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Songs of Freedom features moving and vibrant interpretations of classic material associated with Nina Simone, Abbey Lincoln and Joni Mitchell. But drummer Ulysses Owens Jr., who conceived the project and anchors the highly talented group of musicians who bring it to life, stresses that it’s no mere nostalgia trip. “I didn’t realize how relevant it would be,” he says. “It’s crazy.”
Owens came of age in a mostly white suburb of Jacksonville, Florida. “We were one of maybe three black families living in our housing development,” he notes, “and growing up in the south taught me that there are very clear lines when you’re an African-American. But I was also like, ‘I’m Ulysses. I’m an exception to the rule.’”
He gained a new perspective following protests of racially-charged police shootings such as the August 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and subsequent demonstrations that echoed the Civil Rights era. “I never thought I would see things like that happen in my lifetime,” he acknowledges. “All of a sudden, I was more afraid to walk the streets of New York than when I was overseas.”
These emotions were on his mind when he was chosen to take part in a 2016 Jazz at Lincoln Center program starring vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater. “We were celebrating 100 years of song, and since my part was the 1960s to 2016, I felt that Nina, Abbey and Joni would be perfect,” Owens explains. “Even though there are a lot of amazing artists, I don’t know if there’s anything being written today with so much truth and substance that exists in a larger way.”
The success of the show, which co-starred singers Theo Bleckmann and Alicia Olatuja, inspired Owens to assemble a road version, with René Marie stepping in for Bridgewater and a fourth vocalist, Joanna Majoko, joining as well.
On Songs of Freedom (Resilience Music Alliance), these four are backed by Owens, pianist Allyn Johnson, guitarist David Rosenthal and bassist Reuben Rogers. The result is a varied collection with one highlight after another. Olatuja brings warmth and depth to Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” and Bernard Ighner’s “Everything Must Change,” a Simone staple. Bleckmann’s take on a favorite Simone spiritual, “Balm in Gilead,” is pure magic. And Marie delivers fierce authenticity on “Driva Man” — originally performed by Lincoln and others on Max Roach’s “Freedom Now Suite” — and Simone’s still incendiary “Mississippi Goddam.”
“I was really on the fence about ‘Mississippi Goddam,’” Owens admits. “I thought, ‘That’s passé.’ But now, with everything that’s been going on, I feel like it’s ‘New York Goddam’ and ‘Washington, D.C. Goddam’ and ‘Ferguson Goddam.’ It’s about what’s happening right now.” —Michael Roberts
Featured photo: Rayon Richards.