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Charles Owens Quartet: New York, NY, November 18, 2012

David A. Orthmann By

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Charles Owens Quartet
Smalls Jazz Club
New York, NY
November 18, 2012

In 1994, Charles Owens, then a student at the New School, talked then-owner Mitch Borden into letting him run the Sunday afternoon jam session at Smalls, a fledgling basement club that had rapidly become an important incubator of young talent. The tenor saxophonist eventually earned the coveted Friday night slot, and held it for some seven years before recording Charles Owens Quartet, Live at Smalls Vol. 1 (Superbalanced Records, 2003). Nearly a decade after its release, it remains a document of startling power and cogency. Riding the irrepressible wave generated by a band of enthusiastic and capable peers, Owens tears into a mixture of standards and originals. Employing a burly sound that often threatens to resonate through the nervous system, and an endless supply of smartly organized ideas, his intros and solos are akin to a force of nature, yet they contain a sensitive underside. For instance, a bracing, circuitous, unaccompanied prologue, lasting almost three minutes, barely hints at the lovely, conventional ballad treatment of "Autumn in New York" that follows.

For the past several years, Owens has resided in Charlottesville, VA, where he teaches and regularly plays in area venues. Examples of his recent work outside of NYC's competitive, pressure cooker atmosphere can be found on bassist Jason Jenkins' Scenic Roots (Self Produced , 2010), as well as Owens' A Wealth In Common, (32 Bar, 2012), issued this past October. The saxophonist's improvising on the title track of Jenkins' record is reminiscent of his electrifying, longwinded solos from Live At Smalls. His treatment of "I Got It Bad" stays true to Duke Ellington's melody while Imbuing the tune with a rough lyricism. A Wealth In Common is Owens' take on the trio format. He sacrifices extended improvisations in favor of short statements and relatively brief tracks, incorporating arrangements that aren't fussy, yet make the record sound like something more than a casual blowing date, and shrewdly employing two gifted young players, bassist Andrew Randazzo, and drummer/pianist Devonne Harris.

Owens still makes the occasional trek up to New York City and plants his flag at Smalls. For a recent late Sunday night into Monday morning gig, he enlisted a rhythm section of some of the club's regulars—pianist Spike Wilner (the venue's current owner), bassist Spencer Murphy, and drummer Joe Strasser. In front of a two- tiered audience, comprised of dozens of people hanging on his every note, and an equal amount who interrupted their animated conversations just long enough to applaud in the right places, Owens performed five selections over the course of about seventy minutes.

Dressed in jeans and a faded, loose fitting t-shirt, Owens looked like a blue collar worker who just got off the night shift. His appearance was in keeping with the sheer physicality and rooted, earthy quality of his playing, which disguised his virtuosity and organizational skills. Operating without a microphone, Owens' tone seemed to get larger and more forceful as the night progressed. In a set filled with his lengthy, unaccompanied introductions and protracted solos with the rhythm section, he worked relentlessly yet sounded comfortable with himself and in complete control of his horn as well as the material.

Apart from these qualities and the sheer momentum Owens generated on every selection, nothing else could be taken for granted. The heads to the standards "You Don't Know What Love Is" and "Body and Soul" mixed recognizable, straightforward passages and sly, variegated syntax, stretching convention to the breaking point. A long, unaccompanied intro to an unidentified selection offered the barest hint of the blues before Owens and the band dropped it on the audience like a bomb, making them yell for more. Owens' tenor begged and pleaded as he forced unidentifiable vibrating sounds out of the horn and screamed in a manner that can only be described as otherworldly.

During his solo during "You Don't Know What Love Is," Owens worked his saxophone from top to bottom—carefully stating melodies, only to then brusquely reject them in favor of less settled ideas, and executing clean, articulated runs that suddenly turned slurry and indistinct.

The band's keen support of Owens' saxophone heroics could not be ignored. Often looking at Owens for clues, in his body language, as to what was coming, Wilner's comping made a genuine contribution and never got in the way. His solos, more concise than the leader's, made for an interesting contrast. During the unnamed selection, Wilner's way with the blues wasn't as overtly emotional as Owens, and contained more of a sense of play, particularly during one passage in which the right hand blithely tinkled and the left found an ominous melody. Despite being under-miked, Murphy's sound and unadorned bass lines gave the music a firm foundation. Strasser's ride cymbal provided a constant source of energy and focus, and his insertion of propulsive fragments—like ringing hits to the tom-toms on "Evidence" and press rolls on "Body and Soul"—contributed to the music's personality. His effusive "You Don't Know What Love Is" solo offered an impressive array of agitated Latin rhythms and was structurally coherent, despite its extended length.

A changing of the guard on saxophonist Charlie Parker's "Segment," the set's final selection, threatened to throw the music off course. Drummer Kenny Gibbs' stiff, anxious, and unfocused time, as well his isolation from the rest of the band, drowned out bassist Hans Glawischnig and sapped some of the music's essence. Carrying on as if nothing had happened, Owens delivered another stunner—swinging, staggering and pounding out phrases as if wielding a hammer to a piece of metal, and imaginatively bouncing lines off of one another. In the end, pianist Jeremy Manasia, whose solo featured long, searching lines and ringing repetitive phrases, brought things full circle. A decade ago, Manasia contributed mightily to Live At Smallsand his presence, combined with Owens' continued vitality, comprised a fitting ending to an unforgettable set.

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