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Michael Olatuja's
Lagos Pepper Soup

by Robin Kidson

 

 

 

Michael Olatuja

 

Whirlwind Recordings, the London-based record label founded by American musician, Michael Janisch, celebrates its 10th birthday this year. Over its first decade, it has been the conduit for some of the best and most interesting contemporary music around – and not just in the UK but globally. The label, which has released over 150 albums all told, has resisted the notion of a distinctive “Whirlwind Sound” and has instead cultivated a most welcome eclecticism, offering a product noted for its diversity as well as its quality.

As an illustration of that diversity, in the space of a few days in June, Whirlwind released two very different albums: Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Hero Trio and Michael Olatuja’s Lagos Pepper Soup. Hero Trio (reviewed on this website last month) is a piece of small group acoustic jazz in the American tradition of Parker, Coltrane and Coleman. By contrast, Lagos Pepper Soup employs a huge mix of performers and resources, including a string orchestra, to produce something which is still recognisably jazz but also incorporates influences from a wide range of other sources.

 

An introductory video for Lagos Pepper Soup:

 

 

 

Whirlwind’s variety of output reflects how multi-faceted jazz has become in the twenty-first century. Multi-faceted might also describe the life and career of Lagos Pepper Soup’s creator, Michael Olatuja. Born in London, he was raised in Lagos where his mother, Comfort Bola Olatuja, was a business woman and restaurant owner. He returned to the UK to study at Middlesex University and also began performing on the London jazz scene. A move to New York to study at the Manhattan School of Music eventually led to him settling in that city and establishing a successful music career.

The bass is Michael Olatuja’s instrument and his skill and versatility have earned him an enviable reputation. He has worked in all sorts of genres from straight jazz to soul and pop, accompanying artists ranging from Terence Blanchard and Kurt Elling to Stevie Wonder and Chaka Khan. Playing in the pit bands of Broadway musicals such as Frozen  is yet another arrow to the Michael Olatuja Lagos pepper Soup albumimpressive Olatuja bow. In 2009, he released Speak, his first album as a leader. This saw him working with a range of musicians including the UK's Jason Rebello and Jean Toussaint. Speak was followed in 2011 by The Promise, a collaboration with his then wife, singer Alicia Olatuja.      

And now, in 2020, we have Lagos Pepper Soup which marks a significant step up in Olatuja’s musical development and profile. It is an album with a lot going on. It involves, for example, a lot of musicians. Olatuja has assembled a core band of himself on electric and acoustic bass, Aaron Parks (piano), Etienne Stadwijk (keyboards) and Terreon Gully (drums). Other musicians augment this core including a fifteen piece string orchestra on five of the twelve tracks. The album was recorded over five years in studios in New York and London so different tracks have different musicians playing on them. A final layer to the mix is the presence of a number of guest stars. Olatuja’s wide experience and reputation has given him a large network of impressive contacts and he has been able to call upon the likes of Regina Carter, Dianne Reeves, Laura Mvula and Joe Lovano to appear on the album.

There are also a lot of influences at work on the album which shifts through different genres with impressive ease. One influence becomes apparent on the very first track of the album, a short introductory piece called Even Now Prayer. It features only three musicians - Olatuja on electric bass, Stadwijk on keyboards and Gully on drums - but a big sound is generated as if a much larger ensemble is involved. The track has a Weather Report feel to it, and Olatuja channels his inner Jaco Pastorius. Other tracks on the album also bear Weather Report traces, and Olatuja’s compositional skills (he wrote most of the tracks on the album) and his ability to write complex but catchy tunes bring to mind Joe Zawinul.

A catchy tune is what comes next on the album with its title track, an exuberant piece of Afrobeat featuring Benin-born, New York based Angelique Kidjo on vocals and some stirring guitar work from Lionel Loueke also from Benin. Tip for listeners: it sounds great on headphones.

 

Here is the “official music video” of the track which is very slick but also captures the spirit of the piece.

 

 

 

Here too is a brilliant, more jazz-inflected live performance of the title track, Lagos Pepper Soup, featuring Thana Alexa on vocals and some different musicians from the recorded version:

 

 

 

The mood changes on the third track, The Hero’s Journey. One of Olatuja’s objectives for the album is to take the music of the three cities that have made him – London, Lagos and New York – and create something he calls 'Cinematic Afrobeat': “What you hear”, he says, “is a blend of three major cities: it’s a celebration of life and I wanted to make it sound like a soundtrack for a movie that hasn’t been made yet – maybe the next Black Panther movie”. The Hero’s Journey is the track which perhaps comes closest to achieving that cinematic vision. The string orchestra is brought into play in a lush sweeping theme which one could imagine gracing a movie – not, perhaps the next Black Panther movie, more a Disney blockbuster. Dianne ReevesOlatuja has raided his impressive list of contacts and obtained the services of one of the top studio arrangers around, David Metzger, responsible for the orchestrations for Disney movies like Frozen and The Lion King. Violinist Regina Carter is the guest soloist and her improvisation soars beautifully over the theme.

 

Dianne Reeves

 

We come back to music influenced by West African rhythms and themes with the next track, Soki. The beat is derived from a Nigerian rhythm called woro – “a lot of African countries have their own version of it”, says Olatuja, “and what I love about Soki, which means “a little while” is that it also features woro styles from Mali, Cameroon and Senegal. It’s more like a Pan-African 6/8”. Yet another big star, Dianne Reeves, sings the words in Yoruba in her strong expressive voice. The string orchestra is to the fore again in an arrangement by Jason Michael Webb. Olatuja’s melody is both interesting and catchy and will effortlessly drill its way into your brain.

 

The official video of Soki.

 

 

 

Next up is Ma Foya, meaning “Don’t Fear”, which Olatuja composed with Anna Omak. Olatuja switches from electric to the acoustic double bass and stretches out with some impressive solo work. He also provides “percussion and claps”. Stadwijk is on keyboards and the guest soloist is New York harpist, Brandee Younger. The tune is upbeat and infectious but also curiously soulful.

 

Here's the video of Ma Foya:

 

 

 

Brighter Day was written by Olatuja with Kate Kelsey-Sugg. It features the string orchestra in another lush and cinematic arrangement by Joseph Joubert who also conducts. (Incidentally, Joubert is the conductor on all the album’s orchestral tracks). The piece has a complex but memorable, foot-tapping  tune, and the guest artist who sings the lyrics is Laura Mvula, another star from the A-List. Troy Miller, a friend from Olatuja’s London days, takes the drum chair.

Here is the video (on which, rather disappointingly, you don’t actually see Laura Mvula).

 

 

 

Shadows Fade is a ballad composed by Olatuja and Onaje Jefferson. Jefferson, who has a beautiful, soulful voice, also sings the lyrics. It has the feel of a high end pop/soul song but it also includes a solo from Olatuja which is straight ahead contemporary jazz. Aaron Parks gets the chance to show what he can do with a well-judged piano solo. The next track, Home True was written by British pianist, Robert Mitchell, who was something of a mentor to Olatuja in his formative London years. Mitchell also plays piano, keyboards and moog on the track. Becca Stevens sings the lyrics, and Olatuja and Terreon Gully make up the rest of the personnel. It is a compelling piece of contemporary jazz with a complex, rather jagged rhythm but all, particularly Becca Stevens, are up to the challenge.

Bola’s Song is a tribute to Olatuja’s late mother, Comfort Bola Olatuja. Indeed, the whole album, and some of the other individual tracks, are dedicated to her memory. It is another of the cinematic tracks with the strings arranged by Jon Cowherd. The guest artist is Grégoire Maret, whose atmospheric wailing harmonica often makes the piece sound like the theme to a Grégoire Maretwestern. There is some particularly effective interplay between the harmonica and the vocals of Camille Thurman. The piece shifts through different moods from introspective and wistful to upbeat and hopeful. Mivakpola takes us back to straight, Weather Report-tinged jazz. The piece was composed by Lionel Loueke who plays guitar on the track and sort of hums in the background. The track, though, is made memorable by some fantastic drumming by Gully, and Olatuja’s skillful and compelling electric bass.

 

Grégoire Maret

 

More jazz on the penultimate track, Leye’s Dance, which features the great Joe Lovano on tenor sax. The tune is based around a Nigerian rhythm called fuji and is taken at a cracking pace. Lovano falls in with the beat and spirit of the piece and Magatte Sow is particularly effective on talking drum. The final track is Grace, which is partly an expression of Olatuja’s strong Christian faith. It’s a gently upbeat and joyous jazz ballad with a complex but coherent tune played by an acoustic quintet. Olatuja plays acoustic bass but stays largely in the background allowing the other four musicians to shine: Aaron Parks (piano), Terreon Gully (drums), Samir Zarif (tenor sax) and Michael Aarons (guitar).  “Thinking as a producer, says Olatuja, “I wanted different textures…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. And I feel that there’s been a lot of favour 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”.

 

Listen to Grace

 

 

 

Soup as a dish works by taking a number of different ingredients and mixing them together into a single whole. It can go wrong of course if the ingredients are defective or poorly chosen and the cook isn’t up to much. Michael Olatuja took a lot on in creating his own brand of Lagos Pepper Soup. Mixing together all those complex ingredients could so easily have resulted in the proverbial dog’s breakfast. Instead, Olatuja has managed to take all those elements - musicians, influences, genres, rhythms, logistics - and, with the help of a clear vision, sparkling tunes and some pretty impressive support, produce a dish which is spicy, refreshing and nutritious.


Click here for details and samples of the album. For more infomation about Lagos Pepper Soup (Bandcamp gives the price in dollars but this is converted to sterling if you choose to purchase). Click here for Michael Olatuja’s website.

 

Michael Olatuja

 

 

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Other pages you might find of interest :

Rudresh Mahanthappa's Hero Trio
Yuri Honing - Playing Bluebeard
Video Juke Box
Full Focus

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