Decades removed from his youth in Natchez, Miss., and school days of learning trumpet solos from Duke Ellington records, Olu Dara nevertheless looked for some kinship late in his convincingly strong evening of pork-fried jazz wrapped around Delta blues and easygoing funk. He found the folks who could identify Bubber Miley — the Duke’s trumpet man in the Jungle Band of the 1920s and ’30s — and those who had traveled the streets of his hometown, and to them he offered thanks, suggesting they shared in his personal journey to this night.
In two easy steps, Dara, the 60-year-old cornetist and guitarist whose solo career started less than five years ago, drew a protrait of his music’s origins, demystifying music that has been self-sufficient and underground for scores of years. Few performers share common ground with John Hurt, Curtis Mayfield, the avant-garde jazz scene of 1970s New York and the forementioned Miley, but then again, Dara has been letting us in on his vision for only two albums.
What he proffers has a timelessness with context; everything he plays feels familiar, with roots linked to a distinct time and place, whether it be the Mississippi Delta in 1934 or Times Square circa 1971. It’s jazz and then it isn’t; there’s always a sense of Africa, and from the blues perspective, he indicates that he enoyed free-form rock radio in the 1970s. It’s some of the most enjoyable undefinable music going.
Material from the new disc, “Neighborhoods” (Atlantic), filled the bulk of the nearly two-hour show, and as he comfortably switched between instruments –only acoustic guitar this time as opposed to the electric he brought out during round one in 1998 — his deportment was consistently suave and his vocals so gently soulful. His songs celebrate his blackness; the Brooklyn-based “Neighborhoods,” the oppression-themed “Red Ant (Nature)” and the fun-loving “Your Lips” not only cement his individuality, they help attract a black audience to a musical style that proudly embraces its ethnicity and steps down to no one.
Dara used the band that recorded “Neighborhoods,” their sound marvelously precise without feeling constrained. Coster Massamba’s work on congas and other African percussion instruments surround Dara with soul-jazz ornamentation that’s as intoxicating as it is rooted.