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Bringing the Vitality of Jazz to the World
Motéma Music's Lynne Arriale Trio and Babatunde Lea
By Mark Kirby
(more articles from this author)
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In a music world dominated by the bottom line of major corporations, the true artist has to go the way of independent labels. While there are a few creative artists in a variety of genres on major labels, these are exceptions. The rest, regardless of skill or passion, have to find another way to get their music out into the world. Into this breach walks Motéma Music (, a new independent record label focusing on jazz, and other creative music. Their name is derived from a central-African word meaning heart and they "promote uplifting music of uncommon artistry." What? Why it's a crazy idea that just might work. Their first two releases are by jazz artists of great talents with a long track record of musical accomplishment, Lynne Arriale and Babatunde Lea. Though different in their styles as well as instruments, they both share a vision of jazz as a vital form encompassing the head, the heart and the soul.

Ms. Arriale's piano style is reminiscent of Geri Allen, but not because she's a woman; because like Ms. Allen, and singer Cassandra Wilson, she combines elegance with power. With her vast technique, obvious curiosity and sense of adventure, she tastefully mixes and matches songs, styles, and emotions to create, along with her tight-knit trio of Jay Anderson on bass and drummer Steve Davis, some of the best jazz heard today.

The first cut from the CD Arise, "Frévo," sets the stage for her musical approach. The theme is a melody of both tunefulness and complexity (what Duke Ellington taught us); with deft use of her left hand, she augments the melody with unison harmonies, call and response counterpoint, and variations on the musical themes. She continues this, and more during her solo. The rhythm section creates a smooth but hyper swing that coalesces and fragments in synchronicity with the piano. Davis tap dances the rhythm, swinging in an off kilter Tony Williams way.

RealAudio: Lynne Arriale Album Sampler

Lynne Arriale Notables
* Debuted at #17 on Billboard's Jazz chart!!
* #5 on the Jazz Week radio chart
* #15 on the CMJ Jazz chart
* Featured on NPR's "Jazz Set with Dee Dee Bridgewater"
In the jazz tradition, Ms. Arriale utilizes pop music as grist for her creative mill. The song "American Woman" - yes, that one by the Guess Who - is played as an atmospheric, modal dirge that resolves into space cadet blues. Ms. Arriale deftly goes from airy textures found on late sixties Hancock records such as "Maiden Voyage." She also takes on another classic pop song, transforming Bill Withers' "Lean on Me" into a gospel calypso.

Her original compositions also have the same harmonic, melodic and idiomatic inventiveness. "Arise" is an uplifting ballad, a truly rare thing. "The Fallen" is another ballad, one that is poignant and stately. "Esperanza" is an upbeat Carribean/Latin tune. Ms. Arriale doesn't overstate or try to make these songs a chops-a-thon tour de force; she builds a simple, logical solo over the samba-flavored groove of the rhythm section. Davis shows an equal amount of taste in his drum solo. He takes rhythmic ideas from the song and weaves them into a musical statement. "Upswing" is just that. The piano states the theme while the rhythm section plays rhythmic movement, with Davis drumming in a mode that encompasses waves of texture, an elastic sense of time and swing. The group swings hard as Ms. Arriale solos. Bassist Anderson plays a monster solo, showing the same care as the other two players in crafting a solo that bends and molds the stuff of the song.

RealAudio: Lynne Arriale - "Frévo"

When it comes to swing, Babatunde is squarely in the tradition of the great bandleader/ drummers such as Art Blakey and Max Roach. In keeping with the tradition-rooted, style and adventurous philosophy of Motéma Records, Babatunde Lea new release, Soul Pools, takes a high energy approach to the Afro-Latin hard bop style forged by Art Blakey and his collaborations with Candido and Potato Valdez in the early sixties. On the cuts "Confrontation," "Whoa Baba" and "Jackie and the Beanstalk" he goes between horn dominated, hard-driving swing and percussion heavy Latin jazz. Showing his deep knowledge of music, Babatunde is equally adept at both sides and in his solo perfectly blends the idioms into one statement. On "Whoa" he starts with a conga drum quote from the bebop classic "Salt Peanuts," before going into a strong Afro-Cuban percussion groove and shifting gears into a slow hard bop swing and back again.

RealAudio: Babatunde Lea Album Sampler

Babatunde Lea Notables
* Soul Pools peaked on Jazz Radio Chart at #22
* #34 on CMJ Jazz chart
* Featured in the May "World Music" issue of JAZZIZ Magazine.
* Soul Pools includes live bonus CD w/ Tunde's touring Quartet
* Created the non-profit Educultural Foundation
One of the CD's highlights is the cut "Outlyer." It starts out with a driving Afro-Cuban groove as the horns play the main theme, a nicely orchestrated section that makes great use of skilled sidemen Frank Lacy (brass) and Mario Rivera (reeds) then shifts into a hard bop swing that leans heavily on the blues. Hilton Ruiz, a master of the piano that is totally slept on by the music world, plays an intense vamp, intertwining with drums and Kevin Jones' congas, then jumps off with a barrage of strident chords and melodies ala McCoy Tyner. On the swing he lays back in the bop grove.

RealAudio: Babatunde Lea - "Soul Pools"

As good as this group is, Babatunde Lea's touring live quartet shows the ultra intensity of this drummer's music. With bassist Geoff Brennan, pianist Hilton Ruiz and sax great Ernie Watts Lea shines on the four-alarm fire version of Wayne Shorter's "Footprints." Ruiz plays one of the most exciting piano solos I've heard on record. Riding a strident swing set up by Babatunde's relentless drumming, and Brennan's bass, Ruiz shows his mastery: starting with a repeated motif that's slowly built, he then plays intense Coltrane like "sheets of sound" that melded into wailing, soulful notes of sweet and soaring resolution, before taking insane, dissonant runs into the stratosphere of Richard Abrahams and Cecil Taylor. After driving out of this musical maelstrom, the group melts away as Babatunde takes a most musical drum solo that encompasses the full palette of his percussive set up: traps set, cymbals, congas, and percussion. He moves from drums to his thighs, to the drum shell, the stands, hitting everything in sight, eventually moving, during an African beat, from drums to congas and back. Each sound and rhythmic motif built off the one before. Ernie Watts, West Coast jazz legend and Frank Zappa alumnus, is criminally underheard. Here he shows the skills and fire of over forty years of playing. He evokes all the greats - Sonny Rollins, Coltrane, Wayne Shorter - yet makes his own fresh statement.

Footage of Babatunde's Soul Pools recording sessions in NYC

Promotional Video - MP3 download (80M)

Lynne Arriale and Babatunde Lea are different shadings and colors of the same prism, bringing different experiences to the same table. They will both be performing at Motéma's New York city Launch on May 15 and 16 at The Jazz Standard. We asked them some questions about their lives and art.

More on Motéma Music
Genre: jazz
Buy Lynne Arriale Trio "Arise"
Buy Babatunde Lea "Soul Pools"
Contact Motéma Music

What are your earliest musical memories? Did your parents play music in the house?

Lynne Arriale: My earliest memories were the little toy piano that I used to play when I was three or four, before we got a real piano. I used to listen to musicals and music on the radio and play the songs by ear.

Babatunde Lea: My first musical memories are dancing with my mother and my aunts. I learned to mambo before I could walk! My aunts as well as my cousins and a few uncles played marching drums. My family loved Afro-Caribbean music, my cousins had a doo-wop singing group, and they all played in the high school band.

What are your biggest influences, both as instrumentalists and bandleaders?

Lynne Arriale: My biggest influence would be my mentor, Richie Beirach, and my desire to find beautiful and interesting melodies, both in composition and improvisation.

Babatunde Lea: Babatunde Olatunji placed me firmly and decisively on the road of an aspiring master drummer when I was only 11 years old in 1959. From there it was one master after another, Armando Perazza, Mongo Santamaria, Willie Bobo, Ray Barreto, Elvin Jones, Roy Haynes, Philly Jo Jones and last but not least, Art Blakey, who even now as a bandleader, I took the lessons of his distinguished career. I love the tenor saxophone and I think that artists such as John Coltrane, Joe Henderson, Dexter Gordon, just to name a few, had and continue to have a significant influence on me. Right now, Kenny Garrett is one of my all time favorites. He truly plays soul music! I can't leave out Ernie Watts, who is currently holding down the tenor chair in my band. I feel the same way about him.

Ms. Arriale you were raised in the classical music world but now you play jazz. What caused the transition?

Lynne Arriale: It happened rather suddenly, almost as a passing thought that I should study jazz, even though I did not know what jazz was (improvising over the chord changes of a song). I began to study and was completely enamored by the freedom and the limitless possibilities in jazz.

RealAudio: Lynne Arriale - "Arise"

Babatunde, how did you hook up with the amazing Hilton Ruiz? How did you find Ernie Watts, the most slept on saxophone great I can think of?

Babatunde Lea: I was introduced to Hilton in 1991 by John Purcell and Suzi Reynolds, when Hilton was asked to play on my recording "Level of Intent." From the very beginning, I felt Hilton to be a kindred spirit and since then he has been on my last three recordings and I will be asking him to play on my next. I met Ernie Watts while being a member of the Bill Cosby All Star Band, Cos of Good Music. I don't know the proper adjectives to describe his greatness and the profound influence that he has on me while playing in my band.

RealAudio: Babatunde Lea - "Ejercito Moreno"

Your artist bio states that you teach master classes and workshops. It's unusual, outside of Wynton Marsalis, that jazz musicians emphasize education and giving something back. Why is this important to you?

Babatunde Lea: Education is important to me because it is education that will allow us to be able to address and sort out issues such as equity and justice. My wife and I started a nonprofit organization called The Educultural Foundation ( Our purpose statement is that we teach critical thinking about social and cultural issues through the arts. It is our contention that there is incredible power in the arts and that power should be used for the betterment of life on this planet.

Lynne Arriale: The passing on of information and knowledge about any subject is a profound experience. Hopefully, both the student and the teacher learn from the experience. It is very inspiring to see the multitude of ways that a student can perceive things; and it is a great challenge to find just the right explanation of a concept that will help them take the next step in their playing. I always learn from teaching, as I have to look at my own problem solving process to help students find solutions. I have been fortunate, over the years, to study with many great musicians, and I will be forever indebted to them for their great generosity. It is simply my responsibility and my desire to pass along what I have learned.

All Photos 2003 Jean-Marc Lubrano. (

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