The Distinguished University Professor of Jazz Studies at the University of South Florida, Owen founded the 17-piece Jazz Surge in 1995. Since then it has been a vehicle for his own compositions and his arrangements of work by the likes of Michael Brecker, who was the subject of Owen's acclaimed 2009 album, A Comet's Tail, which featured guest appearances by Randy Brecker, Mike Stern, Joe Lovano and Dave Liebman. JazzTimes wrote that "while the individual solos are quite impressive, it is the ensemble playing and spirit of the full ensemble that really stands out."
That spirit is vividly amplified with the addition of an orchestra comprising some of South Florida's finest classical musicians on River Runs. The project was facilitated by a 2009 Guggenheim Fellowship; while Owen has undertaken commissions for the Netherlands Metropole Orchestra and began his career writing for the Cincinnatti Symphony Orchestra under the baton of famed conductor Erich Kunzel, the Guggenheim afforded him the freedom to follow his own muse into the orchestral realm for the first time. Longtime Surge members tenor saxophonist Jack Wilkins, guitarist LaRue Nickelson, and violinist Rob Thomas are the featured voices on River Runs, bringing the ensemble's unique voice to the orchestral setting.
The project started out as a double concerto for orchestra and a few guest soloists, but soon expanded in Owen's mind to encompass the whole of the Jazz Surge. "My focus was on trying to write a piece for orchestra that seamlessly attempted to blend jazz elements - improvisation, strong rhythmic grooves - with a symphony orchestra," he says. "I very quickly realized I was going to need to involve at least bass and drums to be able to provide the atmosphere I wanted, to avoid the sort of rigid division between orchestra and jazz musicians that I really dislike. I wanted to create something that felt very natural and organic and I thought the members of the Surge would add to that."
A respected and esteemed educator for more than 30 years, Owen also founded and serves as artistic director for the USF Center for Jazz Composition. In 2012, he chaired the Pulitzer Prize in Music committee and has also served as President of the International Association for Jazz Education and as governor for the Florida Chapter of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. In addition to the Guggenheim Fellowship he has received the prestigious 2000 IAJE/ASCAP commission in honor of Louis Armstrong and three Florida DCA Individual Artist Fellowships.
With his latest project, Owen combines that wealth of professional experience with inspiration from some of his most personally fulfilling moments. River Runs uses the jazz big band and the symphony orchestra as the colors in a bold landscape that is his finest and most ambitious work to date.