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THE JIMMY OWENS PROJECT

WAY OVERDUE : CD, PERFORMANCE, NEA JAZZ MASTER

it’s his time. and about time too.

to say that JIMMY OWENS plays the trumpet and flugelhorn, composes and arranges only begs his ourve. newly minted NEA Jazz Master/Advocate Owens has recorded what is hoped to be only the initial Thelonious Monk Project CD. its ten tracks contain familiar music by one of music’s more enigmatic and prolific composers but also an original penned by Owens for the occasion, “Thru Monk.”

the great jazz hall of fame composers have my rankings as follows: Ellington, Monk, Mingus. numbers 2 & 3 are interchangeable but Monk and Mingus respected –perhaps revered is a better word– Maestro Ellington both having played with him. Monk recorded an album of his music and sat in with the band at a Newport Jazz Festival. (there is evidence of that on www.wolfgangsvault.com.) Mingus, of course, was famously hired then infamously fired by Duke, but eventually recorded the LP (available on CD) Money Jungle with him and Max Roach. (factoid digression there.)

on the Owens CD, The Monk Poject (IPO), there is Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” in a transcription of the trio arrangement from the LP Thelonious Monk Plays the Music of Duke Ellington (w/Oscar Pettiford and Kenny Clarke). the musicians with Jimmy include Wycliffe Gordon, trombone and sousaphone, Howard Johnson, baritone sax and tuba –they played tubas together on “Blue Monk” another night and were joined by Bob Stewart making a tuba threesome on another– Marcus Strickland, tenor sax, NEA Jazz Master Kenny Barron, piano, Kenny Davis, bass, and powerhouse drummer Winard Harper.

Jimmy brought that instrumentation and personnel into Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola at Jazz At Lincoln Center to celebrate the CD, and sold out every set every night. i was with band leader, arranger pianist Mike Longo whose latest CD, To My Surprise: The Mike Longo Trio+2 (CAP), features Owens as guest artist. he composed one selection on the CD, “Magic Bluz,” dedicated to Frank Wess. Mike and Jimmy have worked together on numerous occasions with Dizzy’s bands, Mike’s own 17-piece big band, The New York State of the Art Jazz Ensemble, and on a series of quintet recordings which i am proud to say i helped coordinate (I Miss You John, CAP).

the septet’s set we caught –a brace of five (5) tunes– passed so quickly that we hardly had a chance to chat with the couple with whom we shared a table. our conversation was cut short because they were clearing the room to allow for the next soul-ed out crowd to enter. or as Dizzy loved to say, “Ladies and gentlemen, we’d like turn you over.”

“Epistrophy” opened the set –it closes the CD– and it was often used as Monk’s theme.
“sometimes Monk would play it for ten seconds; other times for ten minutes,” Owens offered. in contrast with what one might think of as Monkian, Gordon’s solo was New Orleans style gutbucket. you cold feel the room jump with joy, to continue the Ellingtonian allusion.

Owens’ flugelhorn is a custom-made, four rotary valve affair preferred by European orchestras. Jimmy once told me it was more like a field, or marching instrument. it was in evidence (excuse the Monk pun) on “Well You Needn’t,” with a twist: Jimmy was in a slow 4/4, his favorite tempo, while Winard was busy playing son montuno rhythm behind him.

NEWPORT IN NEW YORK

favored rhythm indeed. at the 1972 Newport Jazz Festival/New York there were a series of midnight jams at Radio City Music Hall. one was led by Mingus and was dying a slow, painful death due, in part, to the self-indulgent leader. they were leaving in droves. i had met Jerry Stiller on the around-the-block line– teenager Ben was an aspiring drummer at the time. imagine that!– so we sat together in the balcony. Jerry was getting squirmy murmuring things like when are they going to get something going here? he, too, was ready to split. no sooner had he said that when a sound wafted from the back of the pack, a Buddy Bolden-like moaning blues riff. it has been preserved as “Lo Slo Blues” on the Buddah LP. the large, packed auditorium went wild; Jimmy’s solo had brought the house, the evening was saved, as was George Wein’s goal of preserving the jam session as a viable jazz exposition. in great jazz tradition it went on till nearly dawn.

MONKIAN CONNECTS

another digression; back to Monk/Owens live. the beautiful balladry that only Monk could write and play was on display with “Reflections.” opening with only Owens and Barron joined part way through by Gordon, is Monk at his flatted-ninths-1/2-step quirky best. Monk loved to do popular ballads as well. his son T.S. layed a CD on me of his dad playing a single tune over and over not unlike the minimalist composers who succeeded him. was he the pre-minimalist? Ron Carter remembered visiting Monk’s apartment greeted by Nellie, his wife, sat on the floor and silently listened as Monk played some Tin Pan Alley tune over and over never even acknowledging his young guest. you were lucky enough just to be in his presence breathing the same air.

“Stuffy Turkey,” a reworking of Coleman Hawkins’ “Stuffy” plus a bridge, was the penultimate offering with a rousing “Brilliant Corners” and its changing rhythmic patterns concluding the set.

NEWPORT YOUTH BAND

in all the writings and all the hoopla attendant to Jimmy Owens receiving the 2012 NEA Jazz Master Award as Advocate there was nary a mention of the Newport Youth Band in which he starred in his, well, youth. formed in 1959 by educator Marshall Brown, in addition to Owens the NYB featured an array of burgeoning neophyte talent: Eddie Gomez, Ronnie Cuber, Mike Abene and Larry Rosen, later to co-found GRP Records with partner Dave Grusin. the NYB was the successor to the 1958 International Youth Band which also featured George Gruntz, Dusko Goykovich and Gabor Szabo.

ADVOCACY AWARD CEREMONY

at the NEA Awards Concert in the Rose Theatre at Jazz At Lincoln Center Jimmy spoke eloquently of his and others’ efforts to bring parity in the form of retirement funds for musicians. each time musicians perform in clubs and concerts monies are supposed to to be put aside in a Local 802, AFM account for their retirement. this goes unheeded after many years of prodding. Jack Kleinsinger of Highlights in Jazz, with whom i have worked for almost four (4) decades, complies. but i do not know of anyone else, and i have worked with many clubs over the years as publicist. Jimmy has also successfully worked to bring the New School Jazz and Contemporary Music Division into the Union fold. using him as a mentor i was recruited to help do the ssme for the then Guitar Study Program where my Jazz Insights course was housed (hidden) from 1979 to 2005.

in addition to speaking of his advocacy Jimmy played “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” a cappella utilizing circular breathing and dedicating it to his friend, teacher, colleague and mentor NEA Jazz Master Dr. Billy Taylor, who passed in 2010. he also took special notice of the Collective Black Artists Ensemble many of whose 1970s performances at New York City’s Town Hall i was privileged to attend and report on for Down Beat Magazine. our paths crossed many times notably at my first Berlin Jazz Festival in 1977, Gruntz Music Director, where Owens’ unusual instrumental group featured vocalist Don Jay.

the ending of this posting is that it doesn’t have one. Jimmy Owens goes on.

- © arnold jay smith
January 2012


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