LIVE REVIEW – Michael Olatuja album launch @ Jazz Café, London


There are lovers of music and there are lovers of music. There are those who harbour a healthy interest and others who embody music as an entity, oozing its essence from every pore. I suspect Michael Olatuja belongs to the latter group. One only has to observe the way he is completely at one with his bass guitar and the rapturous expression on his face as he plays. This was my conclusion after attending Michael’s album launch gig at the Jazz Café last night. Supported by Brendan Guyatt, Anna Omak and Alicia his wife on vocals, as well as young veteran Troy Miller on drums, David and Oliver Rockberger on guitar and piano respectively, Olatuja came prepared to bring the goods.

Michael’s excellent debut album Speak has many a guest appearance from celebrated artists such as Andrew Roachford and Eska Mtungwazi. It was therefore going to be a difficult feat for them all to be available for this one-off show. Nevertheless Olatuja and his band managed to improvise well in their absence with Alicia standing in for most of the missing vocalists. This more or less worked throughout the night but songs such as “Ma Foya” and “Hold On” (when she was filling in for the late Lynden David Hall) are suited better for a male vocal and perhaps Brendan should have taken over at that point. Any such shortcomings were more than compensated by the fantastic instrumentation. “Hold On” – one of my favourites from the album- was a case in point. The musicians did a stellar job recreating the ridiculously infectious groove with Miller’s turn on the drums being especially inspired.

UK soulstress Terri Walker made a very welcome guest appearance on “Little Sister”. Although she was only on stage for the one song she maximised the moment, ad-libbing with sweet abandon and interloping into the track elements from “Miss Celie’s Blues” as sung by Tata Vega in The Colour Purple movie. Whilst on the studio version of “Little Sister” I don’t believe we get a proper feel for what Miss Walker’s voice can do, at the live show she did not hold back and reminded us of why she’s still one of the best female vocalists the UK has produced in the last 15 years.

Other stand-out performances from the night included “Walk with Me” which followed the album’s stripped down arrangement of bass, snare drum and keys keeping the focus on Alicia’s vocal aesthetics. In turn she gave her best, most nuanced performance of the night – perhaps with the exception of “Unconditional”.

The title track ‘Speak’ featuring facetious lyricist Ty, was the gig’s indisputable party tune. The rapper himself admitted that he found it hard to flow whilst resisting the urge to boogie to the bass line.

Eska’s absence was felt on “Altar Call” as her distinctive vocals help to define the song. Alicia did a decent enough rendition although it would have been done more justice by the raspier tones of backing vocalist Anna Omak, who didn’t get enough of a chance to shine. This was my one main reservation about the gig as a whole; nepotism played too prominent a role when it came to lead vocals and it would have been good if the solos were more evenly distributed. That said “Altar Call” was still one of the most enjoyable aspects of an already consistently strong set. I put this down to the true stars of the gig – the musicians.

It is no surprise that an artiste of Olatuja’s calibre and song-writing ability should attract the best instrumentalists around. Still, there’s something to be said for the supreme level of musicianship on display last night. There were no weak links or anyone’s ego threatening to damage the sonic cohesion. Pianist, Oli Rockberger kept us entertained with his charismatic style of playing and facial contortions as he was overcome by the groove.

As for Olatuja himself, apart from being an accomplished bassist his diffident, humble manner make him a thoroughly likeable and accessible band leader.

There was a respectable turn out for a mid-week gig but the venue wasn’t full to the rafters. Nevertheless word is sure to spread after last night’s impressive show and hopefully London will be seeing a lot more of Olatuja and his band in the future.

Review by Tolita

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