The songbooks for three great singers who emerged in the 1960s — Nina Simone, Abbey Lincoln and Joni Mitchell — are too vast to be easily corralled.
But drummer and band leader Ulysses Owens Jr., a veteran of Christian McBride and Kurt Elling outfits, teased out a common subject that still applies. It’s “Songs of Freedom,” the title of the show he is bringing to Jefferson Center on Friday, for a Jazz Series performance.
Three contemporary singers, Alicia Olatuja, Theo Bleckmann and former Roanoker Rene Marie, are giving new life to a combined repertoire.
The former Rene Marie Stevens, a 1974 William Fleming High School graduate and Grammy Award-nominated singer, is the show’s anchor, Owens said.
Dee Dee Bridgewater was part of the original group brought on to perform this show for Jazz at Lincoln Center, but she opted for other commitments, leaving Owens in need of another singer to interpret these slices of jazz music.
“I started thinking, who were singers who have weight, like when they sing, they’re not even about singing anymore? They are about spirit, and they have something special,” Owens said. “And Rene Marie was the first person that came to mind.
“You go to a Rene Marie concert, and yes, she can sing. Yes, she delivers a lyric. But what you’re really experiencing with Rene is just this mighty spirit. Her voice is just a vehicle to show who she is internally.”
Among the songs is “Mississippi Goddam,” Simone’s look at extreme racism in the Deep South. Marie is singing it, and the theme still applies to many of today’s issues, she said. She tried to keep the pain in perspective.
“When I take a step back to look at the big picture, looking at the stars, acknowledging other planets, the solar system, I start to feel this comfort,” Marie said. “You know how we say: It ain’t all about me.
“I do think there are bigger forces at work, and this is just our little garden plot to work on. We just need to stay focused and plant lots of little seeds of love, one on one.
“This prevents me from feeling overwhelmed and panicked.”
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Link to Lincoln
Of the three singers feted Friday, Lincoln is least-known to the non-jazz public. Mitchell began as a folk singer before finding wider audiences with jazz-inflected pop music, while Simone was a genre-bending jazzer. Both are members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, with Simone’s induction coming last year.
Lincoln may be better known as an actor, having made a couple of movies in the 1960s. She appeared on multiple TV shows (“Mission: Impossible” and “All in the Family” among them) in the 1970s. Spike Lee cast her in his 1990 movie, “Mo Betta Blues.” But hip jazzers know Lincoln’s vocal worth and lyrical gifts. Marie will sing the Lincoln-penned “Wholly Earth” and the Max Roach/Oscar Brown number “Driva Man.” Lincoln and drummer Roach were married when she recorded that one with him for the Roach album “We Insist!”
“I love Abbey’s lyrics,” Marie said of “Wholly Earth.” “It comes from a very spiritual place. It’s really about how the Earth is round, we all belong to each other, generations in the past, generations yet to come. We are all here at the same time. Just a beautiful thought, you know.”
That idea has become increasingly important to Marie on her occasional trips to Roanoke. She’s a Fredericksburg native who moved back there in recent years to be closer to her mother, who lives in Richmond. No one in her immediate family lives in Roanoke anymore, but she has ancestors buried here, she said.
“There are times that I do go on my own, and I visit the gravesite of my deceased relatives,” she said. “I’m very peaceful and complete when I’m there, thinking … they lived before me. I’m living now and knowing that I have sons who come after me. It’s a good contemplation for me, and meditation.
“I get down on my hands and knees and use this grass clipper and clip around the grave and sweep around it. It just feels good. I never did that before. But I started doing that five years ago, just on my own, wanting to be there and acknowledge who they were and still are, because part of them exists in me, you know.
“They are still part of me.”
Who really won ‘Rich Versus Roach’
For drummer Owens, drummer Roach’s music is crucial. He chose Lincoln’s music for its importance aside from her onetime husband, but when a drummer calls a drummer for an interview, and Max Roach is an adjacent character, at least one drum-centric question is going to happen.
Buddy Rich was one of Owens’ first great influences, starting with videotapes that his parents bought him and extending to Rich albums that Owens dug into at ages 13 and 14. Among those was “Rich Versus Roach.”
“I was such a Buddy guy at that time, I was like, Buddy’s chopping Max, he’s chopping him! Because Buddy has all the chops,” Owens said. “As I got older and I started studying and understanding Max, you get into “The Drum Also Waltzes” and the “Drums Unlimited” album, and then all the work he did with Clifford [Brown] and Sonny Rollins and whatever. And then I started thinking like, oh no, Max is a whole vocabulary in and of itself.
“As a drummer, I’m influenced by so many jazz drummers, but I would say Max is probably top 5 for me, because his vocabulary on the kit as a jazz drummer, there is a certain phrasing that he has. My hope is to try to get to that every day, as I sit down behind the drums."
Owens is far more than simply a drummer, though, Marie said. She was attracted to the project, which got her familiar with Owens’ other qualities.
“Then I find out that he’s an amazing musician, so talented, good grief,” Marie said. “These arrangements are something, and they touched something very deep in me.”
Owens talks Olatuja, Bleckmann
Marie is our hometown fave, but Olatuja, who played a Jazz Club show at Jefferson Center last year, and Bleckmann are growing giants. Here are Owens’ thoughts on them:
“Alicia is someone who is a very close friend of mine, but she is also a fresh voice. If you read any interviews I’ve ever done about her, I constantly say she is a fresh sound in jazz. That is what I love about her. She has all the soul. She has the crispness. And she has a degree of the history in her sound. But more than anything, it’s her fresh sound.
“Theo to me is incredibly exploratory. And what I love about his vocal ability, he’s got this gorgeous tone and timbre and all that, but he’s always pushing the envelope — beyond even the jazz way of trying to be new.”
Owens said that these three strong vocal spirits will shine through the work of Mitchell, Simone and Lincoln. Boiling down those artists’ work into one category was a key to that, he said.
“ … Having that theme helped — and I hope you’ll understand what I’m saying — the artist to disappear. And made it easier for Alicia, Theo and Rene — and also Joanna [Majoko] who sometimes join us — to actually put their stamp on the song, because it was more about, here are these songs of freedom, here’s what freedom we are fighting for today and here’s my stance on it.
“’Freedom’ gave the current vocal artists the opportunity to create their own definition of what they wanted to do with this work.”