Even those who’ve followed the peripatetic career of cornetist Olu Dara, and thus accepted the fact that he might pop up just about anywhere, can still find themselves ambushed by him. The last time it happened to me was in 1994, at the opening-night performance of the Goodman Theatre production I Am a Man, where Dara appeared as a one-man Greek chorus, playing cornet and guitar and singing. But over three decades, he’s made plenty of tantalizing, sometimes surprising guest appearances, on disc and in concert, in bands led by bebop icon Art Blakey, 70s avant-gardists Sam Rivers and Julius Hemphill, rock visionary Brian Eno, and 90s diva Cassandra Wilson (to name a few); in each case, he met the musical demands of the given idiom with an approach combining blues, roots music from around the globe, and jazz improvisation. It all proved way too confusing for categorizers–even the relatively liberal-minded Rough Guide to Jazz chose simply to leave him out rather than make sense of his career. But Dara started turning the tables in January with In the World: From Natchez to New York (Atlantic), the first album under his own name. With beats that touch on calypso and hip-hop (his son, respected rapper Nas, contributes to the album) layered atop steamy southern blues, he guided listeners on a short odyssey through his down-home musical interests, and they rewarded him by making it a surprise hit. Like Taj Mahal (another eclecticist with whom he has worked), Dara grabs the ear less by his mastery of any one idiom than by his ability to spin so many of them into a personal folk music. He uses his creamy, precise cornet work to dance a rough levee blues, to emulate the muted growl of the legendary New Orleans horn man Bubber Miley, and occasionally to break a lullaby’s heart like Miles Davis one moment and Bix Beiderbecke the next. Friday, 10:30 PM, Schubas, 3159 N. Southport; 773-525-2508. Dara also plays twice on Saturday at Blues Fest, on the Juke Joint Stage at 5:30 PM and under the Petrillo Music Shell at 7:30 PM. Both venues are in Grant Park, Columbus and Jackson; 312-744-3370.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Kwaku Alston.