The smooth, rich tones of Lance Owens’ self-titled CD are a statement of a confident tenor saxophonist who favors the classics. It is, at turns, suave, sweet, sensitive, swinging. You may want to put on a tie just to listen.
Though it’s not a major-label release, it was greeted with as big a party as you’re likely to see for a local jazz recording, a standing-room-only crowd at the Knoxville Museum of Art’s great hall last month, attended by most of Knoxville’s jazz gentry. Toward the end of the evening, sales were soaring past 70 copies, a figure that anybody who’s not in the pop-star side of the business will consider a pretty good night.
I’m almost tempted not to mention its context, because Lance Owens is a recording that could be judged by its own merits. If you’re ever inclined to give up the dream of becoming a recording artist because you’ve hit your 30s, or (shudder) 40s, consider yourself a wimp. Owens recorded this debut CD the weekend he turned 89. Though never famous by his own name, the World War II veteran has been playing in local clubs—country clubs, nightclubs, all sorts of clubs—since the 1940s as a member of various combos, notably as one of the main attractions of Willie Gibbs and the Illusionaires, one of the busiest dance bands of the postwar years.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I was sitting there in the room with him, at Allen Smith’s homemade recording studio, for much of the session that produced this record. But I can’t quite square my memory of that bright, hot summer afternoon in suburban West Knoxville with the sound of this CD, which is cool, urbane, nocturnal. Owens favors tunes that were current in the era of his idol Lester Young—high points are “Darn That Dream,” “In a Mellow Tone,” “What’s New,” and “Out of Nowhere”—but he also includes some pieces Young never heard, a couple of Antônio Carlos Jobim bossa nova tunes, and a couple of pop hits from 1965, “The Shadow of Your Smile” and “On a Clear Day” (the latter first popularized by Knoxville’s own John Cullum). Most of it’s accomplished in Owens’ gentlemanly, sophisticated style—he never went in for bebop theatrics—but then he’ll surprise us with a growling blues vocal on “Going Down Slow,” or a boogie-woogie vamp on a song you might not even recognize until several bars in as “Sweet Georgia Brown.”
Most of the tunes develop as conversations between the sax and the piano, which is played by one of our region’s most adept jazz pianists, Keith Brown. The fact that the album’s two key instrumentalists are 60 years apart in age is not something you would guess, just listening. Brown’s brother, Kenny, plays drums for most of the cuts, and his father, Donald, is the CD’s producer. At the time, Brown had just co-produced saxophonist Kenny Garrett’s Grammy-nominated album Seeds From the Underground. Brown has produced CDs by several of Knoxville’s aging jazz performers who were overlooked as sidemen in the shank of their careers.
After his fairly incredible performance at the KMA last month, we might gather Owens prefers to play for live audiences than for recording equipment, and there are two or three cuts that might have profited from another take. But overall it’s a fine piece of work, and judging by his performance last month, not necessarily the coda of a long career. It’s the sort of thing you may find yourself reaching for at 4 a.m. on a lonesome night when gin and Tylenol just aren’t doing the job.