If you’re hoping Olu Dara will ditch his rollicking-bluesman act and return to playing the experimental free jazz that helped establish his name nearly 30 years ago, then you’re probably going to be just as pissed off at his second album, Neighborhoods, as you were at his shockingly accessible but nonetheless adventurous way-late-in-his-career debut, 1998’s In the World: From Natchez to New York.
As on that earlier album, Dara is more concerned on his new record with having a party than with concocting heady, outward-bound jazz explorations. He embeds his tart, slightly oblique cornet playing so casually in the album’s rough-hewn textures of bubbling bass, percolating percussion, and celebratory choruses that even when he spins out a solo (as on the Southern-flavored R&B track “I See the Light”), his robust tone and bluesy phrasing are often obscured. Actually, he plays much less cornet this time around, emphasizing instead his vocal, guitar, and songwriting talents. Someincluding Daramight go so far as to ask whether Neighborhoods is indeed a jazz album; its emotional poignancy, infectious verve, and brilliant conception, however, are unquestionable.
Because of his pivotal role in the ’70s New York loft scene, Dara has long been associated with free jazz even if his blues-inflected work doesn’t fit easily into that category. There are no drawn-out solos on Neighborhoods, no cerebral noodling, no overarching philosophical messages or self-indulgent navel-gazing. Hell, there’s not even a song longer than five minutes. Had an artist with Dara’s jazz credentials but less talent released this album, it would have been a flaccid sellout. But Dara’s artistic vision and emotional honesty elevate it far above its pop tendencies.
Like revered free-jazz pioneers Ornette Coleman, Pharoah Sanders, and Sun Ra, Dara keeps his rural sensibility, drawing much of his musical eclecticism and knack for compelling storytelling from his Natchez, Miss., roots. Even his longstanding crackerjack ensemble gives props to his hometown, with its name: the Natchesippi Dance Band. But, although Mississippi is the primary setting for Neighborhoods, Dara’s troubadour spirit also infuses the album with West African and Caribbean influencesmost explicitly on the joyous party stomp “Massamba,” in which Dara pays tribute to his Congolese hand-percussionist of the same name, and on a mesmerizing reading of the Bahamian sailor song “Out on the Rolling Sea.” And on the album’s title track, Dara transforms the bustling energy of the Big Apple into a meditative midtempo ballad, crooning against Kwatei Jones-Quartey’s and Ivan Ramirez’s dreamy guitars and Coster Massamba’s thick congas about Brooklyn, Harlem, Queens, jazz, and the inception of hiphop in a weary Southern drawl. Elsewhere, Neighborhoods is a brazen celebration of rural Southern life, in which prosaic activities such as going to the movies (“Bell & Ponce”) and dancing at a local juke joint (“I See the Light”) are extravagant events.
Dara’s many years of working with renowned African-American playwrights (August Wilson and Aishah Rahman) also shape the narrative arcs of his songs. Propelled by Dara’s conversational delivery and richly descriptive lyrics, each song has the dramatic drive of a scene from a play. Dara uses a hamboned Bo Diddley rhythm to allude to a rural setting on “Herbman,” unraveling vivid images of a conjure man as he merrily sings of miraculous home remedies: rosemary, peppermint, periwinkle, and dandelion. With Dara’s rhythmic field-hollering interspersed with disquisitions on the healing virtues of nearly every weed in Mississippi, the song recalls both Melvin Van Peebles and Oscar Brown Jr. Bucolic imagery also underscores the sweet, pithy “Tree Blues,” on which Dara sings about the loss of childhood innocence under various cherry, chinaberry, and peach trees. And on the funky Sly Stone-inflected parable “Red Ant (Nature),” Dara adopts a gleeful melody and childlike perspective to impart some ancestral wisdom about human nature: “I saw a red ant crying because the black ants was walking on his hills/I saw a black ant crying because the white ant was trying to steal/I saw a white ant crying because nature refused to pay his bills.”
The most theatrical piece, however, is the festive “I See the Light,” which glows with so much scenic detail and kinetic energy that it begs for a video. With a gripping groove of scratchy rhythm guitars, fatback bass, sultry horn, tangy background vocalsand special guest Dr. John on organDara stages a hoedown tribute to the legendary Haney’s Big House, once owned by Jerry Lee Lewis’ uncle. If this song had been released on the Jackson, Miss., R&B label Malaco Records, it would be an instant local hit. The same could be said about “Used to Be,” a charming duet with fellow Mississippian Cassandra Wilson. The two play old paramours trying to rediscover that loving feeling, and instead of employing the cutthroat bitterness that other Southern R&B or C&W pairs would surely have adopted, Dara and Wilson resolve the frisky tune in a joyous chorus that sounds as shamelessly romantic as vintage Ashford & Simpson.
Neighborhoods doesn’t burst with the same level of freshness that In the World does, but its sparkling execution makes it a better effort. And, although Dara’s long-established reputation as a gifted jazz cornetist has yet to be fully substantiated on his solo recordings, his ingenious storytelling shows him to be one of the most compelling bluesmen to emerge in years. CP
Olu Dara performs at the 9:30 Club March 16; for more information, call (202) 393-0930.