Mar 4, 2019
Performer! Producer! Musical Director! Arranger! Composer! Educator! Ulysses Owens Jr checks all the boxes as he continues to develop and grow his career in jazz. Since his graduation from Juilliard as a member of its jazz inaugural class in 2001, he has been in demand as drummer and musical director. You are likely familiar with his contributions to recordings with Christian McBride’s Trio and Big Band, the latter of which won him his second Grammy Award. His first Grammy came in 2010 for his work with Kurt Elling on his live album Dedicated to You.
Songs of Freedom is his fifth album as bandleader, not including four others with the New Century Jazz Quintet, which he leads with pianist Takesh Ohbayashi. The new album is the culmination of a four year project that began as his production at the Appel Room at Jazz at Lincoln Center of a tribute to the music of Abbey Lincoln, Nina Simone, and Joni Mitchell. As musical director, he led vocalists Alicia Olatuja, Theo Bleckmann, and Dee Dee Bridgewater in a sold out show. A rousing success, the show toured, gaining further momentum. Now, we have the CD, a release on the DiskUnion Japan Label.
The ten tracks on Songs of Freedom allow Owens and his collaborators to explore the personal freedoms of expression, enfranchisement, representation and love. Ms. Bridgewater is gone, but in her stead is a fiery turn by Rene Marie, and a promising appearance by the up-and-coming singer Joanna Majoko. Olatuja and Bleckmann, both long-time friends and collaborators are revelations. Ms. Olatuja brings new facets to “Both Sides Now” and a sense of both foreboding and hopefulness with Nina Simone’s “Everything Must Change.” Bleckmann, who Ulysses delights in calling “weird”, sings two lesser known tunes - Randy Newman’s “Baltimore”, associated with Ms. Simone, and Joni Mitchell’s obscure “Borderline” from her Turbulent Indigo album. Both of the songs were written more than 25 years ago, but in the hands of Bleckmann and Owens’ band, their lyrical themes and content seem as if ripped from today’s headlines.
Podcast 669 is my conversation with Ulysses Owens, Jr., in which we discuss the evolution of the Songs of Freedom project; why he enjoys playing with singers so often; and his involvement in a series of new projects, including those by Steve Wilson and Elling. Musical selections from Songs of Freedom include “Everything Must Change”, “Baltimore”, “Borderline” and Joanna Majoko singing “Freedom Day” plus a track from the Christian McBride Big Band’s The Good Feeling CD, “Brother Mister.”