Musicians: Watch what you say, for your words can have lasting consequences.
Consider Cilla Owens, for instance.
A Brooklyn native, initially Owens pursued a degree at Boston College and thought that her lifelong career would involve teaching young students in New York City schools.
Then that magical moment occurred. The one when jazz icon Hank Jones told Owens after an open mic session: “You could really go far with your music. You should sing.”
Until receiving that life-changing encouragement, Owens wasn’t aware that the Hank Jones had been accompanying her during the session. She took the advice of the Hank Jones.
Cilla Owens sang.
Cilla Owens went far.
Far away to Lugano, Switzerland’s jazz festival. Far away to Caribbean jazz festivals. Far away to German venues. Far away to Newport.
And she came home again.
To earn bachelor and masters degrees in music at Hunter College. To New York jazz clubs like the Cornelia Street Café. To join the Great Day Chorale, whose mission consists of preserving the Negro Spiritual. To join Moments Notice, a band led by James Rohlehr and Elton Reid. To join the Monk for President group with Glafkos Kontemeniotis, Ed Kollar & Vince “Kozi” McCoy.
And Owens sang…
With the Chorale at Carnegie Hall, Symphony Space and other theaters. In the Ribs and Brisket Revue at the Café. In the Music under New York program with Moment’s Notice. In her new position as director of Hunter College’s Jazz Vocal Workshop.
However, Owens’ tenure with Monk for President set up the circumstances for her first CD, ‘Tis What It Is. The Monk for President band backs Owens as she produces an album of twelve tracks that summarize her influences (not the least of whom is, naturally, Thelonious Monk) and presents Cilla Owens as a unique jazz personality.
‘Tis What It Is, of course, includes “’Tis What It Is,” a Kontemeniotis composition with words by British singer Aimua Eghobamien. Jagged with local leaps and staggered rhythms, but nonetheless based on blues changes, “’Tis What It Is” reinforces the influence of Monk on the group as the blues’ conventionality becomes unconventional. Allowing the band members to stretch out on their own, Owens bookends the track with words—sung quirkily and infectiously in her own style.
Owens invites saxophonist Sylvester “Sly” Scott to enhance a few of the tracks as well, such as his soprano sax colloquy with her on Freddie Hubbard’s “Little Sunflower.” The additional delicacy and fluidity of his sax work contribute to the effectiveness of the performance as Scott expands upon the interpretation with elegant improvisation. On Owens’ original composition, “Simple Samba,” Scott embellishes the song’s mood with his understated flute accompaniment and exhilarating two-chorus solo. And Scott adds a growling ferocity to an unexpectedly modal adaptation of “What Is This Thing Called Love,” prodding and loping as an extension of Kollar’s bass vamp in minor-key territory.
With such empathetic support from friends, who just so happen to be excellent musicians as well, Owens is free to explore the music associated with iconic singers she admires like Sarah Vaughan, Betty Carter or Carmen McRae. In her version of “Twisted,” alternating between medium swing and teasing rhythmic slowdowns, Owens pays tribute to Lambert Hendricks and Ross. As an impish inside joke, “Twisted’s” introduction refers to Monk’s “Straight No Chaser.” Owens includes her fair share of standards like “The Nearness of You” and “Thou Swell,” which contain their own nuggets of surprise, like the locomotive-inspired introductory rhythm of “Take the ‘A’ Train.” Or in tribute to Billie Holiday, who inspired an entire generation of singers, Owens sings “Fine and Mellow” as a swinging medium-tempo blues that reinforces the cohesiveness of the Monk for President group, as Kontemeniotis provides block-chorded support and Kollar’s walking bass lines firmly anchor the rhythm.
Hank Jones’ kind words led to no doubt much personal fulfillment for Cilla Owens as she now combines her goal of teaching with her subject of jazz, and they led to the arrival of another individualistic jazz voice with its own way with lyrics.