Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Chuck Owen and the Jazz Surge Incorporate American Folk and Roots Music to Tell a Tale of the American Heartland on Whispers On the Wind

With Whispers On the Wind, their first recording since the two-time Grammy® Award-nominated River Runs, Chuck Owen and the Jazz Surge would, at first glance, appear to have returned to a more standard jazz big band outing. Having shed the orchestral trappings characterizing the prior ambitious work however, Whispers on the Wind quickly becomes anything but standard. It encompasses a wide range of styles and genre blending orchestrations with a distinctive American roots sound. The programmatic titles evoke a tale of the American heartland and convey feelings of nostalgia and wistfulness all while continuing to push the boundaries of big band composing and arranging.

Owen's influences have always been eclectic--grounded in the jazz tradition, but freely associating with other genres from classical and rock to American folk and roots music. This project expands upon that, keeping the big band omnipresent but leaning heavily on the evocative violin of Sara Caswell, the luminescent harmonica of Gr├ęgoire Maret, an array of acoustic guitars deftly played by Corey Christiansen, and even the occasional burst of color from the accordion and hammered dulcimer played by Owen himself. It's a sound that is immediately buoyant, intimate, and captivating. Randy Brecker, last appearing with the Surge on A Comet's Tail, is featured on two tracks.

As with River Runs, Whispers On the Wind was conceived by Owen as a single entity: a suite of seven pieces linked by a somewhat ethereal vision and examination of the American tradition and lifestyle, its values, landmarks, folklore, heroes, and myths. In the booklet of the album, Owen chose two quotes from authors Stephen King, Larry McMurtry, or Cormac McCarthy to accompany each piece. The music is aimed to display a clear affinity for the local color, wry sense of humor, unique personalities, strong sense of place, and the disarmingly unsentimental honesty these authors are noted for.

Whispers On the Wind opens ominously with the 14-minute epic, "Warped Cowboy," and it slowly builds into a galloping, grandiose expression filled with acoustic guitar, bombastic drums and various iterations of the motif throughout its long form. On "All Hat, No Saddle" Owen relies heavily on the guitar to carry the rhythmic center of the piece before diving into the complex yet memorable melody. The swinging "A Phares of the Heart" features the brilliant Maret opening the track and soloing throughout as it builds to a climatic ending filled with full band hits, showcasing the unshakable cohesiveness of Owen's compositions.

"Into the Blue" features Brecker with a blistering solo that duels with LaRue Nickelson's electric guitar and transitions into "Sentinel Rock," another one that features a solo by Maret throughout the entirety of the track ending ultimately with a dramatic close. The suite ends with "Can't Remember Why," which features Caswell's virtuosic violin playing, and "Gunslingers," a somewhat otherworldly, Blakey-esque minor blues that features Brecker again.

This is the sixth release for Chuck Owen and the Jazz Surge and all have been critically acclaimed. The first eponymous recording was singled out by JazzTimes' David Franklin as one of his top five albums of 1996 and both The Comet's Tail (2009) and River Runs (2013) received Grammy® Award-nominations. "Bound Away" and "Side Hikes - A Ridge Away" off of River Runs were nominated for "Best Instrumental Composition" and "Best Instrumental Arrangement" respectively at the 2014 Grammy® Awards.

The recipient of a 2009 Guggenheim Fellowship, Owen has written for or had his compositions performed by the Netherlands' Metropole Orchestra, Aarhus Jazz Orchestra (Denmark), Brussels Jazz Orchestra, Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, Tonight Show Orchestra, Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, Cincinnati Symphony, US Army Ambassadors, and numerous others. A distinguished professor at the University of South Florida where he has taught for over 35 years, Owen is a noted jazz educator sought out as a guest conductor, clinician and lecturer. 

He currently serves as President of ISJAC (International Society of Jazz Arrangers & Composers), an organization he was instrumental in founding. Previously he served as President of the IAJE (International Association for Jazz Education), as a "governor" for the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, and as a panelist for the Pulitzer Prize in Music, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Grammy® Awards, and numerous regional arts associations.


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