Music was drummed into Babatunde Lea from the beginning

A veteran jazz sideman is stepping to the front

Music: in concert, CDs

December 18, 2003|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,Sun Pop Music Critic

Something reached him.

The music and the feelings it awoke were so rich, so profoundly spiritual that he later changed his name. It was 1959, and Babatunde Lea (which is not his birth name, but the man refuses to reveal what it is) was 11 at the time he saw famed African percussionist Babatunde Olatunji in concert.

"He brought such beauty and these awe-inspiring messages," says the worldbeat / jazz drummer and percussionist. "I knew I was going to be a drummer after that concert. The drums were speaking straight to my heart, and they haven't stopped since. In 1971, I adopted the name Babatunde, which means 'father returns.' "

For more than 30 years, Lea has supported numerous artists -- Van Morrison, Randy Weston, Stan Getz, Pharoah Sanders -- with his charged rhythms on the congas, summoning the spirits of Olatunji and the many ancestors who beat the skins before him with verve and unwavering love.

Calling from his Bay Area, Calif., home, he says, "You don't play this type of music -- especially jazz -- unless it's a calling. It's a labor of love. And it's a blessing if you're able to make a living at it, so I've been blessed."

After years of backing others, Lea has stepped to the front to lead his own group on Soul Pools, his debut for the Motema Music label.

The album is stunning throughout, energetic and soul-rich. It is perhaps one of the best jazz records out this year. Generously informed by African and Latin styles, the rhythms seem to jump at you, stimulating and soothing you. The other musicians -- particularly vocalist Jana Herzen, pianist Hilton Ruiz and trombonist Ku-umba Frank Lacy -- provide lyrical accompaniment. As a soloist, Lea radiates passion and a musical depth gleaned from his hard-knock years on the road, working with some of the greats in jazz, worldbeat and fusion.

"As a sideman, I have to pretty much support the leader in what he wants," Lea says. "As the leader, everyone is supporting me. Being a sideman is much easier. Being the leader, it's much more work but it's more rewarding. You're putting out the work that you want, the music that you want. But, yes, it is freeing."

As for the fluid sounds on the new album, the artist was thinking "of the music as a pool, something you can step into to refresh your mind, your spirit and step out of it and be an agent of change."

Lea and his wife Virginia, a professor of education at Sonoma State University, believe that music heals and informs, which is the reason they established the Educultural Foundation, a 10-year-old nonprofit program that teaches critical thinking about social issues through the arts. The artistic and the political have always been intertwined in Lea's world. Born in Danville, Va., he was raised in New York City and Inglewood, N.J. In 1966, at age 18, Lea moved to San Francisco. But he only stayed there for a short while before returning to New York to seriously pursue a career in music. He had been playing the drums since 13. A cousin's boyfriend had taught him the "finer points" and how to "listen."

"My family was really into Afro-Cuban music and Afrobeat music," Lea says. "I could mambo before I could walk. One of my aunts was one of the first women to play marching drums in Virginia. So that type of music -- the percussive kind, the congas -- was always around. I had such an affinity for drums. I tell people that I could play the drums before I got one."

In '77, Lea moved back to California and became an in-demand session player. He earned a reputation as one of the hardest working men on the limited jazz scene there.

"In New York, you can see the masters in the clubs -- in and out, like Max Roach and Elvin Jones," the musician says. "In California, you don't have the tradition of people who created and refined jazz. ... In California, they take music as an entertainment, a backdrop. In New York, people think of music as a need. I carry New York with me in my heart. Music is a blessing to me."

Lea's music has taken him around the globe several times. He regularly plays the prime festivals either as a sideman or a leader. In 2001 and 2002, he was a member of Bill Cosby's All-Stars at the Playboy Jazz Festival. And he works year in and year out at such top-notch venues as Yoshi's and the Jazz Bakery.

With Soul Pools, the artist plans to tour Europe and the United States next year.

Lea says, "There's always something to learn from this music. It goes deep into the spirit. I'm dedicated to it."

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