Pianist and educator Ellen Rowe strolls into “Ain’t I a Woman,” the first track on her new record Momentum: Portraits of Women in Motion, with a rolling Pentecostal piano line. It’s like hearing the first puffs of a steam engine beginning to roar, the wheels slowly shaking off their torpor. Soon Rowe and her express-train octet are hurtling through the music at full speed, burning through the record’s eight compositions.
What spurs the group is deeply held conviction. With Momentum, Rowe seeks to honor great, undersung women of the last 50 years. With her bandmates—many of them in-the-trenches veterans like saxophonist Tia Fuller, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, and drummer Allison Miller—Rowe paints full, rich musical portraits of her subjects, from athletes like tennis icon Billie Jean King and runner Gunhild Swanson to champions of civil rights like Fannie Lou Hamer and First Lady Michelle Obama, honored with “The First Lady (No, Not You Melania).”
Rowe’s playing and compositional style—deeply lyrical and impressionistic—is well suited to lay the groundwork for her musical tributes. This comes out especially in numbers like “Anthem,” one of the album’s strongest compositions. A nod to Joni Mitchell and Carole King, it draws in the melodiousness of European folk music and the full potential of the octet’s rich timbre. Similarly, the baritone lament of “The Guardians,” an ode to animal-rights activists that contains a curious nod to the Cuban standard “Quizás, Quizás, Quizás,” is almost overpoweringly bittersweet. The links between subject and tribute can be opaque, but what is clear throughout the record is that the Ellen Rowe Octet is one of the most expressive and compelling new groups you’ll hear this year.