The Inspiration of Necessity

Photo of Ephraim Owens

photograph by Todd V. Wolfson

The sound is unmistakable. Even filtered through a screen door of the red brick apartment building, the trumpet dances out into the warm air like a cool breeze. Is that him? It can't be him. And there's a piano. Bill Evans, maybe? But whose horn? And what's the tune? Damned if that ain't "When You Wish Upon a Star," and damned if that ain't Freddie Hubbard playing the trumpet.

"I just picked this up," says Ephraim Owens, leading the way to a large, open, wood-floored room bordered by a sparse arrangement of piano, keyboards, horn cases, couch, music stands, guitar cases, and a stereo and rack of CDs. Bill Evans' Interplay, a rare quintet recording with Hubbard, drummer Philly Joe Jones, guitarist Jim Hall, and Pearcy Heath on bass continues making magic. "Freddie," he says with a wide smile as the horn flutters its way through a fast-rolling solo.

Owens' face is a familiar one, or should be to nearly anyone who goes out to see music in Austin. He plays the trumpet, sometimes a heavy, silver-colored brass horn with a tone so rich and deep you feel it rub the marrow inside your tailbone, and sometimes a modified gold-colored French Besson with the business end pointing upward like Dizzy Gillespie. Owens' group is equally recognizable, most times: Edwin Livingston often stands behind the double bass, leaning in and working it like he's drawing out its internal organs; Brannen Temple sits behind the drum kit, straight up, hammering snare shots as sharp as Marvin Hagler's left; on keyboards, James Simpson, who watches, playing any damn thing he wants and making it sound hot. Yashi Vaughn is the vocalist, a powerhouse singer who speaks and sings poetry in a visceral and unrestrained blues-gospel style.

It's a tight group, seasoned by hours logged onstage together, but, as any bandleader can attest, frequent shifts in the ranks can make keeping a band tight a lot of work. At this point in his career (Owens is 26), and in the current musical climate of Austin, it often seems all he can do to get the gigs.

Ephraim Owens was born in Dallas in 1972, to a solid family with two parents and eight sisters who were always close to the church. He started playing trumpet in the third grade, and his devotion to it grew by playing at services. At the time, he studied in the classical vein, taking lessons and practicing like any serious student. When the time came, Owens attended the prestigious Dallas Arts Magnet High School, which at the time had a hotbed of jazz talent blossoming under its roof. Former Austin pianist Fred Sanders (now based in New Orleans) went there, as did trumpeter Whitney Russell, saxophonists Keith Anderson and Keith Loftis, and Roy Hargrove, who is widely considered one of the best young trumpet players in jazz today. Hargrove played a key role in the direction Owens took.

"I heard Roy, and it just touched me deep," says Owens. "He was a senior when I was a freshman. School was a healthy situation, especially my freshman year. These guys would have jam sessions right before class -- it was happening. I was trying to figure out how they were coming up with all this music, and after that it was like, 'This is what I want to do.'"

That decision made, another Magnet student played an important part in keeping Owens focused.

"Fred helped me out a lot, man. He stayed on my ass. He stayed on me so much that I'd get pissed off," he laughs. "It was for my best interest, though, because he saw my potential. He'd tell me, 'You need to shed on this, you need to shed on that,' blah blah. It was kinda hard to swallow all he was throwing at me at the time, and I had to tell him, 'Man let me just marinate on this one idea for a minute,' and he'd back off for a while."

Both attended Weatherford College near Dallas, a period that exposed the two musicians to the world of jazz outside the academy. Both were later recruited by Southwest Texas State in San Marcos, an experience Owens neither credits nor blames for anything. Time slid by there, according to Owens -- for a year or so. Playing was the thing, however, and the Austin-San Marcos commute eventually got the better of him, so in the spring of 1996 he left school and moved to Austin to have a go at the professional life.

Since then, Owens has been working, and his reputation as a player who can jump onstage with anyone has been spreading. He started out in King Valentine's Octet, a jazzy combo "on a Dick Tracy vibe." He followed that with a long stint in local sax player Elias Haslanger's group, which owned the Monday night slot at the then-jazz Cedar Street. He was later a core member of Concerto Grosso, a Latin-flavored jazz quartet that stayed together for about a year and a half, until guitarist Henry Gutierrez left for New York City. It was then, out of both necessity and inspiration, that Owens decided to form his own group.

Of course, there are difficulties in keeping players of the caliber Owens employs on your back line, and the hornman knows full well the various hazards of sticking with the best. While Brannen Temple is the first-call drummer, J.J. Johnson has also played the kit, as have Chris Searles and Mike Hale. And while Edwin Livingston usually handles bottom duties, the bass list has also included Michael Stevens, Mike Porter, Chris Maresh, Luis Guerra, and a number of others. James Simpson is the pianist of choice, though the bench has been taken by Kevin Lovejoy and Steve Schneider as well.

"That's the thing that I'm missing here in Austin, is a unit," explains Owens. "It's hard to find. Seems like everyone here, in order to make a living, you have to be a mercenary and play all kinds of music. Of course, everyone wants to have the best cats in Austin in their band, so you gotta call a month in advance to get something locked in. Even then, you end up having a different rhythm section every gig.

"That's cool too, because every time you have a different player you get a different energy, so you gotta adapt to where they're coming from. I like that, because it stretches you, and you try to make that thing happen for everybody. But I'd much rather lock down on something to get that unit sound."

Unfortunately, in this situation, the material played in public often returns to the same set of standards. Without adequate rehearsal time, which is something that players this busy can least often afford, new tunes and original songs are often left at home. If you can tear a house down with a tight and fast version of Hubbard's "Little Sunflower," as Owens' group often does, why opt for a tenuous walk through the sheet music?

"I don't consider my tunes to be real hard, but there are things in there that I want be played the way I wrote it, the way I felt it," says Owens. "On a bandstand, if I just throw this music at them, they're gonna play it the way they're reading it, so I won't put my music on a bandstand until I rehearse it. I'm keeping all my music kind of on hold for now, until I can get locked down on rehearsals."

As necessity often dictates inspiration, Owens has come to a critical decision. Besides his passion for a solid combo to play his own tunes, he realizes that limiting himself to any one form of music is to cut off possible avenues for personal expression. This seems obvious to those familiar with his band; there's funk running just underneath a good deal of his jazz tunes, and a recent Elephant Room gig had Owens and pianist Laura Scarborough, in a foreshadowing of a project the two are working on, doing a beautiful, classically inspired duet.

"I realized that eventually I'm gonna have to deal with things I'd been avoiding, musical situations that were real challenging," he says. "I didn't always deal with them head on, but I've realized it's only gonna make me a better person. I mean I am music, you know, how I handle music is how I handle my life, and when I'm on top of that game it forces me to get my individual self together. I'm not planning on being in Austin my whole life, so I gotta be ready for any kind of musical situation that I can."

Recently, Owens got to sit in with Liquid Soul during the Chicago jazz-hip-hop powerhouse's two-night stand at the Mercury. He got to do the same thing last year when they played South by Southwest, and the conversations he's had with the group's trumpet player Ron Haynes have Owens looking excitedly toward the Windy City as a future possibility.

"Everyone keeps telling me -- Yashi, Fred, Mike Stevens -- they all tell me this is the perfect time. They say, 'You ain't got a wife or a kid, you ain't got a lady, why don't you go?' When I go, I wanna do it right. Some cash in my pocket so I'm comfortable, or even just cool enough to where I don't have to depend on anybody."

Owens has played with just about everyone that appears regularly at the Mercury or at the Elephant Room. He's a fixture at jazz jams, and at most Mercury shows you'll see him in the audience, horn in hand, sizing up the situation. He has an uncanny ability to imagine his music laid on top of anything else he hears, and his adaptability makes him a welcome addition to almost any lineup. During SXSW, he'll play the Dial Tone Records showcase at the Victory Grill. He hasn't released an album for them, but they are currently negotiating a deal to do just that. This shouldn't be the only time to see him play during the conference, though. Chances are, if he's at a show, before the night is through he'll be a part of it.

The Ephraim Owens Quartet's SXSW showcase is Friday, March 19, 1am at the Victory Grill.

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