Lagos Pepper Soup
Release Date: June 12, 2020
Label: Whirlwind Recordings
On his third release as a bandleader, bassist and composer Michael Olatuja presents his spectacular blend of West African Afrobeats and jazz, with the support of a string orchestra - arranged by iconic film score orchestrator Dave Metzger - alongside an international all-star cast which features Angelique Kidjo, Dianne Reeves, Brandee Younger, Lionel Loueke, Regina Carter, Joe Lovano, Laura Mvula, Gregoire Maret and Becca Stevens.
Almost five years in the making, Lagos Pepper Soup - named after a zesty, West African meal, with lyrics mostly in Yoruba and English, and recorded between London and New York - is Michael Olatuja’s most comprehensive and compelling album to date. While the bassist’s first two albums - Speak (2009) and The Promise (2011) - displayed his skills as more of a composer and producer than an instrumentalist, this twelve-track collection showcases his ebullient and bone-deep bass tones - a combination of Abraham Laboriel’s percussive approach, John Patitucci’s acoustic and electric fluency, and Richard Bona’s Cameroonian-derived inventions are in the foreground. On Lagos Pepper Soup, the London-born, Lagos, Nigeria-raised, New York-based electric and acoustic bassist is supported by an impressive, international and accomplished core band consisting of keyboardists Aaron Parks and Etienne Stadwijk (a native of Suriname), saxophonist/vocalist Camille Thurman, drummer Terreon Gully and Senegalese percussionist Magatte Sow - praised for his work on the Black Panther soundtrack.
“The themes [on this new record] are hope, inspiration, and new beginnings,” Olatuja says. “This recording started at a very tough time in my life, and it’s cathartic and healing. I had to separate myself into two people: my older self, and my younger self, as if the older me were speaking to the younger me, encouraging me, and thus, encouraging whoever’s listening. That was the motivation for how this album happened. Most of my recordings are like that: Whatever season or journey I’m going through in my life, the music speaks to myself [and] others.”
The special guests on this recording have either employed Olatuja as a sideman, or became friends with him on the scene. “Lionel and Angelique are like my big brother and sister,” Olatuja says. “I toured with him, and we just hit it off. His mum speaks Yoruba. I met Angelique two years ago, and have toured with her since. She’s always been one of my heroes. She’s Mama Africa: She’s the queen! Dianne Reeves has been an inspiration and supporter for years. She’s been my hero since my teenage years. I was doing a show with Brandee Younger in DC at the Kennedy Center and on the way back, she jokingly said ‘oh, I see you finished your album, but you didn’t ask me to play a song [laughs]. So I asked her to do it, and she said yes. And I know Joe Lovano loves African music, because I’m in one of his bands called The Village Rhythms.”
Lagos Pepper Soup, contains an assortment of sonically sumptuous African rhythms with jazz improvisation, albeit in a different sonic setting. “On Speak, which I recorded in London, I was mixing Afrobeats with jazz and gospel, and I took that experiment further on the second album, The Promise,” Olatuja says. “Now, what makes this album, Lagos Pepper Soup different, is that I was thinking of it as cinematic Afrobeat! When I worked on this album, I was playing in the orchestra of the Broadway musical, Frozen, which is arranged by Dave Metzger. While touring with trumpeter Chris Botti, we’d have large orchestras behind us, so those orchestral sounds - the kind you hear in Hollywood movies - started to get into my head. So for this album, the question was: how can I fuse this mix of Afrobeat and jazz as if it was a Hollywood film soundtrack?”
You can hear the answer to Olatuja’s question on the album’s orchestrated tracks, mostly arranged by Metzger, and conducted by Joseph Joubert. “The Hero’s Journey,” which Olatuja proclaims is the most “cinematic” track, is a sublimely syncopated selection in 6/4 time, enhanced by Metzger’s arrangement, with violinist Regina Carter’s vivid solo, dedicated to Olatuja’s late mother, Comfort Bola. “Soki,” arranged by Jason Michael Webb, is propelled by a popular Nigerian rhythm genre in 6/8 entitled woro. “A lot of African countries have their own version of it,” Olatuja says. “And what I love about “Soki” is that it [also] features woro styles from Mali, Cameroon, and Senegal. It’s more like a Pan-African 6/8.” Joubert’s arrangement of “Brighter Day,” co-written by Olatuja and Kate Kelsey-Sugg, showcases vocalist Laura Mvula’s stately vocals, while the heartwarming tribute to Olatuja’s mother, “Bola’s Song,” is laced with Gregoire Maret’s luscious harmonica.
The remaining tracks feature small ensembles. The opening opus, “Even Now Prayer,” sounds like a collaboration between Jaco Pastorius and Fela Kuti. The title track is another shout-out to the leader’s mother, featuring the Beninese dynamic duo of Kidjo and Loueke, propelled by an anthemic Afrobeat Tony Allen would approve of, while Loueke’s “Mivakpola,” originally released on his 2005 album, In a Trance is recast with an infectious drum-n-bass arrangement, reminiscent of Weather Report. “Ma Foya'' was originally recorded on Speak, and is rendered here, in a hi-life beat with Brandee Younger’s evocative and ethereal harpistry. Vocalist Onaje Jefferson, who was also featured on Speak, returns for an impassioned performance on “Shadows Fade” (co-written by Jefferson and Olatuja). Joe Lovano’s towering tenor saxophone reigns supreme on “Leye’s Dance,” which is pulsed by a Nigerian musical genre called Fuji. Becca Steven’s pithy vocals navigate the complex rhythmic waters on “Home True,” composed by U.K. pianist Robert Mitchell. “I heard this song when I played in his trio when I was a teenager,” Olatuja says, “and I said to myself if I ever have the opportunity to record it, I would have him on the [track]. It’s got odd meters: some of it is in 11/4, some of it is in 17/4. There’s a lot happening, rhythmically.”
The album’s final track, the plaintive postlude, “Grace,” concludes this momentous recording of depth and complexity. “Thinking as a producer, I wanted different textures,” Olatuja says. “That’s why I had “Ma Foya” stripped down, with me and Brandee Younger on harp, and then another [track] would feature an orchestra. 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. The word grace means unlimited favor. And I feel that there’s been a lot of favor 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.”
Indeed, Lagos Pepper Soup captures something bigger than an all-star group, led by a twenty-first century virtuoso who the BBC proclaimed, “had a firm handle on the music of the ‘motherland’ and diaspora.” It unveils the extraordinary musical life of Michael Olatuja - from his early days playing percussion in his Lagos Yoruba Christian church and his life with his pioneering mother, to his first lessons on bass as a teenager, and his music studies in the U.K at Sussex University, as well as at The Manhattan School of Music, to his work as a sideman and leader. This recording aurally illustrates the places and spaces Michael Olatuja has been, and it forecasts the shape of his Afrocentric jazz to come.
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BOSTON CONCERT REVIEWS
"The musical landscape that Olatuja and his companions inhabit on Lagos Pepper Soup is a joy to discover." Reads this review here.
"This project is truly a sonic experience of epic proportions." Check out the Heavy Rotation piece here.
"There's something very orchestral in how motifs are introduced, and swirl through the vocal, string and guitar lines, and finally all come together in a majestic and satisfying way. In Olatuja's hands, cinematic Afrobeat is a must-watch." Watch video premier here.
THE PASADENA WEEKLY
"A liberating sense of traveling infuses standout tracks “The Hero’s Journey,” the Mvula-sung groover “Brighter Day,” and the aptly titled closer, “Grace." Read the full review here.
KEVIN LE GENDRE
"A thorough command of hard-hitting afrobeat, jazz and funk enables Olatuja to make appealing music that draws a coherent line from the rhythmically and metrically complex to ballads with a soulful or folkish beauty." Read the full feature here.
This week’s playlist potpourri features mostly new plus a sprinkling of vintage tracks from around the world. Read the full playlist here.
"The entire project comes off like an intricate sequence of events celebrating life, love, joy and hope – it’s the type of vision that forever emphasises the importance of a fully-realised album." Read the full 5/5 review here.
BBC MUSIC MAGAZINE
"Lagos Pepper Soup [is] a bubbling Afro-jazz concoction that encompasses cinematic strings arrangement, as well as small group simplicity... an ambitious project." Four star review in the July issue.
ALL ABOUT JAZZ
"Lagos Pepper Soup is a rich meal to take time over, if only because each serving is a full-packed mini-buffet in itself." Read the full review here.
"Lagos Pepper Soup is an ambitious work of African diasporic jazz. Olatuja’s bass playing throughout the album is vibrant and endlessly creative." Read the full feature here.
"Even with the thick cast of stars, Olatuja’s bass playing shines throughout. His style is described as “a combination of Abraham Laboriel’s percussive approach, John Patitucci’s acoustic and electric fluency, and Richard Bona’s Cameroonian-derived inventions.” Check out the mesmerizing video for the album’s title track, which also has some Marcus Miller influence peppered in: Read the full article here.
"The track is as powerful a tribute to his mother as it is a demonstration of his creativity and knack for collaboration. Olatuja's mentor, Angélique Kidjo, whom he calls both "the queen and legend" and "like my big sister", takes on lead vocals, as strong a powerhouse as ever as she sings and grooves side by side with Olatuja." Read the full premiere here.
Five years in the making, the project is a tale of three cities — from London to Lagos to New York — with Olatuja blending the sounds of all three. With Afrobeat and jazz set against a tapestry of orchestral arrangements by Broadway ace Joseph Joubert, Tony Award-winner Jason Michael Webb, and Disney film orchestrator David Metzger, Lagos Pepper Soup could easily be used as a soundtrack. Read the full feature here.
"Lagos Pepper Soup contains many brilliant musical renderings performed by a great supporting cast of internationally renowned artists. But ultimately, it serves as the soundtrack to the musical journey of Michael Olatuja." Read the full review here.
"When Grammy time comes around surely Olatuja deserves consideration particularly for the quality of arranging and composition. This sort of record does not come along every year." Read the full review here.
BBC MUSIC MAGAZINE
★★★★☆ "...a bubbling Afro-jazz concoction that emcompasses cinematic string arrangements as well as small group simplicity." Read the full review here.
"Across many cultures, soup – whether chicken noodle, miso soba, or pepper- has been used to help recover from illness, Unfortunately, a meal itself is unlikely to cure the coronavirus pandemic ravaging the globe. However, at a time in which people’s stress levels, fear, and distrust are at their peak, it can assuage divisions and provide peace. Chef James Beard once noted that “food is the common denominator that brings people together.” In inviting listeners to the table, on Lagos Pepper Soup, Michael Olatuja emphasizes that music is as well." Read the full review here.
"Most of my recordings are like that: Whatever season or journey I’m going through in my life, the music speaks to myself [and] others.” Read the full review here.
"Certainly a treat for the armchair traveler, anyone with happy feet will know what's going on here. Hot stuff. Read the full review here.
“The Hero’s Journey” is an anthemic piece that features violinist Regina Carter, against a full string orchestration by Dave Metzger. The video above captures footage from the studio session, with a catch: it cuts off just after Carter begins her solo, which is certainly worth hearing in full. Consider it an appetizer, until Lagos Pepper Soup is served (by Whirlwind Recordings) on June 12;" Watch the video here.
S. VICTOR AARON
"The music of Olatuja is the music of celebration, hope and joy, brought out with craftsmanship and drawing from some of the best music heritage of three continents. After a long layover from a lead role, he makes Lagos Pepper Soup well worth the wait." Read the full review here.