From: born in London, UK; raised in Lagos, Nigeria. LA Opera: performer for the After Hours recital Songs of Protest (2021).
New York-based electric and acoustic bassist/composer/bandleader Michael Olatuja has been one of the most inventive and in-demand bassists since the early part of this century. He’s worked and recorded with one hundred artists, from Terence Blanchard, Kurt Elling and Jose James to Stevie Wonder, Shakira, and Bebe Winans, and recorded two CD’s as a leader, Speak (2009), which the website All About Jazz proclaimed was “a propulsive and pleasing record,” and The Promise by The Olatuja Project - a duo with Alicia Olatuja (2011). Nearly five years in the making, Olatuja’s new, 12-track CD, Lagos Pepper Soup, named after a zesty, West African meal, with lyrics mostly in Yoruba and English, and recorded in London and New York, is his most comprehensive and compelling album to date.
“The themes [on this new record] are hope, inspiration, and new beginnings,” Olatuja says. “This recording started at a very tough time in my life, and it’s cathartic and healing. I had to separate myself into two people: my older self, and my younger self, as if the older me were speaking to the younger me, encouraging me, and thus, encouraging whoever’s listening. That was the motivation for how this album happened. Most of my recordings are like that: Whatever season or journey I’m going through in my life, the music speaks to myself [and] others.”
On his first two recordings, Olatuja was more of a composer and producer than an instrumentalist. On Lagos Pepper Soup, His ebullient and bone-deep bass tones—a combination of Abraham Laboriel’s percussive approach, John Patitucci’s acoustic and electric fluency, and Richard Bona’s Cameroonian-derived inventions—are in the foreground. The leader is supported by an impressive, international and accomplished core band consisting of drummer Terreon Gully, keyboardists Aaron Parks and Etienne Stadwijk from Suriname, saxophonist/vocalist Camille Thurman, and Senegalese percussionist Magatte Sow who worked on the Black Panther soundtrack.
The special guests on this CD have either employed Olatuja as a sideman, or became friends with him on the scene. “Lionel and Angelique are like my big brother and sister,” Olatuja says. “I toured with him, and we just hit it off. His mum speaks Yoruba. I met Angelique two years ago, and toured with her for two years. She’s always been one of my heroes. She’s Mama Africa: She’s the queen! Dianne Reeves has been an inspiration and supporter for years. She’s been my hero since my teenage years. I was doing a show with Brandee Younger in D.C. at the Kennedy Center. And on the way back, she jokingly said ‘oh, I see you finished your album, but you didn’t ask me to play a song [laughs]. So I asked her to do it, and she said yes. And I know Joe Lovano loves African music, because I’m in one of his bands called The Village Rhythms.”
Lagos Pepper Soup contains an assortment of sonically sumptuous African rhythms with jazz improvisation, albeit in a different sonic setting. “On Speak, which I recorded in London, I was mixing Afrobeats with jazz and gospel, and I took that experiment further on the second album, The Promise,” Olatuja says. “Now, what makes this album Lagos Pepper Soup different, is that I was thinking of it as cinematic Afrobeat! When I worked on this album, I was playing in the orchestra of the Broadway musical Frozen, which is arranged by Dave Metzger, and I toured with trumpeter Chris Botti, and we’d have large orchestras behind us. So those orchestral sounds—the kind you hear in Hollywood movies—started to get into my head. So for this album, the question was: how can I fuse this mix of Afrobeat and jazz as if it was a Hollywood film soundtrack?”
You can hear the answer to Olatuja’s question on the CD’s orchestrated tracks, mostly arranged by Metzger, and conducted by Joseph Joubert. “The Hero’s Journey,” which Olatuja proclaims is the CD’s most “cinematic” track, is a sublimely syncopated selection in 6/4 time, enhanced by Metzger, with violinist Regina Carter’s vivid solo, dedicated to Olatuja’s late mother, Comfort Bola. “Soki,” arranged by Jason Michael Webb, is propelled by a popular Nigerian rhythm genre in 6/8 entitled woro. “A lot of African countries have their own version of it,” Olatuja says. “And what I love about “Soki” is that it [also] features woro styles from Mali, Cameroon, and Senegal. It’s more like a Pan-African 6/8.” Joubert’s arrangement of “Brighter Day,” co-written by Olatuja and Kate Kelsey-Sugg, showcases vocalist Laura Mvula’s stately vocals, while the heartwarming tribute to Olatuja’s mother, “Bola’s Song,” is laced with Gregoire Maret’s luscious harmonica.
The rest of the CD’s selections feature the small ensembles. The opening opus, “Even Now Prayer,” sounds like a collaboration between Jaco Pastorius and Fela Kuti. The title track is another shout-out to the leader’s mother, featuring the Beninese dynamic duo of Kidjo and Loueke, propelled by an anthemic Afrobeat Tony Allen would approve of, while Loueke’s “Mivakpola,” originally released on his album, “In a Trance” in 2005, is recast with an infectious, Weather Report-ish, drum-n-bass arrangement. “Ma Foya” was originally recorded on Speak, and is rendered on this CD, in a hi-life beat with Brandee Younger’s evocative and ethereal harpistry. Vocalist Onaje Jefferson, who was also featured on Speak, returns for an impassioned performance on “Shadows Fade (co-written by Jefferson and Olatuja).”
Joe Lovano’s towering tenor saxophone reigns supreme on “Leye’s Dance,” which is pulsed by a Nigerian musical genre called Fuji. Becca Steven’s pithy vocals navigate the complex rhythmic waters on “Home True,” composed by U.K. pianist Robert Mitchell. “I heard this song when I played in his trio when I was a teenager,” Olatuja says, “and I said to myself if I ever have the opportunity to record it, I would have him on the [track]. It’s got odd meters: Some of it is in 11/4. Some of it is in 17/4. It’s a lot happening, rhythmically.”
The CD’s final track, the plaintive postlude, “Grace,” concludes this momentous recording of depth and complexity. “Thinking as a producer, I wanted different textures,” Olatuja says. “That’s why I had “Ma Foya” stripped down, with me and Brandee Younger on harp, and then another [track] would feature an orchestra. So I was very conscious of dynamics. I really wanted some songs to sound epic, and the small ensembles to sound like a whisper. So I ended with “Grace” because it sounds like a benediction. The word grace means unlimited favor. And I feel that there’s been a lot of favor shown to me on this project … because of the way people came together: their hearts, their attitudes, made me feel that there was something bigger happening.”
Indeed, Lagos Pepper Soup captures something bigger than an all-star CD, led by a twenty-first century virtuoso who the BBC proclaimed, “had a firm handle on the music of the ‘motherland’ and diaspora.” It unveils the extraordinary musical life of Michael Olatuja: from his early days playing percussion in his Lagos Yoruba Christian church, his life with his pioneering mother, to his first lessons on bass as a teenager, and his music studies in the U.K at Sussex University, and at the Manhattan School of Music, to his work as a sideman and leader. This recording aurally illustrates the places and spaces he’s been, and it forecasts the shape of his Afrocentric jazz to come.
Learn more at MichaelOlatujaMusic.com.