One sign of a successful concept album is that it doesn’t wear out its welcome. Drummer, producer, and savvy musical ringleader Ulysses Owens Jr. showcases four very different vocalists on Songs of Freedom, an album that could have easily expanded to twice its nine songs—all of them associated with or written by Nina Simone, Abbey Lincoln, or Joni Mitchell.
The freedom Owens has in mind isn’t necessarily political. The material explores notions of spiritual and emotional liberation as well, though the album’s pulse is driven by the disquieting sense that civil rights-era songs resonate more loudly than ever these days. René Marie sounds formidable on Max Roach and Oscar Brown Jr.’s “Driva’ Man” from the Freedom Now Suite and positively ferocious on Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam.”
In an inspired casting and sequencing choice, Owens follows both of Marie’s tracks with ethereal work by Theo Bleckmann, whose lapidary vocals on the spiritual “Balm in Gilead” bring to mind his long association with Meredith Monk. He’s just as effective on the album’s most unexpected piece, the quietly scathing “Borderline” from Mitchell’s overlooked 1994 album Turbulent Indigo. Alicia Olatuja’s three songs feel like a postscript to her excellent new album focusing on songs by and about women, Intuition, particularly her rollicking sanctified version of Andy Stroud’s “Be My Husband.”
The wild card is young Toronto-based singer Joanna Majoko, who makes a powerful impression with her brief piece, delivering Roach and Brown’s “Freedom Day” with poise and purpose (and a jolt of energy from the prodigiously gifted pianist Allyn Johnson). Owens doesn’t dress up the songs with elaborate arrangements, and the band fits each singer to a tee, guided by the redoubtable Reuben Rogers, who never seems to allow a phrase to drag.