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“Ain’t I a Woman,” the sultry blues/gospel number that kicks off Momentum, moves with a swagger that would be welcome on most any straightahead jazz playlist. Pianist Ellen Rowe introduces the tune with rumbling gospel chords that set the table for a classic soul-jazz horn-driven melody. The round of solos begins with a well-developed, no-notes-wasted foray by trombonist Melissa Gardiner. Rowe doesn’t take a turn, satisfied to provide the rhythmic bedrock along with drummer Allison Miller and bassist Marion Hayden.
Rowe, who composed and arranged all eight tunes, is the chair of the University of Michigan jazz department. While most members of this all-woman ensemble boast more sterling player credits than the leader, she’s very much in the driver’s seat here. Rowe favors precision over abandon — too much so, ultimately. The solos are carefully portioned out, and, as a result, some sound a bit too colored between the lines. Rarely do matters get rambunctious, so credit a couple of Lisa Parrott baritone sax solos for adding a dose of gutbucket grime.
The seven tunes that follow don’t quite live up to the promise of the opener, although all are well crafted. As an arranger — where she’s strongest — Rowe establishes a seamless and graceful flow, especially in the full-bodied horn charts. At times, she succumbs to big-band clichés, as on “RFP (Relentless Forward Progress),” where an elegant head section gives way to breezy Latin grooves on the solos. The funk beat forced into “Game, Set, Match” comes off as stiff, lacking that elusive greasy feel.
Rowe recruited nine ace musicians, gathered them in a studio on the UM campus and made an album by women, celebrating women, but not just for women. That’s no small feat. She succeeded on all counts, although loosening the reins a smidge would’ve been a good idea.—Eric Snider