Alicia Olatuja transforms familiar music with vocal finesse and crystalline tone

Alicia Olatuja’s solo during President Obama’s second inauguration brought down the house
Photo by harrisonweinsteinphotography.com

When Grammy-winning jazz pianist Billy Childs was recording his superb 2014 album “Map to the Treasure: Reimagining Laura Nyro,” he called in formidable vocal guests such as Lisa Fischer, Ledisi, and Susan Tedeschi. But during Childs’ subsequent tour stop at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Downtown L.A., it was a lesser-known jazz stylist who earned a standing ovation for her rendition of “Stoned Soul Picnic.”

By then, Alicia Olatuja had already made heads snap worldwide with her dynamic range at President Barack Obama’s second inauguration, where the soulful mezzo-soprano soloed with the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir. Now Olatuja is heading her own tour behind her sophomore album “Intuition: Songs From the Minds of Women,” which exalts women’s resilience with songs by composers such as Tracy Chapman, Imogen Heap, Latin American folk goddess Violeta Parra, and Brenda Russell.

Like her 2014 debut “Timeless,” “Intuition” is a mostly midtempo set whose elegant arrangements complement Olatuja’s interpretive finesse and crystalline tone. The abuse-themed “Cherokee Louise” maintains the guideline melody of Joni Mitchell’s original recording, but subtle percussion and bass edge it with menace; a streamlined arrangement of Sade’s “No Ordinary Love” retains the sensuality if not the hypnotism of the original’s groove behind Olatuja’s confessional treatment of the lyric; and a slight tempo shift and trumpet solo give late, great Philly soul songwriter Linda Creed’s “People Make the World Go Round” a more hallucinatory cast than the Stylistics ever envisioned.

If Olatuja and her dexterous trio launch into Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work” at the Moss Theater on Friday, her queenly yet playful stage demeanor and gospel fervency are likely to transform it into an uplifting call to hope.

— Bliss Bowen

The Jazz Bakery presents Alicia Olatuja from 8 to 10 p.m. Friday (March 22) at the Ann & Jerry Moss Theater, 3131 Olympic Blvd., Santa Monica. Tickets are $35 or $25 for students. Call (310) 271-9039 or visit aliciaolatuja.com.

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