Ulysses Owens Delivers Poignant Messages on Freedom


Ulysses Owens Jr. has released an album, Songs Of Freedom, based on his touring show.

(Photo: Rayon Richards)

Clear, purposeful communication has anchored Ulysses Owens Jr.’s artistry since he was a kid playing drums in church. While growing up in a family of ministers and musicians in Jacksonville, Florida, Owens observed how both music and oration reached people. “What I love about great preachers is that they understand what they want to say, first, and then they’re able to drive the points home in so many dynamic ways,” the 35-year-old, Grammy-winning drummer and bandleader said. “Church is so much a part of what I do and how I do it.”

For the past two years, Owens has been delivering poignant messages with his captivating Songs Of Freedom project, which has resulted in an excellent album of the same title. For both the staged project and disc, Owens explores the repertoire of Abbey Lincoln, Joni Mitchell and Nina Simone with themes centered on freedom.

The idea for Songs Of Freedom came after Jason Olaine, director of programming and touring for Jazz at Lincoln Center, approached Owens and trumpeter Riley Mulherkar in 2015 to work on the concert hall’s “100 Years of Song” celebration. Inspired, in part, by the frequent news reports of unarmed black and brown people being assaulted or killed by police officers, Owens decided to focus on material from the ’60s that evoked the civil rights movement. “I’ve always had a love affair with Nina Simone and Abbey Lincoln,” he said. “I always wondered what would have happened if the two of them had done a project together. Then I thought about Joni Mitchell. So basically, the idea was bringing these three prolific women together as if they were hanging out at a rally.”

To reinvigorate the classics, Owens recruited three spectacular singers for the project’s September 2016 premiere: Alicia Olatuja, Theo Bleckmann and Dee Dee Bridgewater.

Owens explained that he was attracted to Olatuja’s ability to convey any concept to an audience and Bleckmann’s inventiveness. Jazz at Lincoln Center suggested Bridgewater.

“It worked well because of the breadth and level of expertise that Dee Dee brought to the project,” said Owens. “She had a lot of instances with Abbey and Nina; she was Abbey’s goddaughter.”

After the project received critical acclaim, Owens’ manager and booking agent encouraged the drummer to broaden it and take on the road. Bridgewater couldn’t make all of the tour dates, so Owens transformed her role into a revolving spot, which has been occupied by René Marie and Joanna Majoko, both of whom appear on the album, alongside Olatuja and Bleckmann. Owens steers an empathic quartet with bassist Reuben Rogers, pianist Allyn Johnson and guitarist David Rosenthal through arrangements that highlight each singer’s interpretive prowess.

A key element of Owens’ M.O. is being authentic, which enables him to better reach audiences. For him, retaining authenticity involves vigorous research into whatever music he’s exploring, as well as establishing strong bonds with his bandmates, on and off the stage.

“When I work with people, I try to become intertwined with their personalities,” Owens said. “So, when I get ready to perform with them, I can really tap into their core. I want to make the most in-depth connection with them, so that what we do is tangible, beautiful and real.” DB

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June 2023
James Brandon Lewis
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