Restless

Boston Globe, January 28, 2005

To a younger generation of music fans, the rootsy multi- instrumentalist Olu Dara is better known for his progeny than for his output. The father of acclaimed rapper Nas, he has appeared several times on his son’s records, most recently on “Bridging the Gap,” an enthusiastic genre-crossing duet that vaulted up the charts last November.

But an older generation remembers Dara as something else altogether: a stalwart sideman who wielded his trumpet on the avant- garde jazz scene in New York in the late 1970s. Between the two phases, Dara went almost underground, waiting until 1998 to record his first album as a bandleader. In the process, he’s concocted a slow-cooked musical stew that matches his personality willful, whimsical, and encompassing in almost an offhand way all the main strands of the black musical experience.

Dara, who brings his five-member band to the Regattabar for two nights this weekend, exudes charisma and a sly wisdom. A lean man to whom the years have been kind, his look is benevolent and ardent at once. He switches unpredictably from trumpet to cornet to guitar and sings in a husky voice that recalls a countrified Gil Scott-Heron. He is known to stroll into the audience as he plays, demand that people dance, and flirt with the ladies.

Ever restless, Dara has little use for music industry categories and conventions. “I play cultural music,” he says by phone from his home in Harlem. “American music, world music, blues, jazz, African I continually mix everything together. I want to satisfy myself. I get bored playing one type of music. It’s just like a meal: You don’t want to eat the same thing over and over again.”

The maverick streak has kept Dara in constant motion. Born Charles Jones in 1941 in Natchez, Miss., he landed in New York after a stint in the Navy and found his way into the jazz community. In the late 1970s, with major labels pushing fusion crossovers, straight-ahead jazz went on the defensive. It re treated into downtown lofts, nurturing such luminaries as David Murray, Henry Threadgill, and drummer-turned-critic Stanley Crouch.

It was a cerebral music, and Dara eventually grew frustrated. “I was much in demand as a sideman,” he recalls, “but you weren’t supposed to veer from it. It was always the same people in the audience. I didn’t come from that type of culture. I come from Mississippi, and that sound was basically an instrumental sound with European influences. I wanted to do music that was more theatrical, with more cultural roots.”

The topic of roots comes up all the time with Dara. His two albums as a leader, “In the World: From Natchez to New York” (1998) and “Neighborhoods” (2001), celebrate origins and journeys. He called his first band the Okra Orchestra, after the sticky vegetable of his youth, and the second the Natchezsippi Band. He’s recorded with vocalist and fellow Mississippian Cassandra Wilson. And he has reached to Africa: His longtime percussionist, Coster Massamba, comes from the Republic of Congo, and guitarist Kwatei Jones- Quartey is Ghanaian.

“The African connection is a conscious theme,” says Dara. His music, however, is no dry investigation of the West African origin of the blues. Rather, it’s spontaneous and unruly. “I start with rhythms,” he says, “rhythms first, that will satisfy old and young audiences, soothe old and young ears alike.” Massamba’s congas, he says, “give me a flotation feeling.” The result is a groovy, volatile funk that’s liable to veer at any moment into polyrhythms, solo jazz riffs, blues hollers, or call and response.

“Olu in some ways is the epitome of melodic jazz,” says avant- garde trumpeter and composer Lawrence “Butch” Morris, a frequent bandmate in the early 1980s. “He could always keep the essence of his roots in the so-called loft music. He just rode the energy, and he still does.”

By his own admission, though, Dara’s main audience now is under 30, the hip-hop generation that noticed him first in 1994, when Nas broke out with the instant-classic album “Illmatic.” Dara appeared on that disc, playing trumpet on one cut. On later albums, Nas wove warts-and-all memories of growing up with “Pops” into his songs.

On “Bridging the Gap,” their recent hit, Dara and Nas trade blues and hip-hop toasts to their relationship, backed by a familiar Muddy Waters lick. The song is neither man’s crowning achievement, but the sheer joy and celebration of filial bonds make it utterly winsome.

The track has also earned praise as a musical statement. “The collaboration between Nas and Olu Dara is significant because it puts hip-hop in conversation with genres that came before it,” says Mark Anthony Neal, professor of black popular culture at Duke University. “It’s refreshing when hip-hop artists understand that they sit at the feet of great musical traditions, just as the next great movement in black music will sit at the feet of hip-hop.”

Lately, the pair have taken their conversation on the road. Dara has joined his son on television and in concert appearances. And this week they surprised a jazz class at Morehouse College in Atlanta, standing in as guest professors for a talk and composition session that will air Wednesday on MTV’s campus network MTVu.

Dara’s audience this weekend might not hear rapping, though with him one never knows. His curiosity keeps pushing him further. Asked what’s currently on his turntable, he cites hip-hop, for its mixes and production. “I listen to how they put together many elements European, Indian, so many cultures and people can dance to it.”

What’s sure to be on the menu is an immersion in black musicality, conducted with the joyful sloppiness and authenticity of a backyard barbecue. As Morris says, “To understand what black music has been in the past and what kind of future it has, you should listen to Olu.”

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