Drummer, composer, educator and possessor of possibly the most infectious smile in all of jazz: Ulysses Owens Jr has many strings to his bow —cymbals to his kit— and at the Jazz Standard there are a host of them on display.
As the name of his box-fresh group suggests, this particular band is distinctly ‘millennial’. Whereas that term is often used to disparage a hyper-digital and occasionally aloof generation, this collection of emerging artists is the epitome of creative engagement. Opening with Art Blakey’s ‘The Core’ gives the group chance to settle in to their maiden voyage: this is their first live outing as a group. The pleasing avalanche of notes that opens the piece gives way to rhythm and purpose that just runs very nicely indeed. With Drew Anderson (trumpet) and Alexa Tarantino (saxophone) front and center for opening solos, Ulysses intention of giving young musicians an opportunity to shine is clear. He cheers them on from behind the kit and they in turn step to the side and then beam stage-wards as the rest of the band (Philip Norris on bass, Luther Allison at the keys) round of the opening chart.
Having established that Ulysses has put together a band that we’re going to enjoy the company of for the next hour or so, they switch up a gear moving to an original composition of Tarantino’s, ‘Face Value’ from her new album Winds of Change. It gives her the chance to take the lead and showcases the depth of talent that Owens has unearthed through his various teaching roles. Luther leads the next from the piano (a waltz) and then in Benny Benack III’s ‘London Time’ the master steps to the fore. Working the drum skin with his elbow to create a swelling sense of pitch, Ulysses becomes a one-person rhythm section in the opening section. While Alexa takes a solo he sits back and moves to hands pawing at the snare and throwing in some pro-level clapping all while the other members of the band grin at one another and their teacher/colleague.
Mentorship is a brilliant feature of the jazz community. It comes in many forms, none quite so benevolent as a big name sharing the stage with some names still in the process of growing and defining themselves. This Generation Y vehicle is not just an opportunity to share the limelight though, it’s a living embodiment of a joyful, generous musical philosophy that places collaboration and positivity at the heart of the music. in Ulysses’ on composition ‘Soul Conversation’ he says simply that he wanted to write something to sit back and enjoy. The chart and this whole evening absolutely deliver on that promise. It’s during this closing number that it dawns that while each of young band members has graduated from Ulysses’ classes, it is the audience who have taken their place — we’re learning about humility, talent and the power of collaboration and having a sumptuous musical experience in the process. Take this class.