Music News & Reviews

Jazz Town: Singer Alicia Olatuja is in the Folly spotlight

Alicia Olatuja has carved out a multifaceted career.
Alicia Olatuja has carved out a multifaceted career. From the artist

Singer Alicia Olatuja, who comes to the Folly Theater on Friday, isn’t exactly famous yet.

But there was one moment that made people notice, beamed around the world on television, when she sang a mesmerizing solo with the Brooklyn Tabernacle choir at President Barack Obama’s 2013 inauguration.

Yes, there’s gospel in her style. And a power that comes from the vocal security and control she’s learned as an operatic mezzo-soprano. And the immediacy of the pop music she also loves. All those things and more come out in her jazz.

Every year the Folly Jazz Series gambles on an emerging artist for its Spotlight concert. This year it’s a very good gamble indeed with Olatuja, a singer with a commanding sound and impeccable technique, but more importantly, rare taste.

Now a New Yorker, Olatuja was born on the West Coast but had most of her formative musical experiences in St. Louis.

“I sang my first solo in church when I was 9,” she says. She has fond memories of coming to Kansas City for church music retreats with like-minded gospel singers and players. But there was always more.

“I always had a voracious appetite for music,” she said. “I was singing solos and singing in ensembles. By the time I got to junior high school I was singing in multiple languages — Handel, Mozart, modern composers. It was like a delicious way to travel the world.”

Pop singers also left their imprints — mainly, she says, male singers.

“Their phrasing was so different and beautiful. They have to rely more on phrasing than on high notes. Larnelle Harris, Take 6, BeBe Winans …”

And jazz made its way into her consciousness.

“I really love Sarah Vaughan, Dianne Reeves, Kurt Elling, Abbey Lincoln. Then I wanted to make a sound that was a collection of all these influences. That’s our responsibility as an artist, to mix all these influences and yourself.”

But her jazz is informed by her classical training.

“I’m obsessed with Leontyne Price, Renee Fleming, Bryn Terfel. You don’t get stronger phrasing anywhere other than in the classical world.”

After her St. Louis upbringing, Olatuja headed to the University of Missouri to study veterinary medicine. Music ultimately won out. After graduation she headed to New York, fell in with a musical crowd and instantly felt at home.

She’s carved out a multifaceted career. She was Sacajawea in a world-premiere opera based on the story of the Lewis and Clark expedition. She teaches “healthy vocal technique” in her studio, helping singers from all genres learn to do more. She’s often on tour with Grammy-winning pianist Billy Childs, and sometimes she’s on tour with her own band. And she’s writing songs for a new album, her second.

“My original songs are inspired a lot by recent moments in my life. … It’s a road map to myself,” she says.

One of those songs came from the experience of singing solo at the inauguration. Olatuja didn’t know that chance was coming until about 10 days before the event, and she was fearful at first.

“I remember laying on the floor, thinking, ‘If I mess this up I’m messing up in front of the world.’ 

The song “The One,” on her debut album, became “a pep talk to myself,” she says — but it’s a pep talk that can translate to anyone who listens.

Her repertoire also has plenty of jazz standards, including her specialty “Over the Rainbow,” which sounds very fresh in her treatment. And there are new arrangements of things from Michael Jackson, Chaka Khan and Stevie Wonder.

It’s a mixture as diverse as Olatuja’s experience.

The aim is simple and inclusive: “I want the freedom of improvisation, but the musicality I appreciated so much in others.”

▪ The show is at 8 p.m. Friday at the Folly Theater, 300 W. 12th St. Tickets are $20 to $50; call 816-474-4444 or check Olatuja will take part in a question-and-answer session for ticketholders at 7 p.m.


▪ The Blue Room, 1616 E. 18th St., has a jam led by singer Lisa Henry at 7 p.m. Monday. The group Shades of Jade performs at 7 p.m. Thursday. Singer Ida McBeth is on at 8:30 p.m. Friday, and bassist James Ward’s band appears at 8:30 p.m. Saturday.

▪ The next combination live performance and recording session for the “12th Street Jump” radio show pays tribute to the music of Nat King Cole. It’s at 7:30 p.m. (but come early) Wednesday at the Green Lady Lounge, 1809 Grand Blvd.

▪ The Green Lady also has the Foundation 627 Big Band at 8:30 p.m. Sunday; trumpeter Stan Kessler’s Force 5 at 9 p.m. Monday; the group Dojo at 8 p.m. Tuesday; organist Ken Lovern’s OJT at 9 p.m. Wednesday; guitarist Matt Hopper’s trio at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, followed by saxophonist Brett Jackson’s group at 9 p.m.; pianist Tim Whitmer at 5:30 p.m. Friday, followed by tenor saxophonist Steven Lambert’s quartet at 8:30 p.m. and organist Chris Hazelton’s Boogaloo 7 at 10 p.m.; and keyboardist Max Groove at 6 p.m. Saturday, followed by Lambert’s quartet again at 8 p.m. and guitarist Will Matthews’ trio at 9:30 p.m.

▪ Trumpeter Dave Scott is guest soloist with the People’s Liberation Big Band of Greater Kansas City at 8 p.m. Sunday at The Ship, at 1217 Union Ave. in the West Bottoms.

▪ Vibraphonist Diana Herold returns to our area for a show at 7 p.m. Friday at the Art Factory, 5621 W. 135 St., Overland Park, in the Prairiefire development. The Sons of Brasil perform there at 7 p.m. Saturday.

▪ The free midday jazz concerts at Johnson County Community College are back. Singer Megan Birdsall’s quartet gives the next one, at noon Tuesday in the Polsky Theatre.

Joe Klopus, 816-234-4751