When Olu Dara put out his first album, In the World: From Natchez to New York, in 1998, most jazz lovers knew what to expect -- the sort of avant-garde trumpet playing that Dara had contributed to performances and recordings by the likes of David Murray, Henry Threadgill and Jamaaladeen Tacuma for over thirty years. How wrong they were. Sure, jazz was part of the mix, but so were blues, funk, African music and even hip-hop: "Jungle Jay" was built around the rhyming of his son, star rapper Nas. And while Dara didn't ignore his horn, he spent most of his time singing relaxed, organic songs of great simplicity and wit in a charmingly untutored voice that caught even his fans off guard. And they didn't mind a bit.
On his latest recording, Neighborhoods, issued by Atlantic Records, Dara would seem to be at a disadvantage. After all, everyone knows what he's capable of now. But rather than freezing up or becoming self-conscious, he simply lets the music flow as sweet and slow as freshly tapped molasses. He's so confident that he kicks off the disc with "Massamba," a lovable goof of a song about a member of his band, Congolese conga player Coster Massamba, whose name is spelled out in the lyrics as if it's a word every grade schooler should know by heart. That's followed by the catchy, eccentric "Herbman" (it's about healing plants and cooking ingredients, not that other herb on your mind), the wonderfully vivid, bluesy "Strange Things Happen Everyday," and the richly atmospheric "Used to Be," in which guest vocalist Cassandra Wilson's luxurious pipes make a marvelous match with Dara's humble but eloquent ones.
What's best about the songs Dara is playing these days is their effortlessness. He blends together nearly every intrinsically American musical style -- a seemingly difficult trick -- yet the results seem as natural as breathing. The surprise may have worn off, but the satisfaction sure hasn't.