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Straight No Chaser - A Jazz Show

Welcome to Straight No Chaser, the Award-winning Podcast hosted by Jeffrey Siegel

Feb 15, 2010

Podcast 176 is my interview with Babatunde Lea, a veteran percussionist who has just released a tribute album to one of his musical mentors, Leon Thomas. Thomas was a shining star of the jazz avant-garde in the Sixties, making memorable recordings with Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Archie Shepp, and especially Pharoah Sanders. The pair collaborated on the classic "The Creator Has a Master Plan" , which took up an entire side of 1969's Karma. Forty years later, its impossible not to see the iinfluence of this recording on a generation of musicians who play spiritual music.

Babtunde met Thomas for the first time when Leon was singing in church in Englewood, New Jersey in the late Fifties. Lea migrated westward to the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 1960s, where he was among the first to play what we now call “world Music”, primarily as a member of Bill Summers’ visionary ensemble, Bata Koto. Babatunde recorded sessions with Stan Getz, Joe Henderson, McCoy Tyner, and Randy Weston before meeting up with Leon Thomas once again.

Lea took a regular place in Thomas’ band, and recorded with him and with Pharoah Sanders (Rejoice) a number of times before Thomas’ untimely death in 1999. The two shared a deep friendship, and it has taken Babatunde ten years to finally produce a fitting tribute to his old friend, a two-CD live recording called Umbo Wet: A Tribute to Leon Thomas. The title comes from Pygmy language meaning roughly This voice is not me, my voice is ancient. This person you see before you is controlled by ego but my voice is egoless."

The CD features Lea on percussion, Ernie Watts, on sax, Patrice Rushen on piano, and Gary Brown on bass. Taking Leon’s vocals is Dwight Trible,That's no easy feat, and he is more than up to trying to sound like Leon. Thomas' trademark yodeling vocals have been credited to an accident. Leon has said: I'd been trying to reach this cat for ages with no luck. I was at home and thought 'I'm gonna make this cat pick up the phone'--mentally. I began my yoga exercises and got to the head stand. With one intake of breath, I planned to walk to the phone upside down, dial his number, and make him answer with this mental projection. 

As I crossed the threshold of the bedroom, I transcended. I was one place and my body was another. I dropped to the floor, right on my face and my teeth went into my bottom lip. There was blood everywhere.... so I couldn't do my own show with Pharoah. I had eight stitches in my mouth. I couldn't do anything. Pharoah came by to see me [and he said] you can't pull out.

I couldn't smile. I could hardly open my mouth...but I went along anyhow. I got up on the stage and when it came time for me to scat, this sound just came out. It shocked me. I didn't know where it was coming from."

The musical selections for the Podcast include:

Leon Thomas – “The Creator Has a Master Plan (Peace)” from Spirits Known and Unknown. A slightly different take on the classic song, from Leon’s first solo album in 1969. The band includes Roy Haynes (drums), James Spaulding (flute), Lonnie Liston Smith (keyboards) and Pharoah Sanders, mysteriously credited as “Little Rock”

Santana – “Love, Devotion and Surrender” from Welcome.  Santana’s most overtly jazz-rock recording, the album featured compositions by John and Alice Coltrane, and featured Leon as the band’s lead vocalist. The song was the title of Santana’s collaboration album with John McLaughlin, although it did not appear on that record. Band members include Santana regulars like Tom Coster (keyboards), Jose Chepito Areas (percussion) and Michael Shrieve (drums) along with guest artists like McLaughlin (guitar) and Flora Purim (vocals).

Babatunde Lea – “Boom Boom” from Umbo Wet: A Tribute to Leon Thomas. Leon could sing the blues, R&B or the most complex jazz composition. Here Babtunde’s band covers his version of the John Lee Hooker classic.

Babatunde Lea – “African Tapestry (Prayer For a Continent)” from Umbo Wet: A Tribute to Leon Thomas. One of Lea’s original compositions on the album.

Pharoah Sanders – “The Creator Has a Master Plan(edit) from Karma. The original spans 32 minutes. This nine minute edit should give you an idea of the power of this recording. The band is Sanders on tenor sax, Ron Carter on bass, Billy Hart on drums, Lonnie Listen Smith on piano and Nat Bettis and Leon on percussion.

Babtunde Lea – “Nature Boy” from March of the Jazz Guerillas. Babtunde himself picked this track, citing his work on it with Leon, and the way he integrates African drums into a straight ahead reading of the tune, usually taken at ballad pace.