“Songs of Freedom” is entertaining, if that’s what you wanted. Provocative, if that’s what you’re searching for.
The intriguing project at Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival Wednesday night, created by the celebrated drummer Ulysses Owens, Jr., combined the music of three fearless women at Kilbourn Hall: Joni Mitchell, Abbey Lincoln and Nina Simone, who Owens noted, “had freedom lodged in her voice.”
Some moments were traditional, other times the show was a complete re-thinking of the songs. Both ends worked, thanks to the extraordinary vocalists: The daring and innovative Theo Beckmann and the roof-lifting Alicia Olatuja, whose version of Simone’s “Everything Must Change” was the mission statement for this riveting and smart show.
As Owens told the story, “Songs of Freedom” was something he almost fell into by accident. He recalled how there was a time, maybe 12 or 13 years ago, when he was playing Rochester four times a year. But always as someone else’s drummer. And he always wanted to come here as the leader of his own project.
And then he was commissioned to write a show celebrating a century of music. “I said, ‘A hundred years man, that’s a lot of singers,’” Owens said during the first of two shows at Kilbourn. “‘And I’m a drummer, what do you want me to do?’”
They left it up to Owens. The idea, he decided, was to narrow the focus. “The ’60s, to me, produced such great writers and singers,” he said. It also produced shifts in civil rights and women’s roles in society. A time when people spoke of freedom and marched in the streets for it. And that became the idea. Songs of Freedom.
Freedom is many things, isn’t it? Alicia Olatuja’s take on Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” was quietly graceful in its opening moments. Until she hit the line about, “I really don’t know clouds at all,” and the band surged in, lifting the song to a roar of approval from the audience.
Then it was Bleckmann’s turn, and he had something completely different in mind for Mitchell’s “Borderline.” He had a soundboard at his side, synthesizing his voice through electronics, looping phrases, playfully singing in a siren scat.
Everybody looks so ill at ease
So distrustful, so displeased
Running down the table
I see a borderline
Like a barbed wire fence
Strung tight, strung tense
Prickling with pretense
“More than ever is that an appropriate song for the times,” Bleckmann said.
Indeed, every line of that song nails the divisions of the day.
Even an instrumental, “Freedom Day,” composed by Lincoln with her husband, the drummer Max Roach, and Oscar Brown, Jr. “As I was doing all of the research, I didn’t understand all of the songs will still be relevant,” Owens said. But this wordless, scurrying arrangement, to the point of frantic, suits these unsettled times. Unrelenting, but that’s the way it is today, isn’t it? Check the news every morning and, “Oh no, he did whaaaaat?”
Mitchell, Lincoln and Simone each moved the game forward. Olatuja praised Simone’s raw features, “even offstage, she had an edge.” Yet, “she understood the tenderness and desires of a woman.”
Which sometimes means she has to make demands of her mate. As in Simone’s, “Be My Husband,” with Olatuja singing “stick to the promises that you made to me.”
Two moments in particular stand out. Bleckmann’s version of “There is a Balm in Gilead,” a traditional African-American spiritual, sung by many, including Simone. Once again using his soundboard, Bleckmann created a hushed, haunted, echo-laden church atmosphere, until the band eased in and carried the song the rest of the way.
And then Olatuja’s take on Simone’s “Everything Must Change.” She nailed it like a hide to the barn wall. As the song reached its concluding crescendo, with Olatuja howling “everything must change,” the audience howled and applauded its agreement with the sentiment.
Everything must change. Mitchell, Lincoln and Simone were there years ago, sentiments that still make sense whether presented as they once were, dynamically by Olatuja, or with a completely updated voice, as Bleckmann did it.
“Music says everything I need to say, I could think to say,” Owens told his audience. “If there were more people like you on this planet, we could make this thing much better than it is.”
Today’s jazz haiku
A righteous shout
hushed whisper of circuits
the notes never change
Thursday: Jazz Fest Day Seven
Lake Street Dive’s 8 p.m. show at Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre is sold out, a nice accomplishment for the multi-genre band – a mix of pop, swing jazz and soul – that doesn’t get a lot of radio airplay. Its big break was actually a YouTube video of the band on a street corner performing The Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back,” which has received more than 5 million views.
Gwyneth Herbert, 6:15 and 10 p.m., Max of Eastman Place. She also plays Friday at Christ Church. The English singer has charmed past XRIJF audiences with her sense of adventure, delivered with an ease that makes her music easily accessible. She describes her latest project as “exploring the lost art of letter writing.”
Soul Stew, 7:30 and 9:30 p.m., City of Rochester Jazz Free Stage. This Toronto band’s free shows on Gibbs Street have become a staple of the jazz festival. Expect co-producer Marc Iacona and his trumpet to sit in with the horn-powered soul band.
GoGo Penquin, 6:30 and 9 p.m., Xerox Auditorium. A return engagement to the “Made in the UK” series for the trio, GoGo Penguin is an intriguing mix of acoustic electronica, jazz minimalism, rock and video-game themes.
I’ll be on Scott Regan’s Open Tunings show, WRUR-FM (88.5) at about 10:30 a.m. Thursday, and will file a brief report from the jazz fest at about 5:45 p.m. Thursday on WXXI-AM (1370) and WRUR-FM.
Jeff Spevak is a Rochester-based writer. His web site is jeffspevak.com. He will be reporting for WXXI throughout the Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival.