Percussion virtuoso Babatunde Lea first envisioned a tribute to legendary jazz vocalist and composer Leon Thomas shortly after the singer passed in 1999. The efforts reach fruition on Lea's latest release for the Motma label, UMBO WETI. Featuring a stellar band of improvisers: Dwight Trible (vocals), Ernie Watts (tenor sax), Gary Brown (bass), Patrice Rushen (piano), and Lea on drums and percussion, UMBO WETI is a labor of love.
UMBO WETI finds Lea, and his dream team" of musicians exploring pieces associated with Thomas' blend of a spiritually passionate and socially conscious world view with deftly inventive musicality and progressive vision. They re-imagine Thomas' version of John Lee Hooker's primal Boom Boom Boom Boom," his new lyrics for Horace Silver's Song for My Father," and the timeless The Creator Has a Master Plan" - the latter which inexplicably turned into an FM radio hit for Sanders and Thomas. It was the kind of post-bop thing that happened, kind of the spiritual thing that [John] Coltrane started," Lea explains. People always talk about the spiritual nature of that music. It's a spiritual jazz that was going on in the late '60s and the '70s and the early '80s. And Leon was a big part of that music and really moved it forward."
In addition to other Thomas vehicles - the classics Sun Song," Prince of Peace," and the title track among them - the ensemble presents extended compositions by both Lea and Watts, and a version of John Coltrane's Cousin Mary."
Babatunde Lea has forged a career steeped in the rhythms of Africa and its Caribbean and South American Diaspora. After spending his formative years in NY and NJ, he migrated westward to the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 1960s, where he furthered his explorations into global rhythms as a member of percussionist Bill Summers visionary ensemble Bata Koto. Working with such stylists as Thomas and Sanders, as well as Stan Getz, Joe Henderson, McCoy Tyner, Randy Weston, Van Morrison, Oscar Brown, Jr., and a host of other jazz luminaries has blessed Lea with a culturally diverse perspective that fuels a creativity brimming with the wisdom of the ages. Above all, Lea's spiritual essence and serene nature are always at the forefront of his art.
Lea's deep musical connection with Thomas has its roots in Englewood, NJ in the late '50s, when the young musicians first crossed paths. He joined our church," Lea recalls. Leon sang in the choir. I used to see him sing every Sunday and he would 'turn the church out!'"
Thomas regularly headed to New York City where he soon established himself as one of the most unique and influential vocalists on the jazz scene. A forefather of free jazz vocalization, he was best known for his collaborations with Pharoah Sanders and Carlos Santana in the late '60s and '70s. He wrote the lyrics and sang on Sanders' landmark recording of The Creator Has A Master Plan."
Hooking back up with Thomas, and eventually following him into the bands of Sanders and Santana, Lea's collaborations with the iconoclastic singer set him on a new musical path.
Leon was not only the band leader and one of my bosses," Lea explains, but he was very instrumental to my artistic growth and my path in life as far as the type of music that I like and the genre of music that I play. Playing with him...was a pretty rich period in my life and my development."
When Thomas passed ten years ago, Lea quietly vowed he would find a way to honor him in an appropriate fashion. In 2008, discussions with Peter Williams at Yoshi's, producer Howard Sapper of Extraordinaire Media and Jana Herzen of Motma Music brought the whole concept together, and it was agreed that a live tribute recording would be filmed at Yoshi's on October 14 and 15. The resulting two-disc set also includes bonus video content. UMBO WETI takes its name from the Thomas song titled after the yodel-like singing of the Central African Twa people from whom he adopted his distinctive vocal style.
Joining Lea on this heartfelt tribute is saxophonist Ernie Watts, who has been a favorite collaborator since Watts spectacularly joined Lea's Quartet for a four-day stint at Rassella's in San Francisco in 2002. Lea had long wanted to collaborate on record with pianist/singer Patrice Rushen, while bassist Gary Brown is an old Bay Area friend with whom Lea has played with for nearly 30 years. The lynch pin on UMBO WETI, though, is vocalist Dwight Trible, whose voice and delivery just screams Leon Thomas," according to Lea, and who worked with Lea on a recorded suite and soundscape for the opening of San Francisco's Museum of the African Diaspora (MOAD). It was a no-brainer to bring Dwight in for UMBO WETI because, his sound comes directly out of Leon and all that innovation Leon was doing."
The most important thing I wanted to accomplish is to have the music exude spirituality." Even a cursory listen to UMBO WETI confirms Lea achieved that -- and a closer hearing unveils layers of joyful, instinctual virtuosity. But the star of the show remains Thomas' music and his vision translated and memorialized in a definitive fashion by Lea and his capable cohorts. It was worth waiting for.
BABATUNDE LEA - UMBO WETI: A Tribute To Leon Thomas 1937-1999
Motma MTM-25 - Release date: September 8, 2009