One of the most unlikely roots music success stories of recent years has been Olu Dara’s 1998 album, “In the World: From Natchez to New York.” Even more surprising than the spontaneous ease with which he combined blues, folk, Afro and Caribbean styles, or his vivid, autobiographical, half-spoken words, was that Dara was a jazz sideman, in his late 50s, and this was his first record.
He then repeated the success with “Neighborhoods,” which comes with an occasional, well-timed added slice of funk. He will be at the Blue Note Tokyo as part of the Roots Music Festival 2001 being held from July 30 to Aug. 3.
None of this might have happened if it wasn’t for his rapper son, Nas, who wanted his father to record so that he could “show people where he came from.”
Those who knew Dara as a trumpet and cornet player on records by James “Blood” Ulmer and David Murray or from a stint as one of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers were in for a shock. On his solo work, Dara focused on where he really comes from.
Born in Mississippi, close enough to the Delta to be influenced by the blues, but closer still to New Orleans, he traveled the world as a musician with the U.S. Navy, including a spell in West Africa, before settling in Harlem, New York, where he still lives.
Throughout his years of playing jazz, Dara had been honing his down-home guitar style and improvisational storytelling with his own semiregular band, performing sporadically without ever considering recording. Eventually his son and Atlantic Records coerced him into the studio. He found himself with a wealth of material to draw from.
Olu Dara’s band is up to the challenge of realizing his vision. Guitarist Kwatei Jones-Quartey is from Ghana, percussionist Coster Massamba from the Congo, while the bassist, drummer and saxophonist are all American, but from a variety of backgrounds.
“Neighborhoods” starts off with the Afro-groove of “Massamba,” a slightly tongue-in-cheek tribute to the conga player. This is followed by the title track, a perfect chance for Dara to spin his distinctive yarn on the various neighborhoods he’s lived in, and music he’s inhabited, from jazz cornet to funky guitar, with guest Dr. John on electric piano strengthening the New Orleans connection.
Olu Dara had played on Cassandra Wilson’s classic “Blue Light ‘Til Dawn” album, and on “Neighborhoods” she returns the compliment in the duet “Used to Be.” Further occasional piano and organ is provided by Tokyo-based former New York resident Rod Williams.
In concert, Olu Dara is a relaxed, spontaneous performer and utterly engrossing.
Olu Dara plays at the Blue Note Tokyo at 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m., from July 30 to Aug. 3. Admission costs 7,000 yen. For reservations, call the venue at (03) 5485-0088 or Ticket Pia at (03) 5237-9999.
Olu Dara is my pick of this year’s Roots Music Festival at the Tokyo Blue Note, which also features as its main acts the New Orleans Mardi Gras Indian music of Wild Magnolias (July 16-21), the Cuban jazz of pianist Chucho Valdes (July 23-28), the real R&B of legendary guitarist Bo Diddley (Aug. 4-9), and a tribute to Bob Marley by Maxi Priest and Big Mountain (Aug. 8-13).
Nitin Sawhney promises to give the Blue Note Tokyo a club atmosphere for two nights. Don’t say “Asian Underground,” a worn-out phrase these days; Sawhney just happens to be British and of Asian origin, as he emphasized in the title of his album “Beyond Skin.” He also rejects terms such as “fusion,” believing it simply natural for him to be playing jazz, drum ‘n’ bass, hip-hop, soul, Indian music, flamenco and whatever else he grew up with or has come to like.
Learning piano and then taking up guitar, Sawhney played Latin music with the Jazztones before joining the acid-jazz group the James Taylor Quartet. He later teamed up with Talvin Singh on the Tihai Trio. The two have long gone their separate ways, and Sawhney has, in media terms, been somewhat in the shadow of the greater publicity skills of Singh.
Nevertheless, his music has progressed steadily from the British Arts Council-funded first solo album, “Spirit Dance,” 10 years ago, to his latest globe-trotting work, “Prophecy.” Bollywood orchestras, rap-metal and Zulu chants are just some of the new influences integrated skillfully by Sawhney into a cohesive whole.
Sawhney brings with him to Tokyo a full band that includes the singer Jayanta Bose and high-energy rapper JC 001.
Nitin Sawhney plays at the Blue Note Tokyo at 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m., on Aug. 10 and 11. Admission costs 6,000 yen.
Finally, I have recently compiled a CD, “Rough Guide to the Music of Okinawa,” released July 11 in Japan. This CD features Okinawan musicians who have grown up with different musical styles, as well as their own. It also has Japanese and foreign takes on Japan’s most vibrant roots music, including some of the best-known traditional performers. I hope it will provide a chance to sample some of the musicians I’ve written about in this column over the years.