Soul Conversations marks the renowned drummer, Ulysses Owens Jr.’s recording debut with his new 19-piece outfit, the UOJ Big Band, as well as the artist’s first release on Outside in Music. Owens Jr. has gained his cred as an integral driver of ensembles led by Christian McBride, Wynton Marsalis, and Kurt Elling. Owens Jr. has also gained recognition for his own ensembles, including his New Century Jazz Quintet. Here he demonstrates a bold approach to large ensemble jazz, in a year just like last, where we have already heard remarkable large ensemble projects.
Alongside Owens Jr. are trumpeters Walter Cano, Benny Benack III, Summer Camargo, and Giveton Gelin; trombonists Eric Miller, Gina Benalcazar, Wyatt Forhan, Chris Glassman, Seth Weaver and Michael Dease who also serves as the album’s associate producer; alto players Alexa Tarantino and Erena Terakubo, tenor players Diego Rivera and Daniel Dickinson; and baritone player Andy Gatauskas as well as pianist Takeshi Ohbayashi, bassist Yasushi Nakamura, vocalist Charles Turner III, and special guest vibraphonist Stefon Harris. Note that we have covered the most recent solo project from Tarantino, Firefly, on these pages and this writer has also covered solo projects from Dease and Rivera, all three released this year on the Posi-tone label. Gelin is a fixture with the JLCO as you may have noticed as well and coincidentally Soul Conversations was recorded live at Dizzy’s Club at Jazz at Lincoln Center in early December 2019.
The genesis of the band began two years prior at Dizzy’s when Owens Jr. assembled the group to fill out his renowned New Century Jazz Quintet for one night during the one-week run. This outfit, at the time billed as the ‘New Century Jazz Big Band’, received tremendous praise, reportedly even giving Wynton Marsalis and The Lincoln Center Orchestra’s performance in the Rose Hall a “worthy run for their money”. Owens Jr. recalls “Everybody kept asking if [the big band] was coming back for the rest of the week.”
Upon the band’s return two years later, they were armed with exciting material and the beginnings of a new mission of sorts, modeled after the iconic bands, not necessarily big bands but most notably Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. “The band became a cradle for not only young musicians but for young arrangers who wanted to get their work played,” says Owens Jr. The UOJ Big Band is as multigenerational – the members’ ages range from early 20s to their early 40’s – as its multi-gender and multi-ethnic, and the group’s repertoire contains compositions by a multitude of the group’s members. We are indebted to John Murph’s liner notes for background and identification of soloists on the pieces.
At first, you may think this is a band playing vintage material as Owens Jr.’s rim shots kick off the well-known “Two Bass Hit”, but the arrangement is an interesting blend of both Roy Hargrove’s Big Band rendition from the late-2000’s and Miles Davis’ up-tempo reading of the piece from his 1961 date at San Francisco’s Black Hawk nightclub. Yet, immediately following we get the band’s originals, first the groover, “London Towne,” written by Benack III that originally appeared on the New Century Jazz Quintet’s Time Is Now album. For this version, Steven Feifke provided the simmering arrangement as Benack III delivers an engaging trumpet solo followed by a shimmering vibraphone improvisation by Stefon Harris. Feifke, who delivered his own inaugural outstanding large ensemble recording, Kinetic (covered on these pages) a month ago, also arranged Charles Turner III’s “Harlem Harlem.” It’s a blues showcase for the composer who sings on the album’s only vocal number. Recorded live at Dizzy’s, it captures the hustle and bustle of the streets with stirring solos from altoist Terakubo, trombonist Dease, and trumpeter Summer Camargo, all of whom dig deep for bluesy statements.
Owens Jr. composed three pieces featured on this release, “Beardom X”, “Red Chair” and the title track “Soul Conversations”, co-written with Ohbayashi. There’s little doubt who the leader of the large ensemble is as we hear several drum intros and breaks as we do in the intro for “Beardom X,” in which following bassist Nakamura’s gutty solo, we are treated to a masterclass in shifting dynamics. The piece was penned by the leader in tribute to two of his artistic and political guiding lights, visual artist Romare Bearden and civil rights activist Malcolm X. Rivera provided the expansive arrangement. “Red Chair” is another sweeping exercise in dynamics with stellar piano from Ohbayashi sprinkled (and tinkled) throughout. The decidedly modern-sounding “Soul Conversations” has soul-jazz leanings and a laid-back arrangement provided by trumpeter Jonokuchi. The composition rings with cinematic scope and features Gelin and Tarantino as soloists.
Aside from these three original pieces, the album features impressive arrangements of classic compositions including John Coltrane’s immortal “Giant Steps”, Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature”, and Neil Hefti and Bobby Troup’s “Girl Talk”. Rivera’s arrangement of “Giant Steps” grows in intensity as it allows the tenorists Rivera and Dickinson to develop inventive solos off the recognizable theme and then trade with the trombone and trumpet sections, where Gelin takes his own flight. “Girl Talk”, arranged by Nakamura, also allows Gelin to unveil an improvisation, while the other horn sections quietly accompany, sometimes with the soothing harmonies one would expect from a doo-wop group. Owens Jr.’s explosions on the kit were inspired by drummer Sonny Payne, who played on Count Basie’s immortal 1966 version.
That one-week run at Dizzy’s sowed the seed for this exciting large ensemble recording, one that Owens Jr. is eminently comfortable with and will likely serve as a foundation for further large ensemble dates. You’d never guess he was new at such an endeavor.
Photo: Rayon Richards