BABATUNDE LEA's - UMBO WETI - A TRIBUTE TO LEON THOMAS. Recorded live at Yoshi's in Oakland, CA, featuring Ernie Watts, Patrice Rushen, Gary Brown and vocalist Dwight Trible.
"Thanks to this marvelous musical tribute to vocalist supreme Leon Thomas I find myself thinking back to 1973 when Leon became a part of Santana and went on with us to thrill, uplift, and charm audiences all around the world. What a fantastic time and an incredible experience that was. And now, some thirty-five years later, Babatunde Lea and his daring musical cohorts have conjured up the spirit and the audicity of Leon Thomas in this new time and in their own way and I for one am supremely grateful. Thank you all for this soulful tribute to a truly magnificent musician." - Carlos Santana
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Babatunde Lea’s vast experience of nearly forty years as a master percussionist, as well as the spiritual depth and resonance he brings to everything he does, has made him one of the most esteemed musicians of the past half century. The way that music connects with audiences and with the rhythms of our everyday lives is essential to his musical philosophy: "I draw a lot from African culture, and one of the main things I've come to understand is that music is functional; in African culture, music accompanies everything... from birth ceremonies to funerals. The music is there to open people up to the deepest experiences of life. Music is a resource like oil or water; it does the bidding of who controls it. For my part, I know exactly what I want done with the energy I create with my music. It is my wish that my music will empower people to look within and become agents of peace and change in their hearts, in their families and in the world at large."
For his fourth Motéma release, and his sixth as a leader, Lea has recorded a tribute to one of his most influential mentors, the legendary jazz vocalist and composer Leon Thomas. The idea for the project, titled UMBO WETI after the yodeling singing style of the Twa People of central Africa which influenced Thomas’ signature sound, came to Lea shortly after the singer passed in 1999 and has taken nearly a decade to bring to reality. Lea’s ten- year labor of love reaches powerful fruition on UMBO WETI, which features a stellar and inspired band of improvisers – Dwight Trible (vocals), Ernie Watts (tenor sax), Gary Brown (bass),. Patrice Rushen (piano) – performing the songs of Thomas and others led with passionate fire by Lea on drums and percussion,.
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 went on to become a forefather of free jazz vocalization, best known for his collaborations with Pharoah Sanders and Carlos Santana in the late ‘60s and ‘70s and for writing the lyrics and singing on Sanders’ landmark recording of “The Creator Has A Master Plan.” Lea went on to forge a career steeped in the rhythms of Africa and its Caribbean and South American Diaspora.
After those formative years in NY and NJ, Lea migrated westward to the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 1960s where he was further immersed in 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. Lea’s spiritual essence and serene nature are always at the forefront of his art.
After several years during which each of the two musicians followed his own musical path, Lea returned to the east coast, and reconnected with Thomas in the early ‘70s when he took the drum chair in Leon’s band, which opened doors to some collaborations with Pharoah Sanders, a musical connection which Lea maintains today. Lea’s work 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. He was a great influence on the type of music I like and the genre of music that I play. My experience with Leon marked a rich period in my life and my development."
Many years, and five albums down the pike as a leader, UMBO WETI finds Lea in top form, working with his “dream team” on this live tribute exploring pieces associated with Thomas 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 jazz innovators Sanders and Thomas. "It was a post-bop spiritual jazz that originated with Coltrane in the late ‘60s and that lasted through the ‘70s and early ‘80s," Lea explains. "Leon was a big part of that style and really moved it forward." Lea is one of it’s most impassioned movers today.
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.”
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 Motéma Music brought the whole concept together, and it was agreed that a live tribute recording would be made at Yoshi’s on October 14 and 15. The resulting two-disc set also includes bonus video content of the show and interviews of the players. 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 (documented on Lea’s 2003 Motéma release, SOUL POOLS. Lea had long wanted to collaborate and record with pianist/singer Patrice Rushen, while bassist Gary Brown is an old Bay Area friend with whom Lea had played for nearly 30 years. The lynch pin, for 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 is derived from Leon’s innovative approach."
“The most important thing I wanted to accomplish was 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. Thomas' music and his vision is translated and memorialized in a definitive fashion by Lea and his inspired cohorts.
UMBO WETI follows up Lea’s previous Motéma releases: SOUL POOLS (2003), LEVEL OF INTENT (2001) and SUITE UNSEEN: SUMMONER OF THE GHOST (2005)- all of which have garnered major praise in the jazz and world music press and received significant play at jazz radio – SOUL POOLS and SUMMONER making the top 10 on the JazzWeek chart. Lea’s tremendous inventiveness and showmanship behind the trap drumkit that he plays simultaneously with a surrounding arsenal of congas and percussion (an innovative set up which he calls a ‘Traponga’) thrills audiences and routinely inspires standing ovations at his live shows.
Helping further enrich our lives through the power of his music has always been paramount to Lea’s career in music on and off the bandstand. Since 1993, he and spouse Dr. Virginia Lea have operated the nonprofit Educultural Foundation. "We established our foundation to sow seeds of change, to better ourselves and our communities. We teach critical thinking about social and cultural issues through the arts, to empower students and educators to build communities and reach their educational and socio-economic goals." (http://educulturalfoundation.org). Lea is also in demand for his entertaining and informative drum and percussion workshops and clinics.