ALBUM REVIEW: ‘Speak’ by MICHAEL OLATUJA featuring Various Artists.

Michael Olatuja - Speak

I find it increasingly difficult to be impressed by new music these days. Even once fail-safe, automatically credible sub-genres such as Neo-Soul aren’t immune. They too seem to have been blighted by the same malaise of boredom that has been the bane of the mainstream for a good while. There are too many artists out there, in my humble opinion, ticking all the boxes, singing the right riffs, doing paint-by-numbers arrangements yet still producing something quite soulless and uninspired. I can only shrug with indifference at all the gadgets, gizmos and gimmick that artists employ to try and disguise unsuccessfully, just another set of derivative songs. That’s why the infrequent occasions that an artist romances my palate from the first listen, are all the more satisfying these days.

Cue entry, the irresistible groove of Speak: the first album by New York based, British Nigerian producer Michael Olatuja. I was but two songs into this splendid debut before I was engulfed by a Proustian rush of memory calling to mind the beloved Jazz-infused soul albums that formed some of the soundtrack to my childhood. Olatuja is not busy trying to re-invent the wheel; he’s simply helping to re-establish the tradition of quality song-writing, exquisitely arranged and sung by those who know their Randy Crawford from their Patti Austen.

He blends together his many musical influences such as Jazz, West African hi-life, Hip-Hop, blues and funk all the while keeping good-old soul music as the common denominator. Sung in both Yoruba and English, Speak’s inspirational/Gospel themed lyrics are further proof that Olatuja comes to the scene as a breath of fresh air. At only 28, he has already worked behind the scenes with some of the best of the best from the world of pop, soul and jazz such as Austen, Gretchen Parlato, Lisa Stansfield, Stevie Wonder and Chaka Khan. Speak, however, is unequivocally Olatuja’s time to shine.

michael_olatuja (street)

It’s all the way live for this debut with little to no programming in earshot-just great musicianship. As if this record couldn’t get anymore delicious it features some of the crème de la crème of UK soul talent old and new; veteran Andrew Roachford, the severely underrated Terri Walker, versatile songstress Eska Mtungwazi and the late great Lynden David Hall.

It is as comforting as it is poignant to hear Mr Hall’s voice beyond the grave on the Afrobeat-laced “Ma Foya” and one of the album’s many highlights “Hold On” (the latter also featuring Roachford in top form). Hall is sorely missed by many on both a personal and artistic level but musical contributions like these reassure us that although he might be gone, he is not forgotten.

Olatuja is a bass player and a George Benson fan (like any self-respecting lover of jazzy-soul). The influence of GB is heard loud and clear on “Unconditional” as Olatuja riffs along with the melody line of his guitar. That track as well as old spiritual “Walk With Me” features the very pretty, clear-as-a- bell vocals of his missus, Alice. The song “Altar Call” manages the tough task of being one of the stand-out tunes on a consistently solid album, not least because of the song being split into two phases, without forgetting the incontrovertible talents of Eska, whose vocals – at least as far as this track is concerned – are a happy hybrid between Angie Stone and Missy Elliot at her most soulful.

The lovely “Le Jardin” featuring Onaje Jefferson represents well as the only romantic love song on the album. Sounding as if it was written with Wonder/Hathaway heir-apparent Frank McComb in mind, Jefferson’s smooth, finely decorated vocals prove he’s more than capable of doing the song justice. The title track features the jauntily sardonic delivery of British rapper TY complementing the eerie, playground chant effect of the chorus. Speak shows that Olatuja has his eyes and ears on the dance floor as well as the vocal lounge.

Terri Walker gives an understated performance on “Little Sister”, yet another album highlight. Some of Walker’s vocal acrobatics come out to play as she shows off her natural ability for scatting. I am not sure if “Little Sister” best showcases her voice to the fullest and it would have been good to hear some more of those power vocals she has shown she can so well before. Still, maybe it was decided on this occasion that belting would have been overkill.

The album comes to a triumphant end with the instrumental “Mama Ola” featuring guest appearances by jazz pianist Jason Rebello and saxophonist Jean Toussaint.

Only having been released very recently, Speak might be a late entry as one of the best albums to come out this year but it is surely in the running. A DJ friend of mine took one listen and instantly became as enthused about it as I am. None other than Jools Holland remarked, “Speak sounds fantastic… I’m only sad I wasn’t playing on it.” You don’t get a much better accolade than that.

Michael plays the Jazz Café on Tuesday 8 December. Please click on the link for more information and booking details.

Review by Tolita

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