Jazz you can feel

Boston Globe, August 8, 2010

NEW YORK – An experience that Alicia and Michael Olatuja did not anticipate when they began touring their sleek vocal-jazz band, the Olatuja Project, was strangers approaching them in tears after a set to gush about their music’s healing force.

In recent months, as the project has honed its combination of elegant, nocturnal jazz with gospel, R&B, and Yoruba elements, they have encountered this effect at such venues as the Jazz Cafe in London, and Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola here. (They play the Beehive in Boston on Friday.)

“The same thing happened last night,” says Alicia Olatuja. The couple is at a Brooklyn diner in the afternoon following a two-night stand at the Zinc Bar downtown. “A girl left after the second set because she was so embarrassed, she was bawling her eyes out, so she had to leave.”

Of course, it is not the intention of the Olatujas – he an electric and upright bassist from London, she a mezzo-soprano from St. Louis who forwent a promising classical and opera career – to reduce audience members to quivering, sobbing wrecks.

Emotional connection, however, is very much their purpose, and inspiration and uplift lace their lyrics, both the English and the Yoruba parts, and both the gospel-infused and the secular numbers.

“Music is audible emotion,” Alicia says. “You can’t hear inspiration or hope as a feeling, but when you put it to music it can evoke these emotions and speak to the person. And that’s not isolated to a Yoruba audience, a Christian audience, an R&B audience.”

Michael jumps in, his soft voice and British accent a contrast to her Midwestern, African-American tone: “It has less to do with where we are and more about speaking to people’s hearts and how it changes their life.”

“Everyone wants to be loved,” Alicia finishes.

Love is in the air when one meets the Olatujas, who are in their late 20s and have been married three years. It is palpable in their gracious stage interplay and their connection with the precise, understated drummer John Davis – a friend since all were students at the Manhattan School of Music – and the quirky, expressive keyboardist Oli Rockberger, with whom Alicia has great fun trading playfully shifting lines.

“I think we’ve found our magic team,” Alicia says of the group. It’s also as lean a unit as the couple have worked with, certainly by comparison with the group Michael assembled for his MSM graduation recital, an extravaganza with horn section, six background singers, and full choir.

It contrasts too with Michael’s debut album, “Speak,” which came out last year but was actually recorded over five years ago with a long list of guests. Until recently, the Olatujas were as involved in other peoples’ music as their own; both are producers and arrangers, he has toured with pop stars from Lisa Stansfield to Stevie Wonder, and she is a soloist in the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir.

Lean as the new group is, it is also the place where the Olatujas are pouring all these experiences to make something subtle, personal, and new. Looking back, Michael says, his first album feels jumpy, with a jazz song, a gospel song, an African song, and so on. “Now with the two of us writing, we’ve managed to make it all go together with less rough edges,” he says. “It’s more polished and refined.”

In practice this might mean a set that opens with an original worship song in Yoruba – the language of Michael’s Nigerian roots, which Alicia says she is still learning but that she draws on her classical training to correctly intone. Another might switch between Yoruba and English verses. Many follow the jazz song structure, with solos before returning to the theme, but with a cosmopolitan R&B vibe.

It’s their own sound, but it places the Olatujas among a wave of artists who are expressing African roots and influences in a modern jazz and soul vocabulary. Among these are guitarist Lionel Loueke, bassist Richard Bona, the Illinois-raised Ugandan-Rwandan singer Somi (whose recent album Michael Olatuja co-produced, with Alicia providing backing vocals), and others now just emerging.

To this the Olatujas add the drive of a young couple for whom the group is much more than a one-off collaboration. “We’re husband and wife and also business partners and performance partners,” Michael says. “So we’ve had to find ways to balance it all out.” They credit the counsel of parents and mentors.

“And having a good date night helps,” Alicia says, and they both start laughing.