Chuck Owen reconvenes his 19-piece big band along with special guest Warren Wolf to commemorate the five-time Grammy-nominated band’s 25th anniversary with Within Us. This is the Florida-based ensemble’s seventh recording and marked the first time many had recorded with other musicians in the same room since the onset of the pandemic. Thus, although the subjects traverse several emotions, the overriding mood is celebratory. Owen has been a nationally respected educator, composer and arranger for over 40 years. He has also been the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and over the course of recording with the Surge has hosted such special guests as Chick Corea, Joe Lovano, Randy Brecker, Bob Brookmeyer, and many others. His music is intensely personal and draws from diverse influences such as contemporary classical music, American folk/roots music, Latin, funk, hip-hop, and even country.
The album begins with “Chelsea Shuffle” that was originally meant to feature the late Chick Corea as special guest. Chelsea, is the neighborhood in Boston where Corea grew up and Owen arranged this piece for the big band, featuring long-time Corea collaborator Steve Wilson on soprano with other solos from Wolf and bassist Mark Neuenschwander. “Trail of the Ancients” is inspired by Owen’s travels on the National Scenic Byway through SE Utah and SW Colorado that reveals the many architectural and cultural wonders of Native Americans. The piece has a gentle flowing cinematic aura imbued by solos from violinist Sara Caswell and guitarist LaRue Nickelson. While this piece is an ode to beauty and awe-inspiring images “American Noir,” meant to capture the many unwelcome emotions of 2020, takes an appropriately dramatic, somber, angry tone with a few measures of hope. Owen leaned on Jerry Goldsmith’s score for Chinatown, one of his favorite noir films, thus the title. Solos are from altoist Tami Danielsson and trombonist Jerald Shynett.
“Milestones” is his arrangement of the classic Miles Davis tune as he looked both forward and backwards, mashing it up with the first piece he ever composed for the Jazz Surge. Obviously, the 25th anniversary marks an important milestone that may have naturally drawn Owen to the tune. It features the most soloists with four and naturally includes a trumpeter, Clay Jenkins, tenorist Jack Wilkins, drummer Danny Gottlieb, and baritone saxophonist Matt Vance. “Apalachicola” was originally written for Owen’s smaller group, ReSurgence, as a prayer for the environment. The title refers to the loss of oyster beds in Apalachicola Bay on Florida’s eastern panhandle, sometimes referred to as the “forgotten coast.” Owen sends up yet another red flag about environmental neglect and abuse, through the statements of violinist Caswell, guitarist Corey Christiansen, and trombonist Tom Brantley.
“Sparks Fly” was originally composed in tribute to Owen’s band members and is clearly the most joyous of the eight pieces. Whether this was the original title of the composition or not may be a moot point, but Owen relates this story – “…while we were recording this piece, by order of the Ocoee Fire Dept. we were forced to evacuate the studio for a couple of hours as electrical “arcing” or sparks had been reported on the roof of the studio!! You can’t make this stuff up!!” Featured soloists here are Caswell, Wilkins, and Wilson.
The classical influence is at the heart of “The Better Claim,” which was the last of a 5-movement concerto “River Runs,” which was recorded in tandem with a large string orchestra in 2011, commissioned through the Guggenheim Fellowship and resulting in two Grammy nominations. So, Owen took the opportunity to arrange this section for the big band as turns from Wolf and Jenkins provide the jazz in an otherwise mostly classical backdrop. The title track subtitled “An Invincible Summer,” is intended as an optimistic look forward as pianist Per Danielsson and tenorist Rex Wertz step forward.
Own’s musical traverses a wide swath, making for a relaxed, provocative listen. It’s not big brassy, swinging big band fare but music that seeks a much deeper emotional level.
GUEST SOLOIST Warren Wolf (Vibes/Marimba) WOODWINDS Tami Danielsson Steve Wilson Jack Wilkins Rex Wertz Matt Vance TRUMPETS Frank Greene Jay Coble Mike Iapichino Clay Jenkins TROMBONES Keith Oshiro Tom Brantley Jerald Shynett Jim Hall Sara Caswell (Violin) Per Danielsson (Piano) LaRue Nickelson (Guitar) Corey Christiansen (Dobro, Nylon String, Steel String, & 12-String Guitars) Mark Neuenschwander (Bass) Danny Gottlieb (Drums) Beth Gottlieb (Djembe on Sparks Fly) Chuck Owen (Accordion, Hammered Dulcimer)
- Jim Hynes