When drummer Ulysses Owens Jr. was asked in 2016 to take part in Jazz at Lincoln Center’s “100 Years Of Song” celebration, he came up with the idea of interpreting the music of female icons Abbey Lincoln, Joni Mitchell, and Nina Simone (it would have been Nina’s 86th birthday yesterday).
The press releases is quoting him saying “at that time social media was blowing up every day with news of police brutality, videos of black men being killed by the cops.” It seems that nothing has really changed in the last three years so “Songs Of Freedom” seems to be a relevant, timely statement. Ulysses, probably best known for his work in bassist Christian McBride’s various bands, was playing with singer Alicia Olatuja one day in January 2016 when I visited a showcase of her at the Yamaha Piano salon in midtown Manhattan. She ends up singing three songs on this pretty strong album, opening fittingly with the Bernard Ighner classic “Everything Must Change”. Her diction and pitch flawless, her voice capturing both sorrow and hope in an elegant, powerful way. Guitarist David Rosenthal accompanies in a sweet and soft way, keyboard work from Allyn Johnson is magnificent and bassist Reuben Rogers is a strong force altogether.
Sometimes reminding me of Oleta Adams in the lower and middle register, Alicia can climb the highs too, best exemplified here when she sings of “hummingbirds do fly”. The churchy “Be My Husband” is mastered by her in an excellent way. No wonder because she’s coming from a Gospel background, being part of the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir. David shows his bluesy chops here. She’s downright amazing on Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” which features a beautiful piano solo where Reuben and Ulysses dance around Allyn’s images and David setting colorful nuances. Certainly one of the highlights on the album.
Singer René Marie can be heard on two tracks. Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddamn” seems to be a perfect fit. Her strong presence is felt throughout and I wonder how she feels about being part of this project after her love song tribute to America, her 2011 album “Voice Of My Beautiful Country”. She turns in a pretty rock and blues-induced “Driva’ Man” from the Abbey Lincoln/Max Roach “We Insist! Freedom Now Suite” with words by Oscar Brown, Jr.
And the third vocalist to be featured here is Theo Bleckmann, the extraordinarily versatile artist who is an expert in layered, wordless vocals as well as in interpreting the songs of Kate Bush. His “Balm In Gilead” is a no-frills performance, full of tenderness and soothing (with some of his layered vocals thrown in as background too and as a sort of solo in the middle section) and pure joy to listen to. It’s a fascinating take creating a conciliating atmosphere. The other Simone track he is covering is “Baltimore”, written by Randy Newman and done as a reggae paean with strong drum work by the leader. And this being a drummer-led album, it is very heartening to hear Ulysses in the background when necessary, accentuating, supporting, and sometimes highlighting the vocalists. He’s very potent and upfront though on Theo’s third entry, Joni Mitchell’s “Borderline” (from her 1994 “Turbulent Indigo”), where Theo is showing his sonorous and storytelling ability.
Joanna Majoko is featured on another Lincoln/Roach tune, the fierce “Freedom Day”, another piece where Ulysses is aptly showcasing his sinewy playing. There is one original tune on the album, “Oh Freedom”, echoing the Gospel and Blues of Nina Simone, the social cry of Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach, and the promise and hope of Joni Mitchell and thus, exquisitely summing up this adventure.