During his long tenures with the jazz stars Christian McBride and Kurt Elling, Ulysses Owens Jr. aspired to build his own standing as a leader. The dazzling and seriously swinging drummer has taken another strong stride in that direction on his fourth album, Falling Forward, featuring his trio, Three. In addition to touring with that unit, Owens will continue to globe hop with the young pianist Joey Alexander. And this year he’ll also tour his vocal-centric project, Songs of Freedom, featuring the music of Abbey Lincoln, Joni Mitchell, and Nina Simone.
“On Falling Forward, I really changed my setup,” Owens says. “Before, I was into the traditional four-piece bop thing. But now that my sound has opened up, I’m using new things that are expanding my sound palette.”
Owens currently uses a Tama Star Maple drumkit with Remo heads, Zildjian cymbals, and assorted LP percussion extras. “I’m trying to develop the left side of my body,” he says. “I started to crave having something on the left side of the kit, beyond the usual. So Zildjian created a couple special flat rides for me. I’m using either an 18″ or a 20″ flat ride on the left, and I use two snare drums [maple burl and aluminum, both Starphonic 6×14]. That has opened up two different styles on the kit, so I can do the bop thing but I can also go into the Latin or African stuff that I have on the record.”
Alas, jazz budgets and air-travel constraints make it impossible for Owens to transport his kit. He submits an advance rider in hopes that venues will provide a similar setup. But it’s chancy out there. That’s where must-have-gear travel choices come into play.
“I stand behind Gator,” Owens says. “They have a narrow cymbal case with a collapsible handle [Roto Molded Cymbal Case with wheels]. That collapsible handle allows you to have a thin case that the airlines can’t destroy.” Ulysses brings his Zildjian 20″ and 21″ prototype rides, 18″ prototypeflat ride, 18″ Kerope crash, 19″ K Dark EFX prototype crash, and vintage 14″ A hi-hats. “I also take my [Protection Racket] mini stick bag with my Regal Tip signature sticks [Ulysses Owens “U” model] and two or three extra pairs in other locations—like in a backpack or suitcase—just in case. Also, a Danmar foot pedal beater.”
For added sound insurance, Owens packs Earthworks microphones: two SR30s for overheads and two SR25s for snare and bass drum. “They’re so killin’ that every sound engineer that hears them wants to buy them from me,” the drummer chuckles. “I’m into playing textures and dynamics, and those mics bring out the clarity.”
And don’t forget Murphy’s Law: “I created a ‘survival kit’ with washers, felts, and something all drummers absolutely need: rubber cymbal stand sleeves,” Owens says. “Wherever I go in the world, that’s the thing that’s always missing. I buy them by the droves.” Owens also packs a set of collapsible multi-tool pliers and towels to cut up for tuning and muffling purposes.
A constant road challenge is mental/physical health, and Owens cites blog writing as therapeutic. “I’ll often steal away to a café to write, and that’s part of what keeps me sane,” he explains. Also an avid road reader, the drummer favors philosophy and autobiographies (“I’m into reading about successful people and their paths to success”).
Owens’ hotel room must-haves include his always-playing mini Bose speakers, and incense. “I’m also into holistic herbs and acupuncture,” Ulysses adds. “I bring multivitamins and herbs to help me adapt to the changing environments. Just before I go on the road, I’ll meet with my herbalist and she sets me up. It’s my gig; I have to take it seriously. I’ve got to keep healthy to do what I love to do.’’