Title: Songs of Freedom
Artist: Ulysses Owens Jr.
Label: Resilience Music Alliance
Formats: CD, Digital
Release date: March 15th 2019
Ulysses Owens is one of the most sought after jazz drummers around today, having worked alongside living legends such as Wynton Marsalis, Maceo Parker, Kurt Elling and Christian McBride, with whom he won his first Grammy Award. On top of his outstanding work as a side man, Owens is also making great strides as a band leader, with two studio albums, as well as positive influences in the jazz community through his work as an educator. Now, with the release of his third album, Songs of Freedom, Owens provides his commentary on the American political climate through the songbooks of three female icons of the turbulent 1960s: Nina Simone, Abbey Lincoln, and Joni Mitchell.
This project was originally produced and performed in 2016 as part of Jazz at Lincoln Center’s celebration, 100 Years of Song. When Owens was presented with the task of programming the period of the 1960s to the present, he chose to focus on the defining period of the Civil Rights Movement. He explains, “At that time social media was blowing up every day with news of police brutality, videos of black men being killed by the cops. So I thought back to the ‘60s which seemed like a mirror image of today.” For the studio album, Owens enlisted the help of four of today’s top jazz vocalists: Rene Marie, Theo Bleckmann, Alicia Olatja, and Joanna Majoko. Such a diverse selection of voices and influences helps to present the music of Lincoln, Simone and Mitchell in innovative, modern ways.
Songs of Freedom begins with an open drum solo from Owens that coincides with a clip of Nina Simone responding to an interviewer about her political activism. Twice more throughout the album, Owens includes similar clips from both Abbey Lincoln and Joni Mitchell, choosing moments where the singers are expressing what motivated their work.
The first song on the album is Nina Simone’s “Everything Must Change,” sung by Alicia Olatja. Her presentation of this melody is absolutely awe-inspiring as it begins with just voice and guitar before the rest of the ensemble enters for Olatja’s phenomenal scat solo. The album continues through some of Nina Simone’s most well-known protest songs before presenting compositions from Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite. While these two iconic musicians present the struggle, Owens explains he has chosen two songs by Joni Mitchel to “bring more of a love element to this fight.” The stand out tracks on Songs For Freedom include Theo Bleckmann’s rendition of “Balm In Gilead,” Olatja’s performances on “Be My Husband” and “Both Sides Now,” as well as Joanna Majoko on “Freedom Day.”
Songs of Freedom is a tremendous album, and we’re thankful to be able to experience such a significant part of Jazz at Lincoln Center’s celebration.
Reviewed by Jared Griffin