September 29, 2023
Summoning the Spirit of Rhythm
Babatundé Lea
by Paula Edelstein

SOUL POOLS is Babatunde Lea’s fourth brilliant recording as a leader and label debut for the brand new Motema Records label. Released this month, this remarkable program features Mr. Lea leading a stellar lineup of jazz and world music luminaries on eleven outstanding songs. Fueling the fires of Lea’s drumming passions are bassist John Benitez, Kevin Jones on percussion, Frank Ku-umba Lacy on horns and vocals, the great Mario Rivera on sax and flute and the phenomenal Hilton Ruiz on piano. Guest appearances by Jana Herzen and Raul Midon round out the set –each adding dynamic vocals and effects. The first pressing of SOUL POOLS also includes an electrifying “live”bonus CD that features the touring quartet of Geoff Brennan, Hilton Ruiz and Ernie Watts.

As a teen in New York, Lea learned congas, made music in church, and recorded his first album. After moving to San Francisco in the 60s, he continued honing his African, Latin and Carribean rhythmic sounds and eventually landed a job with Bill Summers’ Bata Koto in the seventies and recorded with Pharoah Sanders, Stan Getz, Joe Henderson, and Van Morrison, among others! In 1979, he released LEVELS OF CONSCIOUSNESS and LEVEL OF INTENT in 1995 – the latter featured the great pianist Kenny Barron, master trumpeter Jon Faddis, the dynamic Frank Ku-umba Lacy, the brilliant Charnett Moffett and the amazing pianist Hilton Ruiz. These past performances gave rise and explain the tight rhythmic language Babatunde Lea now speaks with band mates Frank Lacy and Hilton Ruiz. On SOUL POOLS, they are explosive, energetic and definitely in the pocket.

As an educator, Mr. Lea has been influenced by his work with Pharoah Sanders, McCoy Tyner, Randy Weston and Leon Thomas who each share his interest in the power of jazz to connect with African roots and transcendent sources. “Music is conversation,” says Lea. “It’s a listening matter: When I’m surrounded by great players, I learn new and valuable things every time I play.” As a new listener to SOUL POOLS, you’re sure to learn and enjoy what you hear from beginning to end on this great program. Toward that moment, we were fortunate to speak to the great Babatunde Lea during a recent break in his busy schedule. So listen up! Here’s what he had to say.

PE: Let’s talk about SOUL POOLS. How did the concept for the CD come about?

BL:: I had a composition called “Soul Pools” – that’s the title track. When I wrote the composition it was my contention that “music is powerful.” It’s like it does the bidding of who controls it. But the power of my music really is the fact that I want it to be played a specific way. And one of those ways is to dip yourself into the music and come up refreshed and energized and be ready to deal with it, whether “it” is the issues that affect your life or the issues of the community, the nation or the world…for that matter.

PE: That’s so deep and so relevant. On the CD, such great musicians as John Benitez and Frank Ku-umba Lacy, Hilton Ruiz and Mario Rivera accompany you. Had you performed with them before?

BL: I’d performed with everyone except for John and Mario. I had just met John for this recording. Hilton has been on the last three records of mine…so he’s like a relative now! Frank was also on one of my previous recordings.

PE: Hilton Ruiz is in the touring group right?

BL: Yes, that’s right. Hilton, Frank…and instead of Mario now, it’s Ernie Watts.

PE: Great. Ernie’s a great saxophone player too. Why do you have a different touring group?

BL: When I performed at the Playboy Jazz Festival last year, I played in The Cos of Good Music (Bill Cosby’s group) and Ernie was in the group. I had a gig coming up at The Jazz Bakery in Los Angeles and another gig in San Francisco. I really loved Ernie’s playing, so I called him… hoping he’d play with us. So he came and we had such fun in San Francisco. By the way, that’s part of the bonus CD that is released with SOUL POOLS. Ernie and I had such great synchronicity and that’s one of the reasons why I decided to keep him in the touring group. And the real blessing is…he felt the same way too.

PE: That’s always a good thing. Babatunde, who were some of your earliest influences with respect to drumming?

BABATUNDE LEA: Well one of my first and biggest influences was Babatunde Olatunji and his Drums of Passion. He opened up my world and placed me firmly in Africa and made me understand about the roots of the rhythm. From there it was Elvin Jones, Billy Hart, Billy Higgins…a friend of mine and whom I was able to play with. Fortunately I was a percussionist before I was a drummer. I played with a lot of the masters as a percussionist. So I was heavily influenced…played with Billy Hart, Eddie Marshall in the Bay Area. I was there with them…up close and personal.

PE: Ah yes, the great Babatunde Olatunji. He was awesome. Is he why you decided to become a drummer?

BL: Yes, that’s part of the reason. But I started out playing in marching band…in the drum lines.

PE: So you were in the drum line? (Smile)

BL: Yes, I was in the drum line! That movie was about my life up until he went to college…because I didn’t get to go to college as desired. I was like that character in so many ways when I was in high school, embellishing the drum charts and making them swing. I was KNOWN for that! So when I saw that scene… when he met the challenge of the teacher in the rehearsal room line, it really brought back a lot of memories. That movie also reminded me of the great drummers at Florida A&M University. That’s where I wanted to go, but I came out to California instead.

PE: And we’re thankful that you did! You’ve become such a great percussionist and drummer. What would you say was the most gratifying experience for you when you were recording SOUL POOLS?

BL: Just being in the room and making music with such great artists and musical luminaries like Frank and Mario. I was explaining on my EPK (electronic press kit) about playing with Mario Rivera. I mean I grew up listening to him with Tito (Puente) and the great Machito. Mario is one of those players that fathered a lot of the Latin players that were getting into jazz. He influenced that whole scene. I mean he was like a heavy innovator. He was on the opposite side of Dizzy Gillespie. So he was bringing the Latin players in…telling them to check out Trane and Miles and so forth. So when I heard his sound, I had to have him on the CD.

PE: What a great opportunity…to have all these great artists on the same session. What a blowing session! When does the tour in support of SOUL POOLS start and where can your fans find your concert schedule?

BL: The tour starts February 8th and then we head to Europe for a concert in Paris. After that, we’ll be touring the West Coast, which begins in April. The concert schedule is on the website at www.motema.com

PE: Fantastic. Thank you so much for the interview and congratulations on your stellar debut for Motema Records. May the spirit of rhythm continue to inspire you.

BL: Thank you.


Reprinted with permission of…