by Phil Booth, Jazziz

Do drummer-led big bands — think Buddy Rich, Louie Bellson, Gene Krupa — simply pack a bigger punch than those led by other instrumentalists? Maybe. Ulysses Owens Jr. makes a strong case for that argument with his first big-band album, following the Florida native and Juilliard jazz prof’s four releases as a leader and stellar work with the likes of Christian McBride, Kurt Elling and Joey Alexander. Recorded live at Dizzy’s Club at Lincoln Center in Manhattan, just a few months before the venue shutdowns, it’s a collection of rousing performances of standards and originals, featuring arrangements by band members and others.

Lead-off track “Two Bass Hit” launches with a series of quick snare hits and inventive drum fills before the band gets going in earnest with the familiar bluesy Dizzy Gillespie-John Lewis melody. Shortly after comes the first of the album’s several solo romps by tenor saxophonist Diego Rivera, and a round-robin of solos by five others including a two-minute showcase for the leader. Owens also delivers several other inspired interpretations.

“Giant Steps” comes with a loosey-goosey intro and a stellar set of trading-bars from Rivera and fellow tenorist Daniel Dickinson, while “Human Nature” is an elegant, stately take on the Michael Jackson hit, brightened by special guest Stefon Harris’ vibraphone solo. “Girl Talk” is a laid-back, exceedingly pretty version of the much-covered but lately underappreciated Neal Hefti/Bobby Troup gem, featuring trumpeter Giveton Gelin; brass and woodwind padding and punches perfectly underscore and enhance the soloing.

Impressive originals abound, too. Charles Turner III’s “Harlem, Harlem, Harlem” offers gospel-fired call-and-response action by singer Turner and the band, and fiery turns by alto saxophonist Erena Terakubo, trombonist Michael Dease and mute-jamming trumpeter Summer Camargo. Owens brings three compositions to the program, including the closing title track, a mellow, funk-edged piece livened by Alexa Tarantino’s high-flying alto solo.

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