Possessing enviable talent and boundless creative ambition, vocalist Alicia Olatuja is a protean artist still looking for the right songs and settings to contain her bountiful gifts. Her fourth album, Intuition: Songs from the Minds of Women, serves her well with a consistently intriguing program of songs by women composers that haven’t often been explored by jazz singers.
Working with producer Kamau Kenyatta (who’s played a crucial role in the rise of Gregory Porter) and co-producer/drummer Ulysses Owens Jr., Olatuja sounds right at home with the album’s world-class cast. Its primary rhythm section features Owens, pianist Sullivan Fortner, and bassist Ben Williams, with tenor saxophonist Dayna Stephens and trumpeter Jeremy Pelt doing the lion’s share of the horn work. The arrangers are equally vaunted, starting with Billy Childs, who contributes a delicate but forthright arrangement of Brenda Russell’s 1979 hit “So Good, So Right.” Jon Cowherd provides an appropriately sleek frame for Olatuja’s sumptuous mezzo-soprano on Sade’s “No Ordinary Love,” and Josh Nelson wrings every last drop of beauty out of the lullaby “Child of the Moon” by Natalya Phillips, one of several relatively unknown singer/songwriters represented.
Olatuja displays her own chops as an arranger on some of the album’s best tracks, like a fierce version of “People Make the World Go Round” (with a horn arrangement by Etienne Charles) and Joni Mitchell’s late-career wonder “Cherokee Louise” (co-arranged with guitarist David Rosenthal). What the album lacks is a sense of Olatuja’s volatility; the emotional palette is rendered in pastels, when she’s a singer who can paint in the brightest hues. The closing track, a multitracked a cappella arrangement of Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work,” as strange and haunting as the original, hints at her still untapped potential.