What arguably gives the blues its universal appeal is its premier players' lack of pretense. Born on the back porches of backwater towns in the American South, blues truth is straight storytelling among family and friends. Or it's the big dreamer's gonna-make-me-a-world reality, spun less from fact than from feeling, yet still very much real. So whether it comes in tall tales of fortunetelling Gypsies or pacts with Beelzebub, or simple yarns about all-night benders or the greatest love gone bad, the best blues hits with a veracity.
Natchez, Miss., native Olu Dara is heir to this line of no-nonsense musicmaking, and it's clear on every track of his critically acclaimed 1998 solo debut In the World — From Natchez to New York. A stunning surprise to jazz hipsters who know his hot-and-sweet cornet playing with vanguard explorers like Sam Rivers, Henry Threadgill, and David Murray, on World Dara steps out as a leader: a bona fide down-home bluesman with a six-string, rich Muddy Waters-like vocals, and a batch of soulful songs about family, neighborhood, food, and love. Relaxed but with the polish of a seasoned music pro, the New York transplant plays the blues like he has nothing to prove, which, of course, he doesn't. Far from a bid for popular success, the versatile artist glides through the African diaspora seemingly just for fun. Sensual and polychrome-tasty, Dara's “Okra” and “Your Lips” (“Your lips are juicy/… Your lips are Louisiana plum”) evoke Afropop hip-swaying summer nights. His unaccompanied bottleneck guitar and unison vocal line on “Father Blues” are steeped in the woeful moan of the Big Muddy. On “Bubber (If Only),” the jazz-wise bluesman's muted cornet echoes the speaking tones of Bourbon Street via the Harlem Renaissance. Olu Dara's blues digs deep into the roots of Mother Africa, New Orleans, New York, the Delta, and beyond. It's a personal, honest expression, thoroughly without pretense.