The new release from Jacksonville-based drummer-educator Ulysses Owens Jr. and his ensemble Generation Y is an immediate reminder of the joy, nuance and innate humanness of jazz. Over the course the nine tracks of A New Beat, Owens Jr. and Generation Y deliver a rapturous set of hip standards and also originals penned by the assembled players.
Originally written by alto sax legend Jackie McLean in honor of Charlie Parker, the nearly-nine-minutes of “Bird Lives” takes full flight at liftoff and never relents. Opening with a rapid-tempo drum salvo by Owens, the band balances their reverence for McLean’s already-dizzying tune, a compositional conduit between hard bop and maze-like modal jazz, with some undeniable technical flex. Owens and bassist Philip Norris drive the tune into a streamlined propulsion, pushing the BPMs and band forward; alto saxophonist Sarah Hanahan and pianist Luther Allison travel divergent paths, the horn swirling lines over the keyboards jabbing block-chords and intervals, which in turn creates an invocation for trumpeter Benny Benack III to unfurl some dizzying hyper-bop responses. Allison bookends these brass passages with a piano solo that rolls the blues, modernism, and everything in between back to Owens, who shuts down “Bird Lives” with a drum solo that would make Art Blakey smile.
Powerful stuff for sure. And Owens and Generation Y practice enough humble restraint to not let their collective virtuosity diminish the exhilarating throwdown that is their take on “Bird Lives.”
There’s a certain poetic circularity in Owens Jr. choosing a McLean song to venerate, explore and interpret. A onetime full-scholarship graduate of the Juilliard School’s inaugural jazz program, Owens Jr. is now a longtime faculty member of that very same heralded university. Owens is a Grammy-Award winner, on-demand side player, and an ardent music educator-activist, including his work with his local music nonprofit Don’t Miss A Beat. He is also the artistic director of the Friday Musicale Summer Jazz Camp (and a contributor to the Jacksonville Music Experience).
As a musician who shares dual passions as both performer and teacher, and with an obvious ear for spotting and encouraging new talents, Owens is a co-creator of the current vanguard of a new jazz pedagogy, a teaching paradigm where young music students are directed toward the music of Duke Ellington and Eric Dolphy as much as any rote instruction on the works of Bach or Beethoven. Until his death in 2006, Jackie McLean had devoted the past three decades of his life to jazz education, creating a grass-roots, experiential-based approach that was eventually utilized by academia. On “Bird Lives” and the remainder of his work with Generation Y on A New Beat, the enthusiasm and focus of Owens Jr. to work with young, emerging musicians (including Juilliard graduates) and produce high-tier music is palpable and admirable.