Barack Obama may have shared the inauguration stage with Beyonce, Kelly Clarkson, Jennifer Hudson, and Alicia Keys, but it was another Alicia, this one, Alicia Olatuja, who stole the show literally in a hot minute, a 60-second solo in a five-minute choir song. Hearing it, no one, literally no one, misunderstood what had happened, and the singer drew raves from artists, TV hosts, and critics from shore to shore in America and then over to Europe. A strikingly pretty woman with a heart-shaped face, someone who could be a runway model, it was nonetheless Olatunja's unbelievable tone and purity of delivery that stunned one and all, including Dianne Reeves, an uncontested star in Jazz Heaven in her own right.
Olatunja's delicate rendering of the already wispy Human Nature, a hit in Michael Jackson's hands, reconverts the song to a form of pastorale or quasi-funky madrigal, a more thoughtfully sensitive version. The same with Stevie Wonder's Stay Gold, here more wistful, silken, taken down a notch in tempo, languid until her voice rises like the sun in the east, letting into a very Stevie-esque harmonica solo by Gregoire Maret. Throughout the disc, Olatunja's voice invites comparisons to such as Gladys Knight, Joan Baez, and Nancy Wilson, and that, I think, is what excited everyone who heard her at the President's soiree.
She writes as well and even sings in native African tongues (Shona and Yoruba, and would that she might've done so here!) in her and her husband's (bass player Michael Olatuja) African band, The Olatuja Project. The bass / vocal duet with Christian McBride—Michael's almost ubiquitous in Timeless, but Christian gets the honors here—beds down a marvelous demonstration of her range and confidence, as does the duo with guitar in Amazing Grace, wherein the singer's tone takes one aback, much like when Wynton Marsalis performed Haydn's Trumpet Concert, and you all could do was gasp. Short and sweet, conservative, never demonstrative, as has too often been the case in other singers' hands, it lingers in the mind, even more so in Somewhere over the Rainbow. One does not listen to Alicia Olatuja to get down with the music but instead to remember what the human voice is capable of when trained to a fare thee well. We'll be hearing one hell of a lot more from this young lady…and for a very long time.
Edited by: David N. Pyles
Copyright 2014, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
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