Jefferson Center presents “Songs of Freedom”

Project rips the fabric of America’s injustices
Vocalists Alicia Olatuja (left) and Rene´ Marie perform together during the presentation of Ulysses Owens’ “Songs of Freedom” held Friday, Nov. 2 at Roanoke’s Jefferson Center. – Photo by S. Hale

by S. Rotan Hale

Ulysses Owens, Jr., Grammy Award winning percussionist, composer and producer has performed with some of the most prolific artists in modern jazz circles.

The Jefferson Center played host Thursday, Nov. 2 to his latest project that featured three dynamic vocalists: Roanoke’s own Rene´ Marie, Alicia Olatuja and Theo Bleckmann, all backed by a quartet led by Owens himself.

“Two years ago…I was asked by Jason Olaine, (program director, Jazz at Lincoln Center) to put together a show for the center’s celebration of “100 Years of Song.”

To that request “Songs of Freedom” was born “because of the times–as the nation deals with so much socially and politically,” Owens explained.

The project highlights the music of Nina Simone, Abbey Lincoln, & Joni Mitchell during the 60’s and 70’s. These often politically-charged vocalist, sang songs of awareness to a nation deep in the throws of social and political unrest–much like the present.

Olatuja’s opened the set with “Both Sides Now,” from Joni Mitchell’s 2003 album “Clouds.”

She performed “Everything Must Change,”–a soothing ballad, written by guitarist George Benson, through which she showed her bold and penetrating range.

She told an amusing story of how Nina Simone was upset and went to a record label brandishing a gun and demanded her money (royalties). Olatuja offered that as proof of Simone’s directness and launched into her 1965 release of “Be My Husband.”

With the assistance of voice enhancing electronics on several tunes, Bleckmann covered such songs as Mitchell’s “Borderline” and at various points slipped into a menagerie of abstract melodic improvisations as on Abby Lincoln’s “Running Wild,” accentuated by Ownes’ precision accompaniment on drums.

Rubin Roberts

During an incredible version of “Balm in Gilead” Bleckmann transformed his singular voice into a choir creating multi-levels of expansive tones that projected the classic biblical nature of this spiritual standard that refers to the salvation of Christ. It was truly the most hypnotic moment of the show. Bleckmann also did Randy Newman’s 1977 release, “Baltimore” Reggae style as Simone’s 1979 release dictated.

Nonetheless it was a coming home of sorts for Rene´Marie who Owens referred to as being “an incredibly special force of nature.” The former Roanoker brought the house down upon entering the stage and opened her set with Abby Lincoln’s “Wholly Earth.”

“Lincoln’s songs are so spiritual and very direct at times,” she said interjecting a bit of her own philosophy. “I just love this idea that the whole earth is round. We’re all connected, generations past with current and future generations -all happening at one time, its beautiful.”

Ulysses Owens

Rene’s voice and style, both unique and spontaneous, are naturally smooth as velvet, yet she explodes with strength and a raspy rage performing such songs as “Mississippi Goddam,” a rousing civil right anthem by Nina Simone. Released in 1964, the song was written in protest to the oppressive atrocities suffered by Blacks throughout the south.

Prior to several of the songs performed, the singers gave a brief commentary to explain the historical references relative to certain songs–some with lyrics deeply entrenched in the depth and complexities of human endeavor.

As such, another song covered by her was: Lincoln’s “Driver Man,” a song about the treatment of enslaved Blacks.

Liston Gregory

The triumvirate of singers, backed by an extremely well-versed group of musicians consisting of: David Rosenthal, guitar, Liston Gregory, keyboard and bassist Rubin Rogers wrapped up the show collaborating on a moving rendition of Simone’s “Four Women,” (released 1966). The haunting classic proved to be the perfect finale to Owens’ amazing project.