The funniest song title on pianist Ellen Rowe‘s latest album Momentum: Portraits of Women in Motion – streaming at Soundcloud – is The First Lady (No, Not Melania). It doesn’t seem to be a portrait of any first lady in recent memory. It’s too gentle for Michelle Obama, and there’s too much bluesy shuffle for Jackie Kennedy, let alone Rosalyn Carter. And none of the others from the past several decades rate. Maybe it’s a look forward to the time when we have a confidently easygoing woman in the Oval Office.
It always makes sense to open your record with a song you can close a show with, and the first number here, Ain’t I a Woman fits that bill perfectly. Rowe’s stern gospel voicings and an increasingly artful lefthand line anchor balmy individual horn voices – that’s saxophonists Tia Fuller, Virginia Mayhew and Lisa Parrott, clarinetist Janelle Reichman and trumpeter Ingrid Jensen coalescing with a steady, swinging march beat. Trombonist Melissa Gardiner takes it further toward New Orleans, Rowe closer to the blues, Fuller bringing it all together, followed by a slinky bass solo. There’s a lot going on here.
Balmy horn harmonies over Allison Miller’s suspenseful drizzle of cymbals kick off RFP (Relentless Forward Progress), lithely blippy bass underneath an increasingly soaring, optimistic theme that quickly hits a chugging latin groove echoed by a spiraling Jensen solo.
A biting, upward chromatic piano interlude opens off The Soul Keepers, a boogie with plush, sailing brass. There’s a bluesy late 40s Gillespie band purism here, Rowe’s gritty incisions ceding the stage to a triumphant alto solo and sagacious trombone.
There’s a wistful, gorgeously pastoral sensibility to Anthem, Reichman’s clarinet at the center over the bandleader’s precise chords, down to another purposeful bass solo. Saxes converse cautiously and broodingly as The Guardians slowly rises toward a pensive quasi-bolero groove: in a quiet way, it’s the album’s most vivid and strongest track. Rowe closes it with the playful but determined Game, Set and Match, a web of New Orleans riffs building to a return to Miller’s second line-inflected swing. At this point it hits you: this is one of the most tuneful jazz albums of recent months, arguably the high point in Rowe’s underrated career.