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Babatunde Lea Quintet tributes Leon Thomas at Catalina Bar & Grill

Dee Dee McNeil By

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Babatunde Lea Quintet
Tribute to Leon Thomas
Catalina Bar & Grill
Hollywood, California
March 10, 2010
Four musicians quietly walked onto the Catalina Bar & Grill stage greeted by enthusiastic applause. But where was the bandleader? From the dressing room, Babatunde Lea sang to the packed room, with his strong voice filling the space like an evening prayer. He danced his way through the crowded tables, shaking a Shekere (a bead-covered gourd) and setting the tone for the quintet's opening night performance. Once he took his seat at the drums, Lea vocalized to an attentive crowd "I can sing a rainbow" with only rhythmic accompaniment. Patrice Rushen, poised at the grand piano, echoed the song with the words "red and yellow/ pink and green/orange and blue ... I can sing a rainbow" a cappella. Her words were followed by the captivating vocals of Dwight Trible, who repeated the same lyrics without musical accompaniment. Then, with a blast of drums and saxophone, the party was on! Next, Trible wowed the audience with his interpretation of "Boom-Boom-Boom-Boom," moving the musical mood from straight-ahead jazz to funk. Throughout the songs, Lea was charismatic and articulate on traps drums, inspiring his audience to dance in their seats. Rushen manipulated the keys with mastery, amazing her audience with the wonderful dexterity and harmonics she employs. That's how the quintet's Leon Thomas tribute began—high energy and exciting!
During the show, Lea explained he grew up and played gigs with Thomas years ago. He expressed deep respect for the legend's talent, remembering that he saw Thomas mesmerize First Baptist Church every Sunday. It was right then that the drummer recognized his mentor's immense talent—a talent that helped mold Lea's own musical direction. The innovative percussionist reminded an enraptured audience that we can not occupy the same space at the same time as another human being, but our spirits can. Finally, he said music was functional, and when talking about how commercials use jazz as a backdrop, he quipped, "They have John Coltrane selling jeeps."

The group excited us with tunes like "John Coltrane" and Trible's tender rendition of "Let the Rain Fall on Me," complimented by the gritty and tasteful saxophone licks of Ernie Watts. Gary Brown remained an undaunted force on upright bass, one that glued the rhythm section together in a powerful way. Speaking of power, the original composition by Watts entitled "Reaching Up" offered a tightly performed arrangement that showcased Lea's drum sophistication. As a master percussionist, he blends African, Caribbean and South American rhythms with funk, jazz and gospel, often playing both traps drums and congas simultaneously.

"Music is functional," he reminded us again. "Music is a resource like oil or water; it does the bidding of who controls it."

Proving his point, Lea invited Trible back to the stage, initiating him as the "voice of the 21st century." What a divine compliment to an imaginative and gifted vocalist. The quintet played "The Creator Has a Master Plan" followed by "Colors" from Umbo Weti: A Tribute To Leon Thomas (Montema Music, 2009), then the Thomas composition "Sun Song." Next came Lea's original song written to celebrate a piece of African art hanging in a San Francisco museum, titled "African Tapestry (Prayer for a Continent)." All in all, it was an exciting evening of colorful music, brilliant musicianship and a passionate celebration of Lea's recent CD release. (Umbo Weti is named after the yodeling style of Thomas, who borrowed his style from the Twa people of Central Africa.) The Babatunde Lea Quintet took us on a compelling musical trip through the African Diaspora, hunkering into the rich shores of jazz right here in Southern California.

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