MFC, Wellington (8pm)
Saturday, June 8
Alicia Olatuja has the perfect backstory for a jazz festival appearance in NZ – she was part of the choir at one of Barack Obama’s inaugurations and with that as a springboard she is still in the beginnings of her solo career but has recently released a fine-enough album where she pays tribute to the voice of female composers.
On that album, Intuition: Songs From The Minds of Women, she picks songs and artists you might easily expect (No Ordinary Live by Sade) and then genuine surprises (This Woman’s Work by Kate Bush).
The idea that she might serve up an incredible night of music – with a great band and wise selection – was of course the hope. I could almost feel it before it happened. Certainly, my fingers were crossed.
But it was just a little too polite. No real grit.
There were moments, of course. The early inclusion of Joni Mitchell’s Cherokee Louise was not only beautifully handled it was genius-level selection; one of Mitchell’s great story-songs, and a lesser known gem from her canon.
But some of the songs just appeared safe and obvious (the Sade for example) and the band on stage seemed bored.
It was all exceedingly competent. And Olatuja made all the right noises – she was almost too perfect.
But the middle of the set just sank into a single, same, safe groove. Polite dinner-jazz renditions of songs by Imogen Heap and Olatjua herself (So Good So Right) didn’t really seem to say anything at all.
When we finally got to Tracy Chapman’s Give Me One Reason (not a great song, by the way) things finally turned a corner. Some sweat and spit in the riff, some grit and soul in the vocal. Olatjuda is an R’n’B singer mascarading as jazz – if she digs deep into a Mavis Staples-type vibe she could really have something.
But he had praised New Zealand non-stop, including our Lord of the Rings tour. So it was standing ovation time. People blown away by something actually rather mediocre.
There’s a ferocious talent waiting to be unlocked in Alicia Olatuja. At the moment it’s still Sunday Best-dressed and new-car shiny.
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