L’ife is a debut in the truest sense of the word. Local British-Nigerian composer/vocalist Olayimika Cole has been working in jazz, and in music-making in general, for only three years. Though the album uses 25 of D.C.’s best players, my expectations were diluted: In a field that often involves decades of study and practice, it’s easy to be skeptical of a short apprenticeship.
But L’ife is the product of a serious talent. Cole has a natural way with a melody. The opening “Montreal” is an homage to Oscar Peterson (by way of lyrics) and Nat King Cole (by way of Kiyem Ade’s silken vocals). It’s a slow, rhythmically open fantasia, delicately played by a pianist Cole calls “Musos” in a blindfold test for all of D.C. It feels freeform; actually, it develops several motifs—working them through numerous chords—and anchors them with a short, repeating refrain of “my Montreal.” The tune also shows Cole’s gift for lyrical wordplay, using “life melodies” and “like maple leaves” in internal assonance, the latter a symbolic image of Canada. It’s a remarkable introduction.
It gets better, too. The longing, long-toned “Beauty,” sung by Myrna Clayton with empathetic accompaniment from bassist James King and saxophonist Lyle Link, is exactly what it says it is. Ade returns, along with Musos (plus bassist Herman Burney and drummer Quincy Phillips), for the sumptuous bossa nova “Because I Loved You,” with some of the album’s loveliest harmonic contours and lyrics (“I could have loved you if you let me in/I could have loved you if you let our song begin”). “Highly Contagious,” one of the few songs Cole sings, is also exactly what it promises, a kicky little Charleston earworm. She also experiments with rock guitar (“Mr. Hennessy”) and two versions of an Afrobeat pastiche (“Energy”), one of them with incisive vocals by MC Okechukwu.
The mystery pianist shares his alias with the title of one of the album’s best tracks, a tune dedicated to iconic jazz pianist Art Tatum and his hometown of Toledo that hails the power of artistic expression. “The Musos is in me,” Sharon Clark’s deep voice repeats in a dark, suspenseful duet with the piano. “The Musos is our destiny/And the Musos holds the key.” It’s a powerful piece, made all the more powerful by Cole’s self-assured sound.
Still, her inexperience shows through in places. Some rhymes are awkward: Coupling “false pretenses” with “happy endings” is especially bewildering because the natural rhyme is so obvious. (Later, “false pretenses” has a much better and more inventive pairing with “staged suspenses.”) Sometimes, she squeezes too much into one lyric line; a musical phrase on “Beauty” is established with the lyric “I could pause a thousand years just to hold,” but when it recurs, it’s crammed with “But as sure as the clock lifts, at the strike of the hand, her beauty turned into weapon.” There’s also a bad edit on “Mama’s Song”—not just mid-line, but mid–bass note; almost subliminal, it’s jarring nonetheless. These, however, are flaws that can be finessed out with time. L’ife unveils a remarkable new composer in Cole. Her inaugural album overflows with potential.