Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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Michael Olatuja: Ace of Bass


Boasting musical influences and guests from three continents, ‘Speak’ - the debut LP from British/Nigerian bassist Michael Olatuja - finds the now-New York-based 28-year-old stepping out of his role as sideman and finally presenting to the world his personal vision as producer and composer.

Having picked up a bass guitar for the first time at age 11, by 16 Olatuja had turned professional. Since which time (his talents having been nurtured along the way through schooling at both the UK’s Middlesex University and America’s Manhattan School Of Music) his creative musicianship has enlivened the performances of such iconic figures as Terence Blanchard, Lisa Stansfield, Stevie Wonder and Chaka Khan.

With recording sessions for ‘Speak’ having begun back in 2003 - when Michael was still living in London - the album boasts guest vocals from such UK soul stalwarts as Terri Walker, Andrew Roachford, Eska Mtungwazi and the since-sadly-deceased Lynden David Hall; alongside the instrumental British jazz talents of keyboardist Jason Rebello and saxophonist Jean Toussaint. Meanwhile, Olatuja’s later move to New York in 2004 in turn accounts for the more recent American input of both Hathaway/Wonder-influenced soul-man Onaje Jefferson plus Michael’s wife Alicia Olatuja.

Meanwhile, with the album’s lyrics representing underlying themes of hope, encouragement and positivity, its musical influences reflect Olatuja’s British/Nigerian roots. As traditional African hallmarks like the talking drum, call-and-response-vocals and the Yoruba language merge seamlessly with styles more familiar to Western ears like neo-soul ballads, modern jazz, groove-driven R&B, and gospel.

All of which makes for interesting conversation, as a warm-mannered Mr. Olatuja speaks to Pete Lewis from his now-New York home.

PETE: What was the thinking behind naming your debut LP ‘Speak’?

MICHAEL: “Well, to me music is a universal language that can really touch people’s hearts in a way many other forms of communication CAN’T. And basically the whole concept behind this album is to encourage and uplift the hearts of the people who listen to it. So, to be honest, when the title ‘Speak’ was suggested, it resonated with ALL of us! Because, as I say, the music on the record does speak to people’s HEARTS! It speaks a message of hope and encouragement; that tomorrow’s a brand new day, and the best things are yet to come.”

PETE: How did you first come to put together the album?

MICHAEL: “For many years I had the privilege of playing with many wonderful people in the UK like Lisa Stansfield, Lynden David Hall, The Lighthouse Family... But then around 2003, when I was still living in London, there came a time when I started wanting to write and compose - and just generally bring something out of MYSELF. So I literally just wrote a bunch of songs, asked my friends to come and guest and perform on them - and they graciously said ‘yes’. So that’s really how I made that transition from just doing sessions and playing live to actually shaping music and arranging music for MYSELF. Which is why the album doesn’t only feature me as bass-player, but also as a producer and songwriter.”

PETE: So why has ‘Speak’ taken six years to come to fruition?

MICHAEL: “Like I said, I started recording it in London in 2003. But then, if I’m honest, at the same time I also had the desire to go to New York to study and learn. And it actually got to the point where, if I’d put any more resources and time into the album, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to study at The Manhattan School Of Music like I wanted. So, in a way, I had to really just kinda stop recording and put the album on hold for a while. And what happened was, I came here to New York, went to The Manhattan School Of Music, got my degree, met my lovely wife (who features on two songs on the album)… And then, just as I was finishing my degree, we started recording some bonus tracks, and basically just kinda finished up the album. At which point I was fortunate enough to come into contact with Oblique Sound - the parent company of Backdrop - who loved the album, loved my vision, and became very excited about RELEASING it... So, in a nutshell, that’s why it’s taken six years!”

PETE: How did the blend of African and Western music styles come about so cohesively on the album?

MICHAEL: “I grew up in both Nigeria and London. And, as a kid growing up in the African Church in Lagos, I learnt not only Christian hymns, but also a lot about Nigerian percussion and Nigerian rhythms. Then, after moving to London, I spent a lotta time playing on the nu soul scene with people like Terri Walker and Lynden David Hall, as well as with great jazz musicians like Julian Joseph and Jean Toussaint. So, when it came time to create and write, it was hard for me to say ‘Oh, this is just gonna be a jazz album’ or ‘This is gonna be an African album’... Instead I kinda just WROTE - and it was almost like all the things I’d learnt from the different countries I’d been to, or lived in, just suddenly came out in a musical format! Which is why, on my record, you have the influences of Nigerian hi-life, of soul artists like Stevie Wonder, of straight-ahead jazz like Branford Marsalis... You know, you have all these different musical styles. But then the unifying thing is the THEME of album, which is one of hope and encouragement.”

PETE: How do you recall working with the since-sadly-deceased UK nu soul pioneer Lynden David Hall, who features on two tracks on ‘Speak’?

MICHAEL: “Lynden David Hall was a special, dear friend, and he’ll ALWAYS be special to me - because he was the very first artist I actually worked for in the UK. I was actually still in school at Middlesex University - doing jazz studies - when I had the privilege of getting the call. And so I played with him on and off for several years, both recording-wise and live in his band. I mean, for someone like me - who was just beginning on the UK music scene - he was just SO encouraging, and we became really good friends. So, when it came to recording my own album, he was one of the first people I thought of. And, with him being very versatile, I asked him to guest on the ‘Ma Foya’ track. He immediately said ‘yes’, and - when he came to the studio and we played the music to him - he just got it straightaway! You know, he was just so musical and so knowledgeable that it didn’t matter WHAT style you put in front of him!... So he just did his thing over it, everything gelled perfectly… And I do actually feel privileged to have captured him on Nigerian music and basically, in my opinion, documented a little piece of history right there on that track.”

Michael performs at Jazz Café, London on December 8

The album ‘Speak’ is out now through Backdrop

From Jazz Funk & Fusion To Acid Jazz

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