Local favorite Rene Marie returns to Richmond as part of an all-star lineup in Grammy-winning drummer Ulysses Owens Jr.’s critically-lauded “Songs of Freedom.” The project originated in a two-night Lincoln Center event celebrating a century of jazz songs, headlined by singer Dee Dee Bridgewater.
Owens was responsible for the second night, covering 1960 to the present.
“I decided just to stay in the '60s,” Owens says. “After all, what happened then influenced everything that came after.” He decided to focus on three influential singers. The first two choices were obvious. He’d loved Nina Simone since he was in his mid-teens. Abbey Lincoln is less known, unless you are a drummer raised in what Owens calls “the church of Max Roach.” Lincoln was Roach’s wife, and the singer on his incandescent “We Insist,” a bracing 1960 admixture of Civil Rights and free jazz.
Another factor in the focus on that tumultuous era is the echo in current events. “As an African-American man, I am seeing many of the things my parents talked about,” Owens says. “Police brutality, hateful rhetoric, rage between races, rage between sexes. That is why the performance is called ‘Songs of Freedom.’ Everyone is fighting for freedom in their own way.”
The third choice, the brilliant but less confrontational Joni Mitchell, was chosen to soften the blow without compromising the message. “She echoes the same themes with a different audience,” Owens says. “What it would be like if the three of them met at a rally?”
The original performance, which also featured vocalists Alicia Olatuja and Theo Bleckmann, inspired a tour. Bridgewater was unavailable, forcing Owens to find a replacement.
“I wanted someone who could fill those shoes, who brought the artistic weight to take these songs further in a different context. Rene Marie was the first person I thought of,” he says. From the moment she got in the car for an initial tour in Texas, he knew he’d made the right choice. “She started talking about the research she’d done. When the radio was on she’d sing along, making up her own lyrics. I have never me such a natural, organic singer,” Owens says. “Every night she loses herself in our last song and elevates the show. She’s become my mentor, she always has my back.”
Rene Marie’s charms are familiar to local audiences who remember her early career on the RVA scene, but the other singers may be a revelation. After years working under the radar as a background singer, Alicia Olatuja’s breakout was at Obama’s 2012 inaugural with the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir, making what can be the most leaden of anthems, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” soar.
“She is spellbinding,” Owens says. “She has a unique ability to bring people into her orbit. Some of these songs are difficult. We need people to feel, but not to be offending.” Olatuja’s magic is making people feel that just by listening they are part of the solution.
Bleckmann’s skills are of a different order, his vocal abilities so unworldly that he was commissioned to create the alien space language for “Men in Black.” With more conventional material, his voice is a high baritone, preternaturally clear and deeply expressive. And it can go to some amazing places.
“He is adored by the people who make music with computers,” Owens says. “They can just push a tray of pedals and gadgets toward him and have fireworks for an hour. But he is also kind and compassionate. We do an arrangement of 'A Balm In Gilead' where he has this unbelievable tech-enhanced arrangement. I had someone come up to me after the show and say ‘When I go to heaven, I want that song played.’”
The lineup, unlike many mono-demographic jazz groups, is multi-generational. Rene Marie is the only one old enough to remember the actual 1960s. Bleckmann and Olatuja are in their 30s. The piano player is 22.
Owens is at the center of it all, narrating the program and shaping the performance so that every song becomes what it needs to be.
“I am not overt about it,” he says, “but this is my show. On the bandstand, the drums are the most powerful instrument." He is proud of the result. “It’s a powerful and incredibly musically accessible experience. I selfishly wanted it to be good, I knew it was going to be musical, but this thing has gone beyond my expectations. It’s transformative, unifying. People have come up and said it helped them, that they never liked jazz but now they want everyone’s record.”
For most of the evening, the singers provide deeply personal interpretations of individual songs. But with the closing number, Nina Simone’s inherently multi-voiced “Four Women,” all the singers take a part. “Each of these singers has such a unique voice that by the time they come together the interchange becomes deeply interconnected,” Owens says. “Just come out, meet these beautiful people, and let the music do the talking.”
Songs of Freedom, with musical director Ulysses Owens Jr., featuring Rene Marie, Alicia Olatuja, and Theo Bleckmann will be performed at the Modlin Center at the University of Richmond, Sunday November 4th at 7:30 PM. Tickets are $40 for adults, with discounts for Seniors, Employees, and UR Students. Local NPR jazz host Peter Solomon will host a discussion with Owens in the hall at 6:30 PM.