Ulysses Owens Jr.
Songs of Freedom
Resilience Music Alliance LLC
Drummer Ulysses Owens Jr. has two previous albums as a leader and is known for his work with Kurt Elling, Wynton Marsalis and Christian McBride among others. But for Songs of Freedom it’s his work with Elling that provides an obvious link – for this audacious project sees Owens tackling works by or assocated with Nina Simone, Joni Mitchell and Abbey Lincoln. He has a range of super guest vocalists to assist – and he’s built a new narrative by assembling these songs (many of them from the 1960s and/or associated with civil rights) in a particular order and presenting them with ‘introductions’ by the original singers. Owens has through-composed three drum solo pieces that have him playing in and around interview snippets or spoken-word passages from Simone, Mitchell and Lincoln. It’s not just clever composition and re-positioning – it states the collective theme more overtly, allowing for interpretations beyond the political too – for all three singers performed in unique – free and often freeing – styles.
The guest vocalists all get plenty of chances to shine – and take them. Never forsaking the original voices they are covering, or at least never walking all over the words and precious melodies.
Perhaps the star of the show is René Marie – with a killer showing on both Simone’s Mississippi Goddamn and the Max Roach showcase for Lincoln, Driva’ Man. Still, Theo Bleckmann is a star here too with his renditions of Balm in Gilead and Randy Newman’s Baltimore reminding of the (sometimes) androgynous quality to Simone’s singing.
Alicia Olatuja backs up the mighty fine work on her own recent album of covers of songs by or featuring strong women – particularly her version of Be My Husband could have slotted onto her own record.
Joana Majoko might only get one chance to shine – but she sure nails it with another of Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite moments for Abbey Lincoln. On Freedom Day we also hear most overtly from Ulysses – a sharp post-bop swing drives this along with huge thwacks at the snare and toms to punctuate. And even a brief solo. And pianist Allyn Johnson provides a memorable melodic dance.
Both Sides Now might be the dud of the album – if only for its obviousness and near-ubiquity. It’s a lovely vocal effort from Olatuja, but to hear from mid/late-70s Joni would have been more interesting. Still Bleckmann is given a near-obscurity in the form of Borderline from early-90s Joni-canon. And it’s a gem. A wonderful version and a huge part of the vision of this album also.
Ultimately it’s a class act with dazzling performances and it’s conceptually sound.