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.”