all of the myriad musical moods and grooves that abound at the start of the twenty first century.
Track Listing: Ma Foya; Altar Call; Hold On; Little Sister; Le Jardin; Yi Yipada; Unconditional; Speak; Walk With Me; Mama Ola.
Personnel: Michael Olatuji: acoustic and electric bass, Fender Rhodes; Lynden David Hall: lead vocals; Terri Walkwer: lead vocals; Andrew Roachford: additional lead vocals; Onaje Jefferson: lead vocals; Eska Mtungwazi: lead vocals; Alicia Olatuja: lead vocals; Femi Temowo: acoustic and electric guitars; Troy Miller: drums; Jerry Brown: drums; Jason Rebello: piano, Fender Rhodes, Moog; Jean Toussaint: soprano saxophone; Isaac Aryee: Fender Rhodes, organ; Luke Smith: keyboards; Jason Michael Webb: keyboards; Thomas Dyani Akuru: percussion; Anyan Leke: talking drum; Volker Strater: percussion; Richard Temowo: backing vocals; Anna Omakinwa: backing vocals; Sewuese Abwa: backing vocals; Brendon Guyatt: backing vocals; Heidi Vogel: backing vocals; Rasiyah: backing vocals; Sky: backing vocals.