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The Sound Of Progress: Lioness And Ellen Rowe

Dan Bilawsky By

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The voices of women who've been marginalized, demeaned, abused, and overlooked will no longer be silenced. The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have pulled the curtains back on deplorable actions and practices that have run rampant in all corners of society, the jazz world being no exception. With scandals airing out hidden truths at the Berklee College of Music, individual musicians and educators being held accountable for their inexcusable actions the world over, and brave victims speaking out, the tide is slowly turning. Women are banding together in greater numbers, both literally and figuratively, and they're proving what most people with open ears have known all along: they can hit as hard and dig as deep as any of their male counterparts. These are but two of many fine albums to underscore that point.

Lioness
Pride & Joy
Posi-Tone
2019

If there's a line to hang over this release, it's I am woman, hear me roar and rejoice. Marc Free, producer and co-head at Posi-Tone records, brought together six female instrumentalists with serious firepower and vision, and then he set them loose on a program that highlights their composing chops while also shining a light on some respected elders—some present, others dearly departed—of the same sex. Gender, of course, need not be a factor when measuring the quality of the results—it all ranks high by any metric—but the album does play as a corrective which aims to assist in closing a gap on several fronts.

Opening on drummer Allison Miller's "Mad Time," the three horn front line of alto saxophonist Alexa Tarantino, tenor saxophonist Jenny Hill, and baritone saxophonist Lauren Sevian gleefully marches and swoops atop Miller's street grooves. A trio of tracks from other band members—Hill's tropically-infused "Sunny Day Pal," guitarist Amanda Monaco's easy-going "Jelly" (co-credited to her sister, Jennifer), and Sevian's cool-to-smoking, Coltrane-referencing "Down For The Count"—further cement the place of these artist as composers.

Of the material calling to the past, there's both wholly familiar items and lesser-known gems. In the former category is a funky and concise "Think" that would, no doubt, make the late Aretha Franklin proud, and an "Ida Lupino" that balances strict time grounding, airy resonance, and wafting melody. The former may be a radio hit familiar to all but the most isolated ear and the latter can be counted as Carla Bley's most-covered composition, but both breathe new air in this setting. And then there are the under-the-radar throwbacks, like saxophonist Meilana Gillard's "Identity." Giving Sevian's bari space to blow over Akiko Tsuruga's sophisticated and lightly cushy organ bed, it reminds us to take another look at some women who aren't in the personnel list here.

Ellen Rowe Octet
Momentum: Portraits Of Women In Motion
Smokin' Sleddog Records
2019

Pianist Ellen Rowe, the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Jazz and Contemporary Improvisation at the University of Michiigan and the one-time Director of Jazz Studies at the University of Connecticut, has put together a program of original music rendered by women and written for women—specifically to honor those female trailblazers in various fields that have inspired her. And no, that concept is not limited to figures in jazz. Opening on the soulful "Ain't I A Woman," a hymn of sorts honoring Septima Clark, Fannie Lou Hamer, Mary McLeod Bethune, and other women who stood tall in the civil rights movements, Rowe immediately establishes a resolute stance while spotlighting trombonist Melissa Gardiner and bassist Marion Hayden, among others.

As the octet pushes forward, Rowe reminds us about exemplars in various forms and fields. The controlled propulsion of "R.F.P. (Relentless Forward Progress)," nodding toward distance running greats like Joan Benoit Samuelson and Gunhild Swanson, and the funky "Game, Set and Match," a tribute to tennis icons Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova, recognize athletic greatness and poise in equal parts; "The Soul Keepers," extending a bluesy line back from Rowe to Geri Allen to Mary Lou Williams, and the reflectively folksy "Anthem," for socially-minded singer-songwriters like Carole King and Joni Mitchell, paint music and life in the same tones; "The First Lady (No, Not You, Melania)," with its dignified-turned-spirited flow in three, stands as representation of Michelle Obama's grace and strength; and "The Guardians," perhaps the most moving piece of the bunch, gives animal rights champions Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey their due.

While these songs feature standout players on today's scene, including alto saxophonist Tia Fuller, tenor saxophonist Virginia Mayhew, baritone saxophonist Lisa Parrott, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, and, once again on drums, Allison Miller, it's Rowe who makes the project as successful as it is. It's only fitting that she signs off by herself, delivering "Song Of The Meadowlark," for her mother, as the final message. Women in motion have had a strong impact on all corners of our society and history, and they clearly continue to do so in the present.

Tracks and Personnel

Pride & Joy

Tracks: Mad Time; Sunny Day Pal; Jelly; Down For The Count; You Don't Say; Think; Ida Lupino; Identity; Mocha Spice; Hurry Up And Wait; Sweety; Funky Girl.

Personnel: Alexa Tarantino: alto saxophone; Jenny Hill: tenor saxophone; Lauren Sevian: baritone saxophone; Amanda Monaco: guitar; Akiko Tsuruga: organ; Allison Miller: drums.

Momentum: Portraits Of Women In Motion

Tracks: Ain't I A Woman; R.F.P. (Relentless Forward Progress); The Soul Keepers; Anthem; The First Lady (No, Not You, Melania); The Guardians; Game, Set, And Match; Song Of The Meadowlark.

Personnel: Tia Fuller: alto saxophonist; Virginia Mayhew: tenor saxophonist; Lisa Parrott: baritone saxophonist; Janelle Reichman: clarinet (4); Ingrid Jensen: trumpet; Melissa Gardiner: trombone; Ellen Rowe: piano; Marion Hayden: bass (1, 3, 5, 7); Marlene Rosenberg: bass (2, 4, 6); Allison Miller: drums.
About Ellen Rowe
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