By: Jerome Wilson, All About Jazz

At a time when women are gaining more prominence in every field, it’s no surprise there are more and more all-female jazz groups popping up. This particular octet, led by pianist Ellen Rowe, takes that a step farther with a CD that delves into women’s history. They have recorded a set of Rowe compositions that honor women from the worlds of politics, arts, sports and science who have inspired her.

The album begins with “Ain’t I A Woman,” dedicated to unsung pioneers of the Civil Rights Movement like Fannie Lou Hamer and Mary Bethune Cook. It’s a gospel-tinged strut dominated by a taut rhythm section and greasy sliding horns. Trombonist Melissa Gardner and alto saxophonist Tia Fuller both get space to shine here. “R.F.P.,” a tribute to female distance runners, features the saxophones and brass stretching out over Allison Miller‘s quick paced cymbals. Rowe’s piano leads the thick ensemble surges as Fuller and Virginia Mayhew boil over the top.

“The Soul Keepers” is angular boogie woogie dedicated to two great pianists, Mary Lou Williams, and her disciple, Geri Allen. Rowe, who taught beside Allen at the University of Michigan, carries this one, strutting and swinging over an easy-riding groove supplied by Miller and Marion Hayden. Two important musicians from the rock and pop world, Carole King and Joni Mitchell, are acknowledged in “Anthem,” . Here Rowe’s piano carries a more folkish and quietly powerful sound as it dances with Janelle Reichman ‘s probing clarinet.

“The First Lady,” as you might guess from its subtitle, is about a former First Lady, Michelle Obama. It’s a fitting tribute, a gliding, soulful waltz sparked by Miller’s excellent drumming. Mayhew’s and Ingrid Jensen‘s fine solos twirl out of a bluesy group sound reminiscent of the various bands led by Charles Mingus and Thad Jones. “The Guardians,” for anthropologists Jane Goodall and DIan Fossey, is a ballad with a sense of drama. Lisa Parrott, Mayhew and Jensen all take turns rising to the front of the ensemble. “Game, Set and Match,” for sports legends Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova, starts with notes pinging back and forth like a tennis volley before settling into a giddy funk groove where the horns dance like a New Orleans street band. Almost everyone takes a sassy, jubilant solo while Hayden’s and Miller’s beats rock the house. The CD ends with”Song of the Meadowlark,” a solo piano piece by Rowe dedicated to her mother, a simple, moving composition played with the clarity and elegance of Duke Ellington.

This disc is a rich and absorbing collection of music. Ellen Rowe is a strong composer and knows how to arrange an octet to sound like a much bigger band. She has also assembled an excellent cast of players and given them room to stretch out and play with passion. The result is a very strong work.

Track Listing: Ain’t I A Woman; R.F.P. (Relentless Forward Progress); The Soul Keepers; Anthem; The First Lady (No, Not You, Melania); The Guardians; Game, Set and Match; Song of the Meadowlark.

Personnel: Ellen Rowe: piano; Tia Fuller: alto saxophone; Virginia Mayhew: tenor saxophone; LIsa Parott: baritone saxophone; Janelle Reichman: clarinet (4); Ingrid Jensen: trumpet; Marion Hayden (1, 3, 5, 7), Marlene Rosenberg (2, 4, 6): bass; Allison Miller: drums.

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