A singular voice that taps all the cultures from which it is born.
Kevin Le Gendre 2009
One can make an obvious point of comparison between Michael Olatuja and Richard Bona insofar as both are virtuoso jazz bassists whose hybridised work draws extensively on West African music: the former Yoruba praise songs, the latter Cameroonian folk.
There is, however, another way to view this debut from the young Briton of Nigerian parentage, who won his stripes on the demanding London and New York improv scenes. This is also a full-on soul album in the best tradition of Wonder, Gaye and Hathaway primarily because of its melodic beauty and the gilt-edged performance of a bevy of aristocrat vocalists, chief among them the late, lamented Lynden David Hall, whose hushed, enticingly fragile tones flicker to perfection against the sultry glow of sustained electric piano chords that are a defining element of the rhythm section.
Beneath the vocals and keys rustles a lush undergrowth of percussive pitches, sharp rim-shots, clicking wood blocks and rippling congas that wrap the music in much polyrhythmic detail, all of which thickens the weighty backbeat that is de rigueur for most of the set. However, there are several tracks on which Olatuja switches from electric to double bass and reveals an aptitude for flighty swing, no more so than on the swish 3/4 pulse of the gospel-flavoured Walk With Me. Mama Ola is also a noble instrumental embellished by Jean Toussaint’s wistful soprano sax and Jason Rebello’s crystalline piano that showcases Olatuja as a composer with understated classical leanings.
Given the regrettable distance between soul, jazz and world audiences, the plurality of this album may prove difficult for some. But this is not so much eclecticism by way of magpie-stitching genres as the expression of a singular creative voice that taps all the cultures from which it is born. To call Speak ‘Afro-soul jazz’ would be too glib, but to say that Olatuja has a firm handle on the music of the ‘motherland’ and its diaspora and a desire to bring them into organic conversation may be more accurate, if less easy to squeeze into an iTunes directory.