Last night at Lincoln Center, bassist Endea Owens emerged from behind the audience and earned a spontantous clapalong from the crowd on a brisk version of Stevie Wonder’s Higher Ground, getting a growly, funky tone out of her shiny beige Fender Jazz model. The band simmered behind her: Jonathan Thomas on Rhodes, Shenel Johns and Jay Ward on vocals, and a three-piece horn section of Jeffrey Miller on trombone, Irwin Hall on tenor sax and Josh Evans on trumpet. What was coolest was how Owens stuck with tightly coiling riffs and steady walks instead of the slaphappy garbage some four-string people fall into when they plug in.
“The next song is an original composition called Feel Good. Before we get started, I just want to tell you why I wrote it.” The suspense was killing. “I wrote it because I wanted to feel good!” So much for awkward confessions in front of an audience.
Switching to upright, Owens gave her tune the same kind of spring-loaded, riff-driven groove, even during a long crescendoing solo, Evans choosing his spots to blast out of drummer EJ Strickland’s pummeling swing. Owens’ debut album Feel Good Music is due out later this month: truth in advertising.
Johns returned to ease her way airily into Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, the horns slowly rising to a jaunty series of dixieland-tinged licks. Hall matched the cheer of the original in an extended break; Miller chose his spots with a bluesy gravitas. When Johns got to “War is not the answer,” that’s where she really picked it up.
Owens is doing the same thing with soul music that the golden age jazz artists did with showtunes. “Feel good music means thinking about going back home – you’re going to hear a lot of Motown tonight,” the native Detroiter grinned. She likes Donny Hathaway: inspired by a good soundcheck, she scrapped her arrangement of Someday We’ll All Be Free for a simple, summery piano/vocal duet by Thomas and Ward.
Owens wrote For the Brothers in the wake of the murder of Trayvon Martin, but now she sees her resolutely bouncy triplet funk number as something for everybody. “A lot of my friends went through troubles with police brutality…and just being slighted in life, It takes all of us, it doesn’t just take a song, it takes effort from all of us,” she reminded. Triggered by Thomas’ gospel solo, the crowd engaged themselves again.
Owens sent the whole band away for a solo piece, Yesterdays, in D minor, her favorite key as a budding bassist. It was a knockout: gritty and spacious to begin, then a defiant strut spiced with clenched-teeth eighth-notes and an unexpectedly somber ending. The band came back up for a bluesy ba-BUMP take of Can’t Get Next to You, echoed by a Johns/Owens duet of Quincy Jones’ Celie’s Blues.
A percolating minor jump blues also sizzled with Thomas’ sabretoothed modalities and Owens’ jubilantly striding lines. Owens and Johns tried teaching the audience the electric slide, without much luck. Then she and the band ran off to Dizzy’s Club a few blocks south to play a late-night set, where she’ll be through this Saturday night, Feb 15 at 11:30 PM for a measly $10. The mostly-weekly Thursday night free concert series at the Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. continues on Feb 20 at 7:30 PM with a high-voltage oldschool salsa dura dance party featuring longtime Tito Puente sideman John “Dandy” Rodriguez’s Dream Team band. Get there early if you’re going.