Ulysses Owens Jr.
Outside in Music
Ulysses Owens Jr. is an exciting and in-demand drummer – he’s backed the likes of Wynton Marsalis, Kurt Elling and Christian McBride. He’s made a small handful of dynamic records as a leader – including the impressive, conceptual – political – statement Songs of Freedom and he still turns up to sit in with small combos including, most recently as a member of Alexa Tarantino’s band on this killer record.
Swapping the conceptual weight of his last solo record for the collective weight of jazz’s stage-swallowing spectacle that is The Big Band Ulysses straight away reminds you of the heft, depth, dynamic boom and attitude of the great drummer-led big bands. We’re thinking Buddy Rich straight away on opener Two Bass Hit. From the sizzle of the count-off and on through blistering solos, the drummer waiting for the horns to hit it before dining out on his own to close off.
I thought of Max Roach more for London Towne, though that’s largely for guest Stefon Harris’ sublime vibraphone solo which takes me to when Max was running M’Boom and players like the mighty Joe Chambers (primarily a drummer himself) would get to feature on instruments like the vibes.
There’s some of Ed Shaughnessy’s quietly authoritative mastery (Beardom X) and Gene Krupa’s rolling, tumbling thrill-ride style is there on Harlem Harlem Harlem (maybe a nod, in title alone, to Sing Sing Sing).
Coltrane’s Giant Steps is covered – the band in post-bop heaven. Or maybe seven steps from it? There are gorgeous ballads – Red Chair – and in a nod to late-period Miles, no doubt, there’s an arrangement of Michael Jackson’s Human Nature. It has more clout than the treacly take Davis recorded and again Harris’ turn at the vibraphone is the star moment driving the tune.
Several of the band members serve up solid original compositions to nestle in and around a couple of big, deep standards. And Owens’ bandmate Alexa Tarantino returns the favour with some stellar sax work here – including the rich soloing on the closing title track.
It’s a funky, muscular big band workout – and the music is the real star here. The funky side of the Buddy Rich Big Band is what most comes to mind though, on the title track, on Language of Flowers with its slow-release richness and big builds and on the brass-delight that is Girl Talk. Ulysses hits where and when it counts, enjoys his time when he solos but is never trying to take over. He’s at the wheel driving everyone home.
This is a lot of fun and so beautifully played and arranged. Big band music isn’t for everyone – but this is the type of big band music that every jazz fan can be on board with, I should think.