To label Babatunde Lea a multiple percussionist is to recognize the holistic, global approach and depth of his skills, as both trap drummer from whence he primarily operates on this disc as well as hand drums and miscellaneous percussions from diverse sources.
"I'm not a religious man, but I do believe in spirit, that it intervenes in our lives in mysterious ways. So I thought with this record I wanted to pay homage to the spirits. This suite is five melodic vignettes that call on the spirits, culminating in [5th and final movement] Summoner of the Ghosts. I get more technically adept as I grow and keep practicing, but the one thing that Im really sure of about my playing is that I can call the ghosts."
Broad acceptance and critical acclaim were universal for Babatunde Leas 2003 Motema Music debut Soul Pool. Heres just a sampling:
"Soul Pools is an exceptional, spirited effort by a gifted artist (JazzTimes magazine).
"A sterling disc with tight ensemble work (Philadelphia Daily News).
"A master of trap drums and hand percussion, veteran Bay Area jazz musician Babatunde Lea plunges deep into the musical riches of the African diaspora on Soul Pools" (The San Francisco Bay Guardian).
"Trombonist Ku-umba Frank Lacy and pianist Hilton Ruiz are standouts among percussionist Leas studio octet, but its Leas supple, flowing drum work that is the ongoing focal point." (Down Beat magazine).
What you get is highly disciplined, tightly arranged, Jazz Messengers-influenced soulful post-bop thats propelled, rather than ruled, by its leaders formidable technique (LA Weekly). Soul Pools is a pungent gumbo of familiar, yet fresh musical flavors (The Hartford Courant).
Suite Unseen: Summoner of the Ghost follows in that same tradition, with the intriguing twists of an ancient concept: communing with the spirits. Leas five-part suite serves as the albums spiritual and creative centerpiece, bridged by the interconnective tissue of nine other evocative pieces contributed in the main by Leas potent bandmates; notable contributors include tenor saxophonist Richard Howell, with whom Lea has enjoyed a 15-year partnership, and the perennial poll winning trombonist and conch shell specialist Steve Turre. Pianist Glen Pearson, and bassists Geoff Brennan and Ron Belcher round out the cast. From the boisterous, uplifting groove of Ancestral Stroll to the infectious chant and call to the spirits of the closing Summoner of the Ghost, Babatunde Lea has crafted a journey rich with the seasoning that jazz master and one-time Lea collaborator Randy Weston refers to as cultural memory.
Growing up in New York and later what he refers to as the hood of nearby Engelwood, New Jersey, Babatunde Lea has forged a career steeped in the rhythms of the Motherland of Africa and its Caribbean & South American diaspora.
In the late 1960s the youthful 18 year old percussionist migrated westward to the Bay Area, where he was further immersed in global rhythms, courtesy of such affiliations as fellow percussionist Bill Summers (The Headhunters; Los Hombres Calientes) visionary ensemble Bata Koto. Tunde, as he is known to intimates, has drawn immeasurable experience working with such singular stylists as Leon Thomas, Pharoah Sanders, Stan Getz, Joe Henderson, Van Morrison, and a host of others. Oscar Brown Jr. was my first major artist gig. He was like a father, he was an activist and I learned a lot just being around him, Lea reminisces. Then came Leon Thomas; I was lucky to be with these great vocalists.
"Leon Thomas went to the church where I grew up, First Baptist Church in Engelwood. Leon used to turn the church out every Sunday! He knew me as a conga player, but I had started playing the traps. He needed a drummer for a date, but he thought I was strictly a hand drummer. I said Leon, I play [trap] drums now, so give me an audition. So I went down and played with him that night and the next night I opened at the Keystone Korner with him. I used to be in a group called JuJu in San Francisco around 1970 and Pharoah Sanders came through a lot of times when we were playing. We were playing a lot of that kind of music from inside to outside and back again, ala Pharoah himself. Theresa Records put out my first record in 79, Levels of Consciousness. Pharoah Sanders became a Theresa artist and I got to record with him on his records Rejoice and Journey to the One. Then he started calling me to work with him, playing congas and traps," Tunde recalls. "I recorded one album with Van Morrison, one album with McCoy Tyner, and did a recording with Stan Getz."
Lea's cultural quest doesn't end at the bandstand. Since 1993 he and spouse Dr. Virginia Lea have operated the Educultural Foundation, a Bay Area youth education operation that through a variety of programs immerses students and schools in global rhythms primarily from Africa and the Caribbean diaspora.
"The Educultural Foundation is something my wife and I put together to sow seeds of change and be agents of change, trying to better ourselves and our communities. We teach critical thinking about social and cultural issues through the arts," the drummer informs. One of their programs, Yo Ancestors! neatly dovetails and is a precursor to Suite Unseen: Summoner of the Ghosts quest for the spiritual essences.
Asked to detail his overall career philosophy, Babatunde eagerly divulges., "I draw a lot from African culture and one of the main things I draw is that music is functional; in African life music accompanies everything. The music can put you in a space to make you learn a lot, to open you up. Once you're open and energized then you can start building things to make the world a better place. Music is like oil and water: it does the bidding of who controls it; it has the power to open you up but it doesn't direct where you're gonna go once you're open."
The music of Babatunde Lea will open you up to its spiritual quest in a way you will find both stimulating to the body and educultural for the mind.