Even when factoring in the vital contributions of bassist Andrew Randazzo and drummer Devonne Harris, there's no denying Charles Owens' firm hold on the nine tracks of A Day With Us
. Throughout a program consisting largely of standards, the music is ruled by the broad, resonant sound of the leader's tenor saxophone and the dogged persistence that characterizes everything he plays. As if building something momentous on the spur of the moment with his wits and the force of his will, the sounds conjure up hard labor, sweat, and grime. In some instances Owens shovels notes out of the bell of his horn; in others, he wields a pneumatic drill.
Most of Owens' solos (not to mention his introductions and post-out head forays) are long, irrepressible and headstrong. Just when you begin to wonder when he'll stop, give up, or bow out, there comes another chorus (or two or three) of smart, brawny invention. For all of the detours and digressions, the architecture of his solos is logical and relatively easy to follow. More often than not, when an improvisation ends, it begs the question: How can Owens sound so earthy, deep-rooted, yet move relentlessly and cover so much territory? And there's something positively addictive about the long way, Owens' preferred, circuitous route to a destination. Upon reaching the conclusion of "You Go To My Head," the disc's last track, an all-too-brief cadenza thwarts the expectationand the desirefor another elongated, effusive, daring statement.
Owens employs a number of devices that keep any threat of monotony or predictability at bay. He executes the in and out heads of "Caravan," "The Man I Love," and "You Go To My Head" in somewhat different ways, altering the tunes' identities and shifting the music's emotional temperature. A protracted and wildly inventive solo introduction animates "Caravan," the disc's opening track. The leader reinforces the tight-knit character of his working band by playing accompanying figures to Harris' solos on "Caravan," "UMMG," and "Take Five." Owens' puckish sense of humor often appears out of nowhere and disappears just as quickly. For instance, a number of tart, staccato bites flavor an otherwise sober "The Man I Love" solo. In contrast to a forthright take on the rest of the song, he transforms a portion of the bridge of "You Go To My Head" into a jaunty burlesque.
"Something" and "The Man I Love" are two prime examples of Owens ability to fashion familiar material to suit his improvisational character. Dispensing with the customary protracted introduction, the saxophonist executes a straightforward rendition of George Harrison's tune and includes a rather faithful reproduction of Harrison's guitar solo from the Beatles' recording. Owens gradually releases himself from some of the song's constraints and constructs something raw, ragged, and romantic on top of it.
The record's masterpiece is a ten-minute treatment of George Gershwin's iconic "The Man I Love." To Owens' credit, throughout the melody and a good deal of the improv, it's tough to identify what, emotionally speaking, he seeks to conveyhope, guarded optimism, yearning, weariness, resignation? Slowly and painstakingly shaping the line he compels the listener to pay close attention to every note. The melodies Owens finds during his solo are just as purposeful and emotionally amorphous. For a time he opens up a bit, gradually becoming vigorous and terse, among other things cutting loose with one scream, shadowed by a short-lived silence. In contrast to the opening the out head is penetrating, at times almost rubbing the melody raw. The two-minute plus cadenza that follows marks the return of the restless, probing, bold tenor saxophonist. Owens defies the relative caution of the rest of the track in favor of going wherever his imagination takes him, and in doing so, leaves "The Man I Love" behind.