Alicia Olatuja excellent new album Intuition: Songs From The Minds Of Women has a crystal clear premise: a celebration of female composers that resonates with demands for gender equality in wider society, especially in the age of the TimesUp and MeToo movements.
Teaching is an integral part of the life of many contemporary jazz musicians. It can be a much-needed source of income, a form of intellectual stimulus, or, in some cases, a calling. American vocalist-composer Alicia Olatuja tends towards the latter. In the future she plans to create a seat of learning to nurture her would-be successors. “I’m a big education advocate. I come from a lineage of teachers in my family and I’d love to open a school, but a different type to what I was exposed to. I felt there was a lot of trial and error. The music industry is changing quickly, I feel artists need to be better equipped to step out in this world so I’d love to teach at an institute of my own”
To be more precise ‘the fair sex’ can be a crucial beneficiary of Olatuja’s knowledge. “Right now people are ready to hear what women have to say,” Olatuja says emphatically. “Women are beginning to understand the importance of what they have to say. It’s been very challenging time, but it has also created this synchronicity so we can collectively find a voice and value our own voices individually.”
Born in St.Louis Missouri and trained at the prestigious Manhattan School Of Music, where she graduated in Classical/Voice, Olatuja is as happy being described as a mezzo-soprano as she is a scat singer. In any case she has a passion for finely crafted arrangements, and the presence on Intuition of the highly respected pianist-arranger-conductor Billy Childs, known for his superb work with Dianne Reeves, is a bonus. “It’s great to work with any arrangers that have a sensitivity to vocalists, and it was great working with him,” Olatuja gushes. “I came to him just to pick his brain about some of the women composers who he felt would best be set to new arrangements, because we worked together for two years, touring his Laura Nyro project. He’s very influential and he kept me inspired while working on that music.”
Olatuja, whose voice has a commanding soulfulness and eye-of-the-needle phrasing, chose a wide range of composers for Intuition, from Sade and Joni Mitchell to Tracy Chapman and Kate Bush, and also included her own originals. The folk-rock, soul and pop strands are coherently woven into the harmonically advanced scores one would expect from improvising musicians. Interestingly, Olatuja has made a point of presenting the work not as music by women, but as songs from the minds of women.
“Yeah, I wanted that as the sub-title for the album,” she explains. “When I was growing up I always heard about a woman’s intuition and gut instinct that kind of overrides logic or rationale sometimes. But I also wanted to bring to the forefront that women are rational, logical, intellectual human beings, and when we marry those two things – the emotional intelligence with the logical and rational – we are able to create brilliant and amazing work. So I wanted to respect all aspects of womanhood, the emotion, the heart and the intellect.”
“A lot of the songs are about love and romance, but there’s ‘Cherokee Louise’ by Joni Mitchell, which is a way heavier topic. I wanted to do at least a few tunes that touch on issues that are hard to talk about. If you can stand on stage and sing about abuse and racism, and beauty ideals, and not being good enough in the world alongside some of the other tunes, you’re able to make room for someone else to think about it without the shame and the stigma that so many women have had for so long.”
Making the point that ‘sisters are doing it for themselves’ is the most effective way Olatuja can redress the balance. Crucial as the socio-political foundation of Intuition is, the work also had to be an honest, organic reflection of the singer’s long and stimulating journey through music. Her immersion in gospel, particularly the soul stirring songs of the iconic Bebe and Cece Winans, shapes Olatuja just as much as her love of opera legend Leontyne Price. As far as Olatuja is concerned they all connect.
“It’s this interesting beautiful circle. What we absorb as artists should all come out. I’ve always felt that when you’re on stage and doing music in the jazz idiom you’re tapping into years and years of crafting from all these vocalists and instrumentalists,”she says. “It’s not just a two hour show, you’re tapping into years of experience.”