If you happened to number among the million-strong crowd that filled the National Mall for President Obama’s January 2013 inauguration, then you’re already familiar with Manhattan School-trained mezzo-soprano Alicia Olatuja, whose brief performance with the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir earned her breakout accolades. Three days later she released The Promise, a buoyant, blissful world-music/jazz hybrid co-created with her husband, bassist Michael Olatuja.
Inching closer to pop-infused jazz, Olatuja’s solo debut, a near-equal mix of originals and judiciously chosen covers, is a more varied outing. It includes among its highlights the soft shimmer of Brazilian singer-songwriter Djava’s “Serrado” (featuring Christian McBride on bass); the gentle undulation of the Michael Jackson hit “Human Nature” (Olatuja sounding eerily similar to Jackson); the roil of her own eight-minute “Truth in Blue”; and the soaring authority of “In the Dark.”
The arrangements, including two from Laurence Hobgood, are gorgeously spare, with the core rhythm section of husband Michael, keyboardist Jon Cowherd, guitarist David Rosenthal and drummer Ulysses Owens Jr. joined by assorted guests. Grégoire Maret expertly tackles the harmonica part on Stevie Wonder’s tender “Stay Gold,” pianist Christian Sands provides fairy-dust accompaniment on “Over the Rainbow,” Jaleel Shaw’s sax propels Olatuja’s feisty “The One” and McBride returns to shape “Speak the Words,” her sharp ode to self-actualization. The crystalline purity of her voice is, however, best appreciated on the closing track, a stunning rendition of “Amazing Grace” in duet with Rosenthal.