Recognizable Talent

The Rabbit’s always thought the jazz-poll category “Talent Deserving Wider Recognition” was bogus or, at best, mislabeled. What jazz musician, with the exception of one or two, doesn’t deserve wider recognition? Even the best of them are widely unknown to the general public.

Consider Charles Owens. A fixture on the Los Angeles Jazz scene since the early 1970s, Owens has the kind of resume that his fellow musicians  envy: ten years with the Mercer Ellington-directed Duke Ellington Orchestra, important stints with Mongo Santamaria, Buddy Rich (he arranged “Ode To Billy Joe” for Rich’s 1968 recording Mercy Mercy: Recorded Live At Ceasar’s Palace) and Toshiko Akiyoshi; a tour of Europe with Frank Zappa, time with John Mayall, studio work with Diana Ross, Natalie Cole and Barbara Streisand. He’s worked inside with the Gerald Wilson Orchestra and outside with James Newton and James Carter and graced the bands of nearly every important Los Angeles-based jazz ensemble, from the Clayton-Hamilton Orchestra to the revered Horace Tapscott’s Arkestra.

Along the way, Owens recorded a handful of respected, if obscure, albums: The Two Quartets and Plays the Music of Harry Warren with his New York Art Ensemble that included a host of then-or-soon-to-be L.A. musicians including Ray Brown, Red Callendar, James Newton and Roy McCurdy (both discs issued on the Discovery label) . Both were made over 25 years ago.

Owens has a new recording, Joy, and it’s worth seeking out (full disclosure: the Rabbit wrote liner notes for the project). If musicians, like everyone else, can be judged by the company they keep, Owens’ reputation is secure. Through his vast experience and associations, he brought aboard bassist Ron Carter, pianist Mulgrew Miller and drummer Lewis Nash. The top-shelf rhythm section fits perfectly with Owens’ varied, wide-open approach in play and musical forms. The accompanists take an upfront role in the nine-tunes, serving to frame Owens’ expressive play in best light. Add the dean of recording engineers, Rudy Van Gelder, a man who has been involved with many of the most important recordings of all-time, and you have one very ambitious, high-end project.

The tunes reflect the leader’s taste and background. His interest in Middle-Eastern forms and Coltrane-like modal tunes is balanced with emotional ballads and r-&-b flavored workouts that suggest a strong West Coast influence.  He opens with Eddie Harris’ clasic soul anthem “Sham Time,” giving Miller and Carter prominent solos before opening up on soprano and then, in the style of Rahassaan Roland Kirk, blowing tenor and soprano simultaneously. The soulful feel is  extended on “Mildred’s Groove” and “One For Bags,” both Owens originals. These tunes feature his sterling flute play which is sometimes warm and inviting and often sharp enough to cut diamonds.

Owens shows his ability to find new meaning in familiar tunes in interpretations of Victor Young’s “My Foolish Heart” and Guy Woods’ “My One and Only Love,” the former on soprano, the latter on tenor. But it’s his originals that show the most emotion and passion. “Wildfire,” propelled by Nash’s aggressive polyrhythms, is full of flame and heat. “Spiritual,” a tune dedicated to the children of Iraq and Afghanistan, is at once somber and optimistic and proves that there’s at least one musician out there who hasn’t forgotten the innocent victims of ongoing war. The saxophonist displays his sense of humor when he quotes from “It Ain’t Necessarily So” during his piece “Praise God.”

Joy is an album worthy of its title and, like its leader, worthy of all the recognition it can get. You can wrap your hands on a copy by e-mailing or, if extremely lucky, picking it up at one of Owens gigs. Let us know what you think.–Cabbage Rabbit

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