Alicia Olatuja: A Singer First

Inside the versatile vocal mastery of Alicia Olatuja

Alicia Olatuja in performance at the 2017 Monterey Jazz Festival (photo by Tomas Ovalle c/o the Monterey Jazz Festival)

Millions of people heard Alicia Olatuja on the televised Washington D.C. concert celebrating Barack Obama’s second presidential inauguration in 2013, when the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir featured her on the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” But the course of her career changed because one particular pair of ears happened to hear that glorious performance. Dianne Reeves was so impressed with Olatuja’s voice that she emailed pianist Billy Childs a link to the performance, writing, “You should hear this girl, she can really sing!”

“At the time, I had nothing I needed a singer for,” says Childs, whose close friendship and creative alliance with Reeves dates back some four decades. “But Dianne often refers me to things that really catch her ears, and when I was looking for a vocalist to join Becca Stevens for my Laura Nyro project tour, I thought about Alicia. A lot of promoters were looking for a big star, and she wasn’t a big star then, but her pitch and intonation and expressiveness were really on point. I knew her voice would be perfect.”

It proved a savvy casting decision, and one of the reasons that Olatuja’s star is rapidly rising. Her magnificent instrument has found a home in a diverse array of settings. Building on her 2014 album, Timeless, she continues to develop a personal sound drawing on her conservatory training, love of jazz and R&B and lifelong immersion in gospel music.

Catching up with Olatuja before her performance at the Monterey Jazz Festival in September, it’s hard not to be dazzled by her 1,000-watt smile. Funny, bubbly and self-possessed, she’s game for challenges that stretch her exceptional skill set. While duly excited to be making her debut at Monterey, she notes that she performed in the area the year before at the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, under the baton of legendary conductor Marin Alsop. Navigating the “Oceana” vocal part that Argentinean composer Osvaldo Golijov designed for Luciana Souza, she was the featured soloist amidst a vast choir and orchestra, interpreting a part without traditional lyrics. “It’s all improvisation with scat syllables, with sounds and vowels that fit around Golijov’s phrases,” says Olatuja, 35. “It’s an amazing piece, but there’s a lot of music now that’s not confined by rules and regulations. And in order to sing it, you have to have an understanding of your instrument.”

Born Alicia Miles and raised in St. Louis, she grew up singing in church but “always had a voracious appetite” for new music, she says. Her musical obsessions ranged from Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald to Leontyne Price and Renée Fleming; still, during her first years at the University of Missouri, she studied to become a veterinarian until her love of music led her to switch to a vocal performance major.

Moving to New York, she married Nigerian/British bassist Michael Olatuja, and first made an impression in jazz circles performing West African-steeped jazz in the Olatuja Project, often singing in Yoruban. She earned a master’s degree in classical voice and opera from the Manhattan School of Music, not to pursue a career in opera, but because she realized she “needed to get training about how to do all the things I wanted to do without hurting myself, whether gospel or jazz or R&B or classical. Actually, I like to do one opera a year to keep up with the discipline and skills.”

Part of what’s so impressive about Olatuja is that she’s fluent in such a wide array of idioms. B-3 maestro Dr. Lonnie Smith has become a staunch fan and features her on two tracks on his upcoming Blue Note release. A teasing mentor, “He’s like the uncle we all had,” she says. “Whenever I got onstage he whispers, ‘I can’t stand you.’ You feel like you’re at home all the time. You know he’s going to take care of you. He’ll say, “Call me,” and we’ll talk about the eggs he had for breakfast, in detail, and never talk about the music. It’s about forging a relationship, the soul-to-soul connection, and you can’t rehearse that.”

At Monterey, she delivered a sleek, simmering neo-soul set that ignited with a spiritually charged arrangement of Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature.” She’s tackling another genre-jumping project in 2018, touring throughout the year with drummer Ulysses Owens Jr.’s “Songs of Freedom,” with German-born vocalist Theo Bleckmann and German/Zimbabwean singer Joanna Majoko. Developed at Jazz at Lincoln Center, the project focuses on the music of Nina Simone, Joni Mitchell and Abbey Lincoln, songwriters who are likely to figure prominently on her next album.

“The album I’m working on is going to be all female composers, including myself, a celebration of those perspectives and experiences,” Olatuja says. “I think of myself as a singer first. When I travel with the Juilliard Jazz Ensemble, I’m a jazz singer, swinging hard. When I’m singing with the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir, I’m a gospel singer. I leave it to the audience, and I’ve found that audiences aren’t that concerned with categories. They want to have an experience.”