Musical joi de vivre - A cross-genre free spirit, Olu Dara plays for the simple, unbridled joy of it

Posted by on 30 July 2004

FFWD Weekly July 22, 2004 - Preview Article by Jamie Frederick

He has the wisdom of the ages, a perspective that stretches back through the last half-century of American music and the talent to distil his vast knowledge into a loose, freewheeling sound that encompasses jazz, soul, country blues, reggae and hip-hop, among other genres.

With roots stuck deep in the fertile Mississippi mud, Olu Dara is what one might call a musician’s musician – the sexagenarian trumpeter, cornettist and bandleader plays for the sheer, simple, unbridled joy of it and is at his happiest onstage. Certainly, his preference for live performance is evident from his limited recorded output – even though Dara has been playing music for most of his life, he only released his first CD in 1998, at the age of 56. He says the immediacy of playing in concert will never be matched by any studio session.

"You’re not entertaining anybody," says Dara of the recording process. "You’re not playing to anybody, other than a machine, and you really don’t get your real personality off like that."

Of course, fans may argue that Dara’s personality is fully intact both on his debut, In the World From Natchez to New York, and on his 1992 follow-up, Neighborhoods. Both records reveal an artist with a huge abundance of character, but Dara says that’s only because he was able to amass so much experience – both musically and in life – before he decided to finally cut a solo record.

"I was fortunate because I had the time," says Dara. "A lot of musicians come into the game as teenagers. They record first as teenagers or very young adults and they don’t really get a chance to experience a lot of things in life, or to experience these different genres of music or just to experience living more than two decades…. And I’ve travelled and had a chance to do everything I had an interest in."

In addition to music, Dara has long been drawn to the dramatic arts and speaks fondly of his experiences working in the theatre. As one who puts so much stock in the moment, Dara would be a natural actor and he has performed with regional companies throughout the United States, noting that it feels almost like real life to him. But he is equally proud of his work as an instrument coach behind the scenes on various plays.

"I get a chance to teach theatre people who have never played instruments before," he says. "I get a chance to teach people, from scratch. I get to teach people my songs, the inflections in my songs. Just to teach a person song inflections and listen back with another person is a fascinating thing – to watch the process of a play being put together and the collaboration."

It should come as no surprise, then, that Dara approaches his music in much the same way, with an appreciation for improvisation honed in the 1970s loft jazz scene in New York – although he admits with a laugh that he rarely enjoyed the music he played with the likes of Julius Hemphill, James (Blood) Ulmer, Henry Threadgill and others.

"I think I got more free doing the music I didn’t like at all – what they call free jazz…. That was completely out of my realm of thought," says Dara. "But musicians liked me because I didn’t come out of that culture at all. I pretended that I was into the music. You had to. But I didn’t like it all because it was a juxtaposition in my musical language. But I found it was very easy for me to do that and I found I could really help stabilize some of the stuff that wasn’t really stabilized so it could be a little more friendly to listen to – because they didn’t want to run a lot of people away."

Well, if anyone knows how to make friendly sounds that will attract a crowd, it’s Dara. While he’s happy to have left behind the cacophony of free jazz for other pursuits, he’s nevertheless maintained his free-spirited approach to music. Today, that spirit shines through in his live show, where he is truly able to showcase every ounce of his good-natured charm and joie de vivre.

"My thing was, I hated rehearsals all my life," he says. "And I promised my band they would never have to rehearse for me. We’ll learn ’em on the stage or whatever, but therefore we don’t have any arrangements and it’ll make it more fun….

"They don’t know where I’m going at all. I don’t have any rules for starting or stopping or anything in the middle or how many bars I’m going to go to here. It’s more like just instinct. And I find the audience picks it up – a lot of people come to me and tell me, ‘You just made those words up, right there, didn’t you?’ And I say, ‘Yes I did.’ And that’s what I do – I can just make up words on the spot.

"Or if someone is in the audience looking friendly, I’ll just stop in the middle of the song and have a conversation with him. I love that, man."