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Album Review

Ulysses Owens Jr. Big Band: Soul Conversations

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Ulysses Owens Jr. Big Band: Soul Conversations
Drummer Ulysses Owens, Jr.'s Big Band comes out swinging on its debut recording, Soul Conversations, thundering through Michael Dease's incendiary arrangement of the Dizzy Gillespie/John Lewis flame-thrower, "Two Bass Hit." For more such heat, however, the listener must move forward to Track 5, John Coltrane's impulsive "Giant Steps," thence to Track 9 for Charles Turner III's earnest homage to "Harlem Harlem Harlem," on which he doubles as vocalist.

That's not to say that everything in between is less than pleasing, only more sedate. That includes a trio of charts by Owens ("Beardom X," "Red Chair," "Soul Conversations"), trumpeter Benny Benack III's sunny "London Towne," bassist Yasushi Nakamura's shapely ballad, "Language of Flowers," John Bettis/Steve Porcaro's multi-layered "Human Nature" (featuring guest vibraphonist Stefon Harris, as does "London Towne") and Neal Hefti's shopworn and patronizing "Girl Talk." Dependable as they are, one senses that the band is capable of more, but as Owens chose the material that must have been his purpose, and the outcome should be weighed on that basis.

Another aspect that must be considered is the circumstance under which the album was recorded: in concert at Dizzy's Club Coca Cola in New York. While that usually poses no problem, in this case the color and balance do the band no favors. The sound isn't for the most part displeasing; on the other hand, as with the choice of material, the over-all impression is that it could have been better. An accent here, a blemish there—it all adds up to a sonic cushion that may be tolerable but is at times less than supportive.

There is no doubting, however, the band's aptitude or enthusiasm. There's an abundance of musical talent in New York, and Owens has stocked the band with proven heavyweights, a benefit that is readily apparent from the outset. "Two Bass Hit" could have set the tone, with spirited blowing by the ensemble and vigorous solos by tenor Diego Rivera, bass trombonist Wyatt Forhan, trumpeter Walter Cano, trombonist Dease, baritone Andrew Gutauskas and Owens himself, but the leader chose another route, moderating the pace and ardor considerably on "London Towne," "Beardom X" and "Red Chair" before re-engaging the accelerator on "Giant Steps," wherein Rivera and tenor Daniel Dickinson trade sturdy blows before Owens and trumpeter Giveton Gelin add earnest solos.

Alto Alexa Tarantino is showcased on "Language of Flowers," Gelin on "Girl Talk," and there are admirable solos elsewhere by Benack, trombonist Eric Miller, alto Erena Terakubo and trumpeter Summer Camargo (muted on "Harlem"). It's a sometimes choppy maiden voyage but one whose strengths far outnumber its weaknesses. Recommended for the exuberant flag-wavers, first-rate solos and sizeable number of impressive moments on the less-than-emphatic numbers.

Track Listing

Two Bass Hit; London Towne; Beardom X; Red Chair; Giant Steps; Language of Flowers; Human Nature; Girl Talk; Harlem Harlem Harlem; Soul Conversations.

Personnel

Ulysses Owens, Jr.: drums; Walter Cano: trumpet; Benny Benack III: trumpet; Summer Camargo: trumpet; Giveton Gelin: trumpet; Alexa Tarantino: saxophone, alto; Erena Terakubo: saxophone, alto; Diego Rivera: saxophone; Daniel Dickinson: saxophone; Andrew Gutauskas: saxophone, baritone; Michael Dease: trombone; Eric Miller: trombone; Gina Benalcazar: trombone; Wyatt Forhan: trombone, bass; Stefon Harris: vibraphone; Takeshi Ohbayashi: piano; Yasushi Nakamura: bass; Charles Turner III: voice / vocals.

Album information

Title: Soul Conversations | Year Released: 2021 | Record Label: Outside in Music


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