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Ulysses Owens Jr. At The Jazz Corner

Martin McFie By

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Ulysses Owens Jr.
The Jazz Corner
Songs of Love
Hilton Head Island, South Carolina
February 15-16, 2019

It was a pleasure to hear a group of skillful, energetic, and highly-educated young musicians at Hilton Head Island's Jazz Corner, led by master musician and two-time Grammy winner (including one for his work with Christian McBride) Ulysses Owens, Jr.. Bassist Philip Norris recently completed his studies at Juilliard and is now touring around the world, while vibraphonist Jalen Baker is still working on his master's degree and pianist Liston Gregory III is finishing his education. Guest singer Kiaya Cash joined the musicians, dressed in a stylish red evening gown and performing a standout swinging samba version of Grover Washington Jr.'s "Just the Two of Us."

The content of this performance was premised on St. Valentine's Day, achieving a balance of jazz and soul music. Soul music is derived from rhythm and blues with a heavy influence of gospel. The levels of each ingredient may be different in jazz and soul, but neither style strays far from the same African American heritage. They sit comfortably together, 80 years apart.

Gregory's piano and Baker's vibes alternated the melody. In the rhythm section, Norris's precise bass lines were forcefully punctuated by Owens. Norris also delivered wide-ranging, concise solos on bass to great applause. Bass players always seem to get strong praise because of the effort required to muster their quiet sound, but this time it was genuinely deserved for inventive solos of considerable length and detail.

Owens opened the Stevie Wonder tune "These Three Words" with a long cymbal solo and weighty rat-a-tat drum hits surprising the audience. The elegance of the vibraphone enunciated the mood and melody of electrifying fast pieces while the tempo varied to a slow, deliberate, and mellow reverb in ballads. In the refrain to Wonder's piece "All I Do Is Think About You," an impromptu choir of friends started in the audience and made an excellent backing group, dancing in their seats and drawing smiles from the musicians.

The second set moved along with the Duke Ellington classics "Mood Indigo"(from 1930, the first tune Ellington wrote for radio) and "In a Sentimental Mood" (1935), particularly suited to the ethereal vibraphone. Gregory took the lead on the Nancy Wilson/Cannonball Adderley song " Save Your Love for Me." The audience became progressively quieter, spellbound by Cash's voice, which had grown in confidence throughout the performance. She turned up full power for a soulful "My Funny Valentine" (Rodgers and Hart, 1937) which won an ovation and ended the evening.

The quality of these young musicians was a joy to hear. Notes sounded out clearly and skillfully, and solos were varied and intricate without going too far from the melody. The juxtaposition of smooth vibes with powerful piano and cracking drums was supported by excellence on the bass. Owens is an exceptional musician, leader, and teacher. He led a band of bright hopes for the future.

Photo: Martin McFie
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