A Wealth In Common
This is Charles Owens’s first record in a decade. The intervening years have seen the 40 year old tenor saxophonist transform from a firebrand on the New York scene to a pillar of the Charlottesville community, a husband and father.
The members of the Charles Owens Trio are all natives and residents of the Commonwealth of Virginia. bassist Andrew Randazzo and drummer Devonne Harris are both recent graduates of Virginia Commonwealth University, as well as longtime friends and colleagues.
The material they’re playing is common enough, for the most part- standards and blues, a couple of originals. Saxophone trios are nothing particularly rare these days. Common, even. But make no mistake, there’s depth to this record. Somehow, be it through their common ground or their differences in perspective, this band has found a vein. In the common musical language, they find the true wealth of creation.
All three play with a deep awareness of the traditions of the music and their forebears on their instruments. In their individual conceptions of sound and feel, they value resonance and swing.
Charles notes, “I was inspired by the stark, swinging beauty of the Sonny Rollins trio records that have been such a huge influence on me.” Indeed, the 1957 ‘Live at the Village Vanguard’ casts a long shadow over these proceedings The general temperament of the group is similar- everyone stands fully independent, but at no time is there a doubt who’s in charge.
Speaking of precedents, I’m reminded of some of Elvin Jones’ 1970s recordings, when he hired a band that may have been younger than he, but knew the language and the territory, and made some burning, enduring music.
Devonne is clearly conversant in both the historical language of the drums and the state of the modern art. He orchestrates his ideas around the drumset, giving depth and color to simple ideas, while anchoring more complex statements inexorably to the groove, fully in command. Then check out his surefooted, heartfelt piano playing on ‘Johnny Ellis’, and it’s clear what Charles means when he refers to him as ‘one of those guys’- he’s one of those gifted and talented people you just can’t help but envy a bit.
Charles, it should be said, has that kind of talent too. He’s a fine composer and arranger, quite a pianist, and plays drums, a skill set that makes great things possible.
This whole recording showcases Charles’ hard earned maturity. Like any of your favorite musicians, Charles can be identified in four notes- it’s the sound of an oak tree in the wind, struck by lightning. He improvises melodies that stick in your head. He’s always had plenty of chops on the saxophone, but now he doesn’t play a million notes for their own sake. If things happen to get busy- and they do- it’s simply because he’s got a lot to say and the means with which to say it.
Bronislaw Kaper’s Invitation is given a purposeful, almost-marching groove from the very first beat, and Charles proves that he needs waste no energy babysitting- it’s not that kind of band. Sonny Rollins’ Valse Hot was first recorded the Clifford Brown/Max Roach band in 1956. A simple set of changes, with a hip little interlude, and a nice 3⁄4 feel : Party time, excellent. Charles wroteLove Saves The Day when he was Andrew and Devonne’s age. It’s a lyrical tune- so much so that I suspect that there might actually be lyrics- with a careful eye to detail and a hopeful tone.
On Ornette Coleman’s The Turnaround, Andrew digs in with a solo that can only be described as meaty, then Charles lets rip with a few choruses of jublilant, shouting blues, with Devonne burning it up behind him. When was the last time you wished a tenor player took a longer solo? Moon River- This Henry Mancini standard is fitted with a bluesy, brooding arrangement that manages to be both deeply melancholy and hopeful.
Joe Farrell’s Village Green- To the list of things these guys have in common, add indefatigable energy and unflagging momentum.
Skylark- As with ‘Moon River’, this song doesn’t begin, per se, until some parameters have been unhurriedly set in a thorough recitative- in this case, almost a song unto itself. I’m usually loath to make facile comparisons to the giants of the music- this is, after all, music of its time, by and for residents of the world we live in, and not a nostalgia trip. Be that as it may, it’s hard not to think of Dexter Gordon sometimes when you hear the way Charles brings a big tone and confident delivery, or Sam Rivers and Joe Henderson when he exploits the saxophone’s full capabilities.
Polkadots and Moonbeams draws attention to a couple of Charles’ less obvious talents. As an arranger, he knows how to add just the right details to a tune- a break, a fill, a crescendo, a reharmonization- enough to focus the performance and the band, but never overwrought or fussy. And chalk it up to experience, age, or something else, but it’s not everyone who knows how to deliver a ballad like this. Just listen.
Trane’s Blues- I’ve known Charles for a long time, and I’ll vouch for the fact that the man knows his Coltrane, and always has. On this track, the proverbial gloves come off, if they were ever on, and we hear the group dig in for a last round. Devonne is at his most imaginative, and Andrew shows no sign of letting up with his insistent, at times downright nasty, bass lines.
Johnny Ellis, the man, was a great drummer, creative composer, and raconteur nonpareil who lived on his own terms. He hasn’t been forgotten by anyone who knew him.
Johnny Ellis, the tune, is a meditative stroll, a bittersweet goodbye, at just the right emotional angle.
The common ground and mutual regard between these three guys results in a valuable document. Every note counts, every moment carries weight, and we are wealthier for having taken the trip with them.
Enjoy the music.
Santos, Sao Paulo, Brazil August, 2012