Sunday, November 3, 2013

Owl Music Group presents a concert showcase of its new eclectic reach

The transition of Owl Studios to something other than a boutique jazz label is a slow process requiring, in the view of proprietors Kenny Phelps and Bill Mallers, its reinvention as a community resource with charitable appearances in culturally underserved neighborhoods.

That is being wedded to artistic outreach to musical expressions on the edge of jazz and beyond, which seemed to be the point of the "Owl Music Group Showcase" Saturday night at the Indiana History Center.
Steve Allee solos in "Dragonfly" Saturday night.The bassist is Jesse Wittman.

As vocalist Pam Westbrook put it  with gusto in the opening number: "Jazz ain't nothin' but soul." If "soul" (that desirable, undefinable quality) is present, everything essential about jazz is there as well, according to this expansive view. So, restrictive definitions need not apply when it comes to the new orientation of the not-for-profit organization that Phelps and Mallers are building upon the brand and catalogue they acquired last year from J. Allan Hall, who founded Owl Studios in 2005.

Held back from OMG's activity for the time being is getting artists into the  recording studio.  Licensing the independently produced products of local musicians and keeping the Owl Studios catalogue alive are the twin focuses now, Mallers told me at intermission.

Some historical context was neatly provided early in the show by keyboardist Kevin Anker in introducing his tribute to the late Melvin Rhyne, one of the last surviving mainstays of the Indiana Avenue heyday until his death last March.  Then Anker sat down at a compact electronic instrument to pay tribute to Rhyne's organ style in "Chitlins Con Carne."

He launched it with a moody unaccompanied cadenza before leading the band into the soulful theme. Good work was turned in in the course of the performance by tenor saxophonist Sophie Faught, guitarist Joel Tucker and Anker himself. Phelps played drums with his usual impeccable sense of style, and indeed was behind the kit throughout the evening — busy and energized.

Another key figure in current Indianapolis jazz also showed his range, particularly after intermission, when pianist Steve Allee led a six-tune set, two-thirds of it devoted to his own compositions. A funky original, "Hip Factor," was enthusiastically laid out by a group including bass guitarist Deron Bell and keyboardist Jay Thomas, in addition to the dependable Tucker, Faught and Phelps.

The jaunty tune is one of the highlights on Allee's 2008 Owl Studios release, "Dragonfly."  That excellent disc's title song also got a welcome outing Saturday, with Jesse Wittman on acoustic bass taking a resonant, imaginative solo. I enjoyed as well getting reacquainted with "Pure Spirit" from Allee's "Colors" (Owl Studios, 2007).

Also striking was the smooth, well-phrased crooning of Brian Kelly during that set, performing "I Just Called to Say I Love You." It was a welcome return appearance by a stylish singer who had done so well before intermission on the evergreen "It Had to Be You."

Jennie DeVoe emceed and sang, and other featured vocalists before the finale included adept pianist-singer-songwriter Sarah Scharbrough, the crowd-pleasing Valerie Phelps and solo gospel virtuoso Brian Reeves.

The continuation of the Owl Studios project under another name and with somewhat shifted purposes is a hopeful sign of the health of creative music-making here. Saturday's showcase concert was a milestone along the way.