Judith Owen at the Iridium

Too good to keep private

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Photos by Ebet Roberts

The irreverent, ebullient and irrepressible Judith Owen won the hearts and minds of an industry-only show at New York’s famed Iridium Jazz Club recently. Thanks to her thoughtful songs, top-notch band and the great sound at the club, Owen made converts and booked a few gigs on the spot, not to mention keeping the “I’ve seen it all” audience laughing for nearly two hours.

Her album, Somebody’s Child, has been out in the UK for a couple months, but she’s releasing a US version with two additional tracks not available in her native Great Britain. Owen’s huge vocal range and classically-trained piano chops do justice to her moving, genre-spanning songs, but in fairness, her between-tunes patter really puts the icing and the cherry on her performance: the woman is hysterical.

Owen performed the relatively normal-length album of 15 songs in nearly two hours, and used a good percentage of that time to introduce each song (of the enchanting love song “Mystery”: “Nobody says when you get married that you will hate the person and want to stab them,”) and each band member (of the hunky Portuguese percussionist Pedro Segundo: “My favorite Lesbion…uh, Lisbion”), plus intimate details of her family, her mental health and the audience itself (“It wasn’t a standing O, you bastards!”). I’ve been to many, many many shows where I’ve wanted to yell, “Shut up and play!” but I guarantee neither I nor anyone else at the show would have wanted to stop the good-natured, un-PC torrent that poured from Owen all evening…although at one point bassist Leland Sklar, whose beard length falls somewhere between those of Charles Darwin and Billy Gibbons, did say, “I was clean-shaven when you started this introduction.”

All that said, the music was terrific. Manager Steve Lee came in and tuned up the musicians before Owen took the stage, and the Iridium’s extraordinary sound did the rest. Taking it from the top—the title tune—Owen cruised through the entire album in order, and, thank God, Somebody’s Child is paced correctly.

The fourth song, “Tell All Your Children,” a slightly funky tune with a heavy beat, sounded like a small orchestra at work, not percussion, bass, piano and a three-piece string section. I could have sworn I heard horns because those strings—Gabriella Swallow (cello), Meghan Cassidy (viola) and Lizzie Ball (violin)—work miracles up there, as on “We Give In.” Segundo was particularly invested in that jazz-particular infused tune, and the strings came in like a horn section, Wah Wah Wah. Even the band clapped for that one, and those same veterans grinned like potheads during “Aquarious,” one of only a couple of covers on the album. Interpreted as a funky boogie, that vintage Broadway tune was a major audience favorite among a well-received show.

True to her irreverent spirit, Owen intro’d the last song on the UK album by saying, “This is the perfect song to pretend to end the set with,” knowing full well that we’d demand an encore. In the sole departure from the album, she played the two bonus tracks out of order for the encore.

Owen will tour the US with this band, and be back at the Iridium on March 31. Bring your love of music, and your sense of humor—you’ll be giving both a workout.

—Suzanne Cadgène




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