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Ulysses Owens, Jr.: Falling Forward

James Nadal By

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Amidst a successful trajectory as a sought-after drummer with some of the premier jazz bands in the business, Ulysses Owens, Jr. has decided to take a giant step outside his comfort zone with Falling Forward, his fourth venture as leader. In a radical departure from typical jazz ensemble configurations, the assembled group consists of Owens, bassist Reuben Rogers, and vibraphonist Joel Ross, known collectively as Three. The instrumental sparseness is an obvious intent to expand individual contributions, as the triangular alternating challenge and support roles takes the music into a renewed and invigorating direction.

Owens should need no introduction, as his voluminous credits are well documented. Bassist Reuben Rogers is a native Virgin Islander with an impressive list of over one hundred recordings as dependable sideman, who also produced a 2006 release as leader. Relative newcomer Joel Ross has quickly become a vibes player of note due to his musical depth, he also has his own group, Good Vibes.

They start out in the fast lane with "My Shining Hour," Owens setting a blistering pace as he displays his polished technique from the outset. Ross and Rogers both take the plunge, each in full rebound mode, looking for an opening. "Cocoa Butter," is a Roy Ayers composition which is apropos for this lineup, Ross naturally relishing the lead role on vibes as the song warrants. Owens had to rearrange "Poinciana," which is intrinsically connected with super pianist Ahmad Jamal, giving it a total transformation, replete with repeated staccato stanzas and a heavy dose of outside drumming, before coming back to the familiar melody line.

The Latin inclination of "Maria Des Mercedes," is executed so tightly that one does not miss the undercurrent of percussion which would normally be the rhythmic propulsion in a song of this nature, a custom fit for Rogers, with his uncanny sense of groove. Ross adds to his composing resume with "Sleep On It," a contemplative ballad that slowly increases in tone and cadence, rising to a controlled crescendo, then easing back onto the pillow. The late great Mulgrew Miller is honored with a burning version of "Spectrum," Owens pushing this one right to the edge with razor sharp accenting. The proverbial standard "In A Sentimental Mood," by Duke Ellington, allows Ross to demonstrate skills at interpreting an honored jazz classic.

The music takes a dramatic turn into a mysterious passage with "Yakhal' Inkomo," the vocal talents of Vuyo Sotashe coming to the forefront, as the band lays back in accompanying fashion. Christian McBride is one musician who Owens knows well, having been an integral part of his band on many occasions and recordings, his "I Guess I'll Have to Forget," developing into open spaces for improvisation and expression. Drawing from the deep well of Thelonious Monk, "Evidence," is straight ahead experimental bop, the kind of exercise that either you can or can't, they pull this off with bravado to spare.

Vocalist Sotashe returns for the finale "Farewell To Dogma," another Mulgrew Miller number, featuring guest pianist Stephen Feiftke. It begins with light textured singing, the middle section filling with soft explosions of color and light, as if rising towards the sun, leading to a deliberate and yielding vocal ending. An ingenious way to close out a penetrating repertoire of thought provoking reflections. Jazz originated from risk takers, count Owens as one of those.

Track Listing: My Shining Hour; Cocoa Butter; Poinciana; Maria Des Mercedes; Sleep On It; Spectrum; In A Sentimental Mood; Yakhal’ Inkomo; I Guess I’ll Have To Forget; Evidence; Farewell To Dogma.

Personnel: Ulysses Owens, Jr.: drums; Joel Ross: vibraphone; Reuben Rogers: bass; Vuyo Sotashe: vocals (8, 11); Stephen Feiftke: piano (11).

Title: Falling Forward | Year Released: 2017 | Record Label: Spice of Life

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