The Soul Seen: Omar

The Soul Seen is a retrospective of features that appeared on ISPYSOUL during its acclaimed initial run. These features provide a snapshot in time of key moments in the careers, from fledgling to legendary, of several creative and talented artists. The projects featured are older now, but no less significant. The insights and perspectives they shared, speak to their success and as you will find still resonate today.

Omar Haven’t You Heard

“When I grow up I want to be like Omar.” When asked about that comment, England–bred, singer, songwriter and musician, Omar replies with a humbled chuckle and flattered lilt, “I take it with a pinch of salt because there was an obvious laugh when he was saying it.” The “he” in this case is the one and only, Stevie Wonder and although the statement was made with his storied comic flair it’s also obvious it packed a wealth of sincere admiration. Why you say? The legendary icon will appear on Omar’s next project and he made the call. “He called me up twice in two days in fact, to say he had a song for me”, recalls Omar. “I had to wait seven hours in the studio for him to turn up but hey, I would have waited two days. It was one of the most memorable times for me.”

Viewed by many as an icon himself on his home turf, Omar’s artistry has actually incited similar accolades from artists and fans this side of the pond -Folks like India.Arie, D’Angelo, Jill Scott, Maxwell and more who are often in attendance at his sold-out shows in places like Atlanta, Chicago or New York. In addition, his collaborations boast a list that includes Lamont Dozier, Leon Ware, Erykah Badu, Common and more. On his CD, BEST BY FAR, now being released stateside, soulstress, Angie Stone and hip-hop/jazz weaver, Guru show the love with flavorful guest spots adding to a gem-filled collection of classic grooves and maestro-like orchestration.

Best By Far is actually Omar’s fifth release over a career spanning thirteen years. While it carries such a definitive title, many of his faithful followers would probably proclaim this just another in the string of creative hipness he’s become known for. But again, aside from keen soul searchers here in the US, known about mostly in the UK. The domestic drop of this, his latest, he feels will serve as a good first introduction to his uniquely soulful sound as opposed to waiting to put out a new CD here later with a name only relatively few know. Hopefully there will then be a more sizeable American contingent, captured and thirsting for the new project planned for completion this year. “[Best By Far] hadn’t been released out here,” explains Omar. “It’s only been available as an import. There’d never been any promotion with it. So rather than just stepping over with a new thing, I thought it would be easier to introduce people to the latest stuff. Because there’s the stuff on there like the duo I did with Angie [Stone] that no one’s ever heard. So it’d be cool to give [people in America] the opportunity. The hard core fans obviously know it, but it would be cool to introduce it on a bigger scale.”

For many of those same hard-core fans Omar also carries the distinction of being at the forefront of what’s now been labeled, neo-soul. When asked about being bestowed with the tag he is guardedly grateful for the assessment, but has astutely put it all in perspective. “It’s a flattering thing and it’s great for people to mention my name in the same breath as some of the others who have been credited in that way or to say that kind of thing,” he says. “But that’s as far as it goes. I’m not sitting down saying, I’m the founder of this so what’s my next song going to be. It’s an accolade I receive very humbly, but that’s as far as it goes. That’s not how I sit down to write the music. It’s what I’m vibin’ about at the time.” Indeed Omar’s vibe is one emitted by artists motivated most by the opportunity to create something unique, lasting and stimulating. And the moment in time dictates the focus. Best By Far, a masterfully woven tapestry of grooves, sounds and incredible arrangements, is the mission accomplished. Think classic soul with pumping rhythm sections, in the pocket and funky – a vibrant section of horns juiced with the sweet growl of trombones – strings – lush, beautiful and stirring – Background harmonies layered to perfection and Omar’s lead – super cool and utterly hip. And that moment in time dictated the direction – a lean to cinematic score writers of the 60’ and 70’s. “I always have this idea about who I want to work with on an album,” says Omar. “I like to work with icons. I’ve worked with Leon Ware, Lamont Dozier and Syreeta Wright. But this time I was gunning for Lalo Schiffren, Burt Bacharach, and John Barry.” He continues, “In essence what I’m trying to do is have a funky beat with strings and orchestration over the top of it.” The result is something reminiscent of the slick soundtracks for Shaft or Superfly – jewels from maestros like Barry White, Issac Hayes or vintage Quincy Jones – the magic provided by Philly’s MFSB, with a hint of mod, Austin Powers- like flavor – Funky, hip and oh, so soulful.

It seems unimaginable that with the formal introduction of Best By Far to U.S. ears Omar won’t continue to draw mounds of new found love and recognition beyond the discerning music miners. But of course, that remains to be seen. However for Omar, his task is simple. “I just try to enjoy myself when I’m making the music,” he says. “I try to make music that everyone else will enjoy.” That is the bottom line. Haven’t you heard?

Bert Caldwell

copyright ISPYSOUL  ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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