Michael Olatuja (featuring Alicia Alatuja): Walk With Me

What a coincidence: this afternoon I had relocated my laptop to the three-season porch to take advantage of the quickly fading autumn sunshine. The first CD I popped into the stereo was Mahalia Jackson's Gospels, Spirituals & Hymns. Wow, what a voice. Though I did not grow up in this tradition (and I don't think my attending the Polish mass just to hear the pipe organ counts), I've spent enough time listening to various roots musics to know when something is “the real thing.”

Later in the evening, I pull the top entry off my review pile: bassist Michael Olatuja. Amazing. His modern take on the old gospel classic “Walk With Me,” featuring his wife Alicia Olatuja on vocals, has some common ground with Jackson – the subtle incorporation of many musical elements. Where Jackson brought in blues and jazz, Olatuja has funk, soul, and jazz: all in service to the tune. The more modern parts of the composition feature Olatuja's groove-laced bass work as well as Alicia's soulful vocals. But just when you think all is contemporary, the band drops into a nice & swingin' vamp that would not be out of place on a Vince Guaraldi record. Great stuff.

Something tells me I've got to try to work on that porch again tomorrow.

September 16, 2009 · 0 comments


Mahalia Jackson: The Lord's Prayer

According to British scholar Martin Halliwell's American Culture in the 1950s, most reports identified gospel singer Mahalia Jackson as the star of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. In particular, Professor Halliwell cites "The Lord's Prayer," with which she closes Jazz on a Summer's Day (1960), Bert Stern's documentary of the '58 NJF. "Jackson's contralto voice and religious devotion," Halliwell contends, "is a powerful spiritual counterpoint to the secular coolness of the Festival's jazz rhythms."

Miss Jackson, who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame the same year as The Jackson Five (perhaps voters thought she was related?), seems to have been all things to all people. It's a stretch, however, to contrast her indisputably powerful spiritual force with "the secular coolness" of Newport '58. The NJF's marquee that year boasted such certifiably hot performers as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Big Joe Turner, Sonny Rollins, Sonny Stitt, Horace Silver, Max Roach, Dinah Washington, Ray Charles, and Maynard Ferguson (whom few would mistake for Chet Baker). Even such cool pioneers as George Shearing and Gerry Mulligan appear in the film serving hot fare—Shearing's Latin-jazz "George in Brazil" and Mulligan's frenetic "As Catch Can." Another '50s cool figure, drummer Chico Hamilton, is represented by "Blue Sands," an exotic drum feature more ethereal than secular. Among the dozen headliners in Jazz on a Summer's Day, only the Jimmy Giuffre 3 can legitimately be characterized as embodying "secular coolness."

In any case, Mahalia Jackson didn't so much contrast with preceding acts in Jazz on a Summer's Day as culminate a head-spinning hodgepodge running the gamut from Louis Armstrong's "When the Saints Go Marching In" and collegiate Dixieland from Eli's Chosen Six (which included future avant-gardist Roswell Rudd playing tailgate trombone) to Chuck Berry's "Sweet Little Sixteen" and Thelonious Monk's "Blue Monk." On the heels of this incoherent mishmash, a soothing gospel song was as welcome as the calm after a storm.

Yet without impugning Miss Jackson's devoutness, there remains a tinge of Show Business in all this, as if Jazz on a Summer's Day had been stage-managed by CBS-TV's reigning ringmaster of masscult entertainment, Ed Sullivan. Ending a jazz film with The Gospel According to Mahalia was equivalent to following an Alaskan dancing bear, a Catskills comic and a troupe of Chinese acrobats with an aria from some hefty coloratura soprano on loan from the Metropolitan Opera. This, we suspect, was NJF impresario George Wein's calculated showman's piety capping the secular crassness of a Really Big Shew.

April 13, 2008 · 0 comments


Kirk Whalum: In All the Earth

Gospel music was as intrinsic to saxophonist Kirk Whalum’s musical development and musical identity as was jazz, and he deftly blended both on his 1994 album The Gospel According To Jazz. It was a live recording featuring a gospel choir and a stellar band that included keyboardist George Duke and guitarist Paul Jackson, Jr. “In All The Earth” is a rousing outing led by the choir, Whalum’s saxophone providing energetic accompaniment, and the entire ensemble combining to create a joyous proclamation of faith.

October 29, 2007 · 0 comments


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