Olu Dara-In the World from Natchez to New York

Olu Dara
In the World from Natchez to New York

"I BOUGHT MY arms/On the seven seas," mystic savant Olu Dara moans on his solo debut album, In the World from Natchez to New York, and he's probably not referring to his covert intelligence work for Uncle Sam in Cuba and Africa back during the 1960s. But, then again, you never can tell. Dara is a strange story. Here is a grandfatherly jazz legend who's never made a record. Here's a guy whose West African blues is one part Creole juju, one part avant Satchmo. Here is a smooovey so smoove he almost rivals his playa son, Nas. Olu Dara is a wrinkle disguised as a groove.

And here's a freak. On In the World's swingin' album-opener, "Okra," Dara goes from blues-bustin' bringer of good gumbo and better love to a voodooed child in need of a spoon feeding. "Your Junior is coming home soon/You must have his...OKRA!" he hollers with a licentious bluster--sounding not unlike Toots of Maytals fame. To wit, the love Dara gets in the Delta gutbucket number "Natchez Shopping Blues" is good "luv" indeed: "Cuz Lod'...it was free." On the loosely funky "Your Lips," he's a soukous John Lee Hooker--a balladeer "mmm-mmm-mmm" masticatin' his syllables as he sends up his lady with the lines, "My lips/Your lips/My horn/And we'll be happy we three."

Truth be told, the horn in question is his cornet, for which he became quite well known with his impish improv band called Okra back in the early '80s. Interestingly enough, he rarely whips it out on Natchez, and it sounds best when he takes it back to the late '20s for the ragtime saunter of "Bubber (If Only)." No matter. There's enough Afropean grace in Kwatei Jones-Quartey and Ivan Ramirez's liquid guitar-playing to give this diasporic soul record its grace and its grounding. And then there's Nas: appearing here as Griot to papa's Mack.

On the chilling "Jungle Jay," junior's vocals lead his dad's cornet yawns and Alonzo Gardner's Fat Albert bass like he's driving the old-timers by a party that just turned into a shoot-out. "I roll me endo up and my window up in the same motion," he raps, as the old man panics in the backseat. Yet, on the closing track, "Kiane," Dara sings his "baby boy" to sleep, beneath a blanket of Jones-Quartey and Ramirez, who've played so sweet throughout this confused blues song cycle they ought to get guardian-angel status.

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