By Howard Reich
The transcendent moment in “Songs of Freedom,” drummer Ulysses Owens Jr.’s reflection on music of the turbulent 1960s, sneaked up on listeners.
For after hearing inspired but straightforward readings of music identified with Nina Simone, Abbey Lincoln and Joni Mitchell, the audience Friday night at the University of Chicago’s Logan Center for the Arts encountered something ethereal, mystical and fearlessly experimental.
Singer Theo Bleckmann — one of the evening’s three vocalists — stood before Owens’ jazz quartet and alongside a sound board jammed with knobs, dials and levers. He opened “Balm in Gilead,” a spiritual Simone helped popularize, by singing hushed high notes that he synthesized through the electronic equipment. Soon these wordless pitches were echoing in the room, as if a church choir were at work, the newly recorded and looped tones now forming an accompaniment for Bleckmann’s lead vocals.
In effect, a cascade of voices was reinventing “Balm in Gilead,” drummer Owens’ instrumentalists providing a softly cushioned backdrop. Rarely has a jazz vocalist achieved such sanctity of expression in a concert hall purely through other worldly sounds of his own making. Had Bleckmann gone on for 20 minutes this way, it wouldn’t have been too long.
Though this was the high point of the “Songs of Freedom” project, which Owens developed for Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York, it was but one facet of a deep exploration of music of social protest.
Like Simone, Abbey Lincoln gave voice to the battle for civil rights, nowhere more ferociously than in “We Insist! Freedom Now Suite,” by drummer Max Roach and Chicago singer-songwriter Oscar Brown Jr. The landmark recording opens with “Driva Man,” a damning portrait of the evils of slavery, sung on this night by Joanna Majoko over an earthy blues accompaniment from the band. Majoko’s sweet-toned timbre at first might have seemed too genteel for this music and this message, but before long she was summoning the piercing cries and gutsy growls the song demands.
Singer Alicia Olatuja could be considered the most traditional of the evening’s three vocalists, but she was not content to offer a conventional reading of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.” Bringing operatic complexity to her vocal embellishments and punctuating the song’s famous melody with gospel-tinged interjections, Olatuja made a jazz aria of the piece, significantly broadening and deepening its impact.
Any evening invoking the music and memory of Simone must come to terms with “Mississippi Goddam,” her clenched fist anthem against racism in general, the Southern variety in particular. Singer Majoko’s honeyed tones and once-over-lightly interpretation suggested a young artist still struggling to get to the core of one of the most incendiary of such indictments in the repertoire. When she offered bits of scat singing, her interpretation began to take flight.
Yet to hear Bleckmann, Majoko and Olatuja collaborate on “Four Women,” another Simone landmark, was to understand the caliber of vocal work they represented. For after each sang a monologue, the three singers improvised exquisite, three-part counterpoint. Their lines bobbed and weaved, intertwined and overlapped in ways too complex to have been put to paper, a sure testament to what spontaneous music-making can achieve.
Throughout, Owens did what few drummer/conceptualizers choose to do, keeping his contributions and that of his instrumental colleagues succinct, understated and deferential to the vocalists. Yes, Owens often punctuated the proceedings with dramatic accents and allowed for a few atmospheric instrumental solos.
But he knew this evening was largely about the lyrics and wisely allowed them to ring out.