The best antidote to snow and subzero temperatures is incendiary music, and the music of percussionist Babatunde Lea flows like lava! With his sextet, Lea performs on the Jazz at Studio Z series on December 17, with a live podcast recording/interview at 6 pm followed by the concert at 7 pm. One of the highlights of the evening will be the world premiere of the “New Rituals of Unity” suite, co-written by Lea and his guitarist (and series curator) Zacc Harris and based on a series of traditional West African chants.
Babatunde Lea’s vast experience of over 50 years as a master percussionist, along with the spiritual depth in everything he does, has made him one of the most esteemed musicians of the past half century. A New York native who was raised in Engelwood, NJ, Lea (given name Michael) came to music naturally. His aunt was one of the first women to play in a marching band. Shortly after starting on drums at 11, he saw Babatunde Olatunji and his Drums of Passion, and soon changed his own name to Babatunde. Absorbing the rhythms of Africa and the Caribbean, Lea moved west to the Bay Area at 18, expanding his palette with affiliations with Bill Summers (Bata Koto) before joining Juju, leading to another relocation, this time to Richmond, VA. But perhaps the most influential connection was with Leon Thomas, who he had known from church back in New Jersey. “Leon sang in the choir. I used to see him sing every Sunday and he would ‘turn the church out!’” recalled Lea. Babatunde ended up working in Thomas’s band in the early 70s. “Leon was not only the bandleader and one of my bosses,” Lea explains, “but he was very instrumental to my artistic growth. He was a great influence on the type of music I like and the genre of music that I play.” Back in the Bay Area, He returned to the Bay Area a few years later, he worked with Stan Getz, Joe Henderson, McCoy Tyner, Randy Weston, Van Morrison and, particularly, Oscar Brown, Jr., who was “like a father, he was an activist and I learned a lot just being around him,” recalls Lea.
Babatunde released his first album as leader, Levels of Consciousness in 1979, recording with a band called Phenomena, which grew out of the Loft Jazz Association. It was nearly two decades before his next release, Level of Intent, on his own label, Diaspora Records, which was reissued in 2003 when he co-founded Motema Records with Jana Herzen. Four albums later on Motema, Lea released a tribute to Leon Thomas, Ubmo Weti (2009). In 2010, he moved to Pennsylvania to teach at Gettysburg College, moving again a year later when he finally landed in the Midwest.
Babatunde Lea has presented clinics and demonstrations of his approach to merging traditional African percussion with American jazz, yielding a drum kit he refers to as the Troponga. But his long-term commitment to education is not just about music but also about social justice and spiritual connections. In 1993, with his wife Virginia, he founded the Educultural Foundation, a California non-profit organization that provides workshops, classes, and presentations. “The purpose I try to imbue my music with is that our growth as human beings should strive toward an anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-homophobic, egalitarian, democratic universal society and I don’t care how many life times it takes to get there!” says Babatunde. “I draw a lot from African culture, and one of the main things I’ve come to understand is that music is functional; in African culture, music accompanies everything… from birth ceremonies to funerals. The music is there to open people up to the deepest experiences of life. Music is a resource like oil or water; it does the bidding of who controls it. For my part, I know exactly what I want done with the energy I create with my music. It is my wish that my music will empower people to look within and become agents of peace and change in their hearts, in their families and in the world at large.”
Joining Babatunde at Studio Z will be saxophonist Brandon Wozniak, trombonist JC Sanford, guitarist Zacc Harris, pianist Phil Aaron, and bassist Graydon Peterson.
Saxman Brandon Wozniak previously lived and worked in New York City, toured with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, and earned his BA from Indiana University under the tutelage of the late David Baker. Since arriving in the Twin Cities in 2006, he has performed with local bands including Red Five, Dave King Trucking Company, the Bryan Nichols Quintet, Zacc Harris Quartet, and Vector Families; and in varying combinations with Adam Linz, Billy Peterson, Dean Magraw, Kenny Horst, Zacc Harris, Steve Kenny and more. Over its first two seasons, Brandon has performed on the Jazz in the Target Atrium Series at Orchestra Hall as part of the Atrium Jazz Ensemble, led by Jeremy Walker.
Trombonist JC Sanford works regularly as a composer, performer, arranger and conductor. He has performed with many of the top artists in jazz, such as Matt Wilson, Danilo Perez, and George Schuller, and leads his improvisational trio Triocracy – with saxophonists Andy Laster and Chris Bacas. As co-leader of My Band Foot Foot (along with John McNeil and Andrew Green), Sanford has helped breed a “mad science project” exploring and recreating music of The Shaggs. A founding member of the composers’ federation Pulse (with Darcy James Argue & Joseph C. Phillips, Jr.), JC was a member of the BMI Jazz Composers’ Workshop led by Jim McNeely and Mike Abene for 5 years and currently leads the JC Sanford Orchestra. JC earned his Bachelors degree from the University of Northern Iowa, and his DMA in Jazz Studies from the New England Conservatory of Music where he studied with the late Bob Brookmeyer.
Guitarist Zacc Harris is a California native who came to Minneapolis about ten years ago from Illinois, where he graduated from Southern Illinois University. Here he formed the Luminessence Trio (now Zacc Harris Trio), continuing weekly gigs at the Riverview Wine Bar. In addition to curating Jazz at Studio Z for the past five seasons, Zaac also leads the Atlantis Quartet, Zacc Harris Quartet, Vital Organ, the Zacc Harris Group, and American Reverie trio; performs with Dean Granros’ Tall Tales, the Adam Meckler Quintet and Babatunde Lea Quartet; is a founding producer at Shifting Paradigms Records; and teaches at Hamline University and in his private guitar studio. He’s This past winter, Zacc performed in the U.K., including a gig at the famed Ronnie Scott’s in London.
Pianist Phil Aaron is a Chicago native who studied music at the Berklee College of Music and the University of Illinois. After ten years in LA, he moved to Minneapolis in 1989, becoming fully immersed in the local jazz scene. By day, Phil works as a composer of film and television scores winning an Emmy in 2007 for his scoring work on the PBS animated series, Auto-B-Good. As a performing jazz artist, Phil has shared the stage with Lee Konitz, Eric Alexander, Jim Rotondi, Jim Snidero, Byron Stripling, Barbara Morrison and Jackie Allen, among others, and has provided piano accompaniment to many local jazz singers and ensembles. An active recording artist as sideman and on five CDs of his own, Phil plays regularly with his own trio and Lucia Newell, as well as the Phil Hey Quartet. Drawing inspiration from Bill Evans, Cedar Walton, Tommy Flanagan, and Keith Jarrett, he “can swing hard or wax romantic at the keyboard” (Minneapolis Star Tribune).
Bassist Graydon Peterson attended the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire where he was a member of UWEC’s Downbeat Award-winning Jazz Ensemble I and performed with such guest jazz artists as Lewis Nash, Ingrid Jensen, Jason Marsalis, Chris Botti, and Christian McBride. In Minneapolis, Peterson is a first-call bassist who performs regularly with the trio Firebell with Park Evans and Jay Epstein, with Doug Little’s Charanga Tropical, and in variety of ensembles and big bands, as well as leading his own quartet. Graydon visited Cuba twice during the past year, with Doug Little’s Charanga Tropical and again at the Havana Jazz Festival with Francisco Mela. In 2014, Graydon released his quartet’s first recording, The Graydon Peterson Quartet, and followed a year later with Duets, featuring all original compositions with each quartet member paired with the others.
Master class (6 pm). Curator Zacc Harris will oversee a live podcast for the second time this season, presenting a conversation with Lea in front of a live audience. Episode 1 was recorded with the Chris Bates Good Vibes Trio in November, now posted at http://jazzatstudiozpodcast.libsyn.com/. Those attending the master class can purchase tickets for the concert for $10. Advance tickets can also be purchased for $10 at http://www.studiozstpaul.com/jasz-121716.html; tickets at the door are otherwise $15.
Studio Z is located on the second floor of the Northwestern Building at 275 E. 4th Street (corner of Wall Street) in St. Paul’s Lowertown Arts District, just down the street from Union Depot; www.jazzatstudioz.com