Babatunde Lea – Umbo Weti: A Tribute to Leon Thomas – Motéma MTM-25, (2 CDs) 55:16, 46:26 (with video portion) ***1/2:
(Babatunde Lea – drums, percussion, co-producer; Dwight Trible – vocals; Ernie Watts – tenor saxophone; Gary Brown – bass; Patrice Rushen – piano)
Umbo Weti: A Tribute to Leon Thomas is a homage to Babatunde Lea’s friend and inspiration, the late Leon Thomas, an undervalued musician who was an unconventional and influential singer, multi-instrumentalist, stylist, composer, arranger, and ethnomusicologist who passed away ten years ago. Lea’s two-disc memorial encompasses Thomas’ wide-ranging artistry while affording a new generation the opportunity to discover Thomas’ musical gifts and legacy.
Thomas initially got noticed by the public in 1969 when he sang the epic "The Creator Has a Master Plan" on Pharoah Sanders’ album Karma. A shortened version inexplicably turned into a FM radio hit, proving even avant-garde jazz can become popular under the right conditions. From there, Thomas released several notable solo projects and was briefly aligned with Santana – he can be heard on 1973’s Welcome and the 1974 live document Lotus. During his career that started in the fifties, Thomas also shared stages or studios with Mary Lou Williams, Randy Weston, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Oliver Nelson, and Louis Armstrong.
The multi-percussionist Lea also has enjoyed a diverse jazz journey, working alongside Thomas, spending time in Bill Summers’ ensemble Bata Koto, contributing to material by Stan Getz, Joe Henderson, McCoy Tyner, Randy Weston, Van Morrison, and Oscar Brown, Jr., as well as becoming a leader of his own projects. It only seems natural Lea would create a lasting remembrance of Thomas: both artists share a love for jazz, African and Caribbean rhythms, and have investigated musical avenues that are open-ended and explorative.
In order to put his idea into reality, Lea put together a charismatic ensemble: vocalist Dwight Trible (who has also performed with Thomas), tenor saxophonist Ernie Watts (who has previously been on the stage with Lea), bassist Gary Brown (a long-time Lea associate) and pianist/singer Patrice Rushen. The result was two nights in mid-October, 2008 at Oakland, California’s venerated venue Yoshi’s. The payoff is a soulful, spiritual and divergent re-imagining of music associated with Thomas.
The set opens with the appropriate "Invocation," which Lea first recorded for his 2004 outing Suite Unseen: Summoner of the Ghost. The tune, based on a traditional African liturgy, is largely an a cappella introduction featuring Rushen’s evocative vocals and Trible’s deep and rich voice with some assistance from the band: the instrumental bridge aptly quotes Coltrane, who helped shape Thomas’ musical growth.
The five then swiftly shift gears with John Lee Hooker’s "Boom Boom," one of several covers Thomas re-developed to fit his own personality. The quintet retains the bluesy playfulness of the original but adds a stimulating jazz verve, revealing Thomas’ – and thus Lea’s – ability to interpret a Chicago blues classic as a funky, jazzy, obtuse R&B workout.
Coltrane’s influence on Thomas is also fittingly spelled out on "Cousin Mary," a Thomas interpretation which most will recognize from Coltrane’s seminal 1959 recording Giant Steps. In the hands of Lea’s group, the tune twists and turns while maintaining a swing-tickled melody. Trible leads the musicians with empathic improvised vocals. Watts also steps up front to showcase his inventive style, followed by Rushen’s fluid and shuffling stance that is light years away from the pop-oriented material her fans might expect.
The fivesome spreads out on a gorgeous soul number Thomas also did with Sanders, "Prince of Peace," with Trible inviting the world to embrace calm and concord. Rushen lays out a musing stride on piano that is later echoed by Watts’ warmly-toned sax solo that earns much audience accolades. A similar expression permeates the straightforward and soulful Thomas-penned "Let the Rain Fall on Me," where Trible poetically expresses a melancholy mood with his sonorous voice while Watts shows a trace of ‘Trane in his lengthy solo endeavor filled with bundles of passionate notes.
Watts is the main feature on a new rendition of his early ’90s composition, "Reaching Up," a capable example of his jazz writing and performance talents. The upbeat, post-bop piece is consistently arousing, nothing like the commercially-minded items often identified with Watts’ solo efforts. Besides Watts’ spectacular tenor touches, the rhythm section keeps the disparate proceedings on course. Listening to Lea on his trap kit and large percussion setup during his solo venture makes one wonder why he is not as well known as he probably should be. Lea could certainly give Jack DeJohnette a run for his money.
The first disc ends with Thomas’ signature proclamation, "The Creator Has a Master Plan," a 14-minute tour de force. While the cut is only half as long as the Sanders/Thomas version, it is as utopian and beautiful as the original, beginning with a nod to Coltrane’s "A Love Supreme," and then gradually building. Watts slides behind Trible and takes over as Trible allows his voice to trail away. Watts explores all the tonal shades around the two-chord theme as the assemblage comps behind him with increasing degrees of artistic and creative energy. By the time Rushen moves into solo terrain, a profound kind of instrumental hymn emerges. The arrangement recedes and Trible re-enters to finish the piece by repeating his mantra for universal understanding.
The second set commences with the title track. Trible replicates Thomas’ famous yodeling style to favorable effect. The quintet marches through a complex modal figure and tribal-tinted percussive dynamics, coursing from placid waters to agitated eddies and then to raging whitecaps. Any constraints are lifted away and everyone stretches: Watts growls, wails, and croons through his sax; Lea curtains the goings-on with cadenced backdrops; and Rushen portrays a cambering quality suggestive of McCoy Tyner. Up next is "Colors," which was another fine Sanders/Thomas collaboration from Karma. Trible extends his lyrical voice as he sings of the rainbow’s spectrum and nature’s sacred side.
The assembly continues along an environmental perspective on the smooth "Sun Song," Trible scatting and Lea incorporating a subtly Latin-esque beat that provides an equatorial slant. When Watts moves forward he keeps that outlook by adding a buoyant Stan Getz affability.
The lengthiest song on side two is Lea’s stalwart jam "African Tapestry," which is suitably subtitled as a prayer for a continent. Trible begins with African spiritual vocalizations, which is followed by a Caribbean-etched piano/bass/percussion melody, and Watts then rides on top with garnished sax riffs that once again reflect Coltrane and/or Sanders. Lea, Brown and Rushen then take the foreground and concentrate on a slower bluesy thesis.
The program comes to a close with Horace Silver’s "Song for My Father." Most know the well-loved instrumental rendering but some may not be aware of Thomas’ rendition with spiritual lyrics. Lea and crew employ a pious pace. Trible duplicates Thomas’s emotional reading and is judiciously backed up by Watts, who supports the famous main theme with lilting sax lines. Rushen then paraphrases Silver’s punchy piano rills.
The sound quality and mix of the live recording is superb with no evident postproduction corrections, and the subtle asides and banter from the quintet and/or audience supply an adroit intimacy. The second disc also has an enhanced video segment that includes interview portions and background. Gary Graff’s liner notes furnish historical thoughts on Thomas’ pursuits and how they intersected with Lea’s career.
2. Boom Boom
3. Cousin Mary
4. Prince of Peace
5. Let the Rain Fall on Me
6. Reaching Up
7. The Creator Has a Master Plan
1. Umbo Weti
3. Sun Song
4. African Tapestry (Prayer for a Continent)
5. Song for My Father
— Doug Simpson