The years Olu Dara has spent performing and writing music for the theater see a payoff in the story-telling nature of his songwriting and his willingness to playfully interact with the audience, even wandering through the house while playing his cornet. He writes and performs undistilled good-time music, taking ideas from Southern barn dances, Caribbean streets and Delta juke joints; wisely he avoids being a fusionist and instead adds a distinctly American layer of jazz artisty to a bevy of intoxicating melodies and rhythms.
Dara, 57 and touring to support his recording debut as a bandleader, “In the World: From Natchez to New York”(Atlantic), and his backing quartet perform with a carefree spirit that goes hand-in-hand with the music: Kwatei Jones-Quartey laying down the hypnotic guitar lines associated with Zaire, the percussion duo leaning toward a South American bent and the basslines suitable for a ’70s blaxploitation soundtrack like “Superfly.” One can’t help but smile. Or dance.
Playing cornet, guitar and harmonica as well as singing, Dara possess a rather sparse performance style. As a guitarist he doesn’t stray far from contempo Mississippi Delta, a combination of finger picking and the assertive rhythmic pull learned from the musicians who made their way to Chicago. His harmonica is as urbanized as his cornet playing, the results, one would gather, of making his name in New York after leaving his hometown of Natchez, Miss., when he was 18.
Throughout the evening his solos were concise, leaving the wayward excursions for his vocals which, in a repetitive state, created a earthy sensuality not unlike a tango.
While Dara would hardy be the first musician to realize the need to have fun while performing, the levity he brings to the stage is unparalleled in the jazz world and that attitude is apparent to every member of his audience.
Dara’s current tour takes him to a litany of non-jazz houses, among them New York’s Irving Plaza on July 10 and City Hall Plaza in East Orange, N.J., on July 21.
His music is a far cry from his work with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, his heady improv days in the ’70s loft scene or even his compositions for “Miss Evers’ Boys” at the Mark Taper Forum.
Yet he deserves rewards for being a distinct and unique voice in jazz, one who has taken the roots of jazz and explored them without assimilation, a sea change from the growing historical sea of indebtedness that floods the jazz world.