Chuck Owen Goes With The Flow
Chuck Owen is a composer, arranger, and teacher at the University of Southern Florida, working in the jazz field. He started the highly successful ensemble The Jazz Surge in 1995, and more recently founded the university’s Center for Jazz Composition. I spoke to him on the eve of the release of a new CD from Summit Records of his extended composition
, a Concerto for Jazz Guitar, Saxophone, and Orchestra.
PS: Thanks for talking to
Chuck. I’d like to ask first about your early musical experiences. Did you come to composition through performing? Did you always know creating music was going to be central to your life?
CO: I began classical piano lessons around the age of eight, and added trombone a couple of years later. While I was probably more obsessed with playing sports than music during my adolescence, I remained enamored with both instruments and seemed to progress nicely. I didn’t get truly serious about music, however, until I was a junior in high school and, interestingly enough, that coincided with my first efforts at arranging for the high school jazz ensemble. There was something incredibly heady about crafting and shaping sounds and then having others perform your work. I was hooked!
I continued with classical piano throughout my first few years of college and had trombone performance (classical) as my undergraduate concentration, but by my sophomore year at the University of North Texas I was focused on jazz composition/arranging. I’ve found, however, that an intimate knowledge of performance practices, improvisational sensibilities, ensemble dynamics, etc.—understanding that can be acquired solely through sustained performance—to be absolutely essential to the jazz composer. I didn’t begin jazz piano study until I was a graduate student, but discovered I could supplement my income through gigs as a jazz pianist. I found my writing dramatically affected by this experience.
PS: Though jazz is your area, it is clear that you embrace many forms of music. As
is primarily read by classical music nuts, I’d like to ask you about specific classical enthusiasms (both early and current).
CO: Because of my piano studies my earliest classical influences were Chopin, Debussy, and Ravel. My graduate major was in orchestral conducting, however, and there I was able to study the early 20th-century composers, Bartók, Stravinsky, Copland, and Shostakovich, whose work I found fascinating. While I don’t stay on top of contemporary classical composition in the way I would like to, I am very attracted to the work of such current composers as John Adams, Jennifer Higdon, John Corigliano, and Michael Daugherty (who was a classmate at UNT).
PS: You formed The Jazz Surge, a big band ensemble, in Tampa in 1995. What is the instrumental make-up of the band?
CO: The Surge is a fairly traditional jazz big band: four trumpets, four trombones, five woodwinds (saxophones, with all doubling on various clarinets, flutes, or both), piano, acoustic bass, guitar, and drums. In the last three recordings we have also used violin (Rob Thomas, who also appears on
) as an integral and distinguishing characteristic of the band’s sound. I occasionally supplement instrumentation for specific pieces, mostly with percussion and/or cello.
PS: I believe The Surge played your music exclusively for a decade. How and why did this change?
CO: It didn’t change much. As the USF Center for Jazz Composition came into being, one of the initial goals was to establish a Jazz Masterworks Series which featured not only classic jazz compositions in performance but the works of contemporary composers as well. Since I had the Jazz Surge at my disposal (so to speak), they were the obvious choice to become the resident orchestra for these purposes. However, we certainly didn’t abandon playing my music during this time.
PS: The Surge has backed many notable guest soloists, including such iconic names as Chick Corea and Bob Brookmeyer. That’s pretty impressive!
CO: Certainly. . . . . .WOW. . . . two of my favorite jazz composers! It was a thrill to have both Chick and Bob in performance with the band but the list didn’t stop there. Other great jazz composers working with the band included Slide Hampton, Gerald Wilson, Bill Holman, Frank Foster, all of whom have been designated as National Endowment Jazz “Masters.”
PS: You are highly regarded as a teacher. Can you tell us a little about the USF Center for Jazz Composition, and your ongoing academic activities?
CO: As a teacher, I am involved primarily in working with very talented graduate jazz composition students. A great joy! I also teach an undergraduate jazz composition/arranging class, which I thoroughly enjoy as well. The CJC’s work is multifaceted, but all designed to uplift the role of the jazz composer. In addition to the Masterworks Series that I have already described it has hosted two International Jazz Composers’ Symposia as well as an Arranging Competition. It has produced a CD (
) and commissioned new works. Unfortunately, its budget was drastically cut a few years ago as the recession hit, and has not yet returned.
PS: I am sorry to hear that.
CO: We’ve continued in developing our score and recording libraries as well as alternate plans, but the Center’s future is somewhat uncertain at the moment.
PS: You made a number of recordings with The Surge, the last of which (prior to
A Comet’s Tail.
was decidedly different from the other Surge recordings that had been recordings of my music. Emanating from the CJC, we paid tribute to the late Michael Brecker—a beloved jazz saxophonist, whose compositional output had been somewhat overlooked—by commissioning arrangements, selecting an International Arranging Contest winner, and combining those with our own arrangements. Involving Michael’s brother Randy along with an incredible array of guest artists (Joe Lovano, Dave Liebman, Mike Stern, etc.) resulted in some pretty powerful performances of these re-envisioned works.
your first extended composition, and is it the first piece of yours to involve a “regular” symphony orchestra?
CO: No to both! I’ve done a number of multimovement works, the most recent of which are:
for Trumpet, Trombone, and String Quintet—a three-movement work somewhat similar to
in that it utilizes both jazz and classical techniques, commissioned by the brass players and recorded on their CD,
Confluences; Red Beans & Ricely Yours
—a two-part suite dedicated to Louis Armstrong, commissioned by ASCAP/IAJE and recorded on my CD,
Here We Are
. Also, there are several jazz ensemble suites, a three-movement Suite for Bassoon and Jazz Piano Trio, commissioned by the city of St. Petersburg, and a saxophone ensemble work.
As to writing for orchestra, I have done quite a bit of orchestral arranging, starting early in my career with commissions from the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra. I also did some commercial orchestral writing, mostly for the pianist Roger Williams. Most recently, I did several recording projects for the Netherlands Metropole Orchestra, a wonderful radio orchestra (not quite a full orchestra, but close).
, however, is the first original composition I have scored for orchestra.
PS: Jazz and classical music have had several meetings over the decades, not always producing equally successful partnerships. The crossover genre (for want of a better term) includes highly distinctive composers like Stravinsky and Bernstein incorporating jazz influences into their own work; the rethinking of older classics in a jazz idiom, such as Ellington’s arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s
Suite or Gil Evans’s and Miles Davis’s extended jazz version of the slow movement of Rodrigo’s
Concierto di Aranjuez
; plain “jazzing up” like Jacques Loussier’s
series and many more; or the so-called Third Stream, an attempt to fuse the two art forms that produced tightly notated hybrids like Gunther Schuller’s Concertino for Jazz Quartet and Orchestra, Rolf Liebermann’s Concerto for Jazz Band and Symphony Orchestra, or Chick Corea’s Piano Concerto.
CO: Wow—you really did do your research!!
PS: They’re all favorites in my collection, so it was fun! Anyway, do you see your work in terms of any of these “streams”?
CO: While you can undoubtedly find a wide range of opinions about the success of the “Third Stream,” I had absolutely no interest in going down that path (that is, consciously trying to “fuse” classical and jazz musics). It seems to me a very academic and forced approach, and the results over the years have often sounded that way.
, I was simply trying to compose a piece that represented and drew on the diversity of my own musical background, while being able to access the coloristic resources of an entire orchestra. I have always approached my writing for the Surge in a very orchestral manner. This project just gave me the opportunity to flesh that out a bit. So, while the piece has a strong jazz component, the listener can’t help but hear influences of classical music as well as American folk/roots music, Latin styles, and even a rock groove or two! The challenge, of course, comes in finding a way to make this musical hybrid seem organic, but also in not asking the musicians to take on roles in which they are not comfortable.
PS: How much of an influence (if any) have previous composers of extended big band jazz pieces been on your work? I’m thinking, for example, of Gil Evans, George Russell, Don Sebesky, or the English composer/arrangers John Dankworth, Mike Westbrook, and Neil Ardley...?
CO: Gil Evans has been a huge influence. His writing is very orchestral yet incorporates improvisation in an almost seamless manner. The soloist (Miles) is placed in an environment that is not only flattering but is creatively stimulating and comfortable. I greatly admire the work of George Russell as well as Don Sebesky (whose book I still use in my undergraduate jazz arranging class). However, I’m not sure how much influence they’ve had on my own writing—especially as regards extended works. I love a number of Ellington’s suites although, again, I’m not sure they had as much influence on my work as, say, Bartók.
PS: I truly think Bartók has been the most widely influential of all 20th-century composers! In fact, one of the most successful jazz/classical combinations is Don Sebesky’s piece
Bela and Bird in B♭.
Turning to inspiration, as opposed to influence: Rivers have inspired your music before, and are the driving force behind the new CD. You have a very personal, longstanding connection with rivers I believe?
CO: I do. As a boy, I joined a Scout troop whose leader was a hardcore whitewater canoeist. As a result we eschewed most of the typical scout activities to go canoeing whenever possible. I bonded with the other scouts, but I seemed to develop even a more long-lasting relationship with rivers—finding tranquility and peace mixed with challenge, play, and a few moments of terror!
PS: I went whitewater rafting on Vancouver Island once. Never again!—although it was certainly exhilarating.
CO: For the past 30 years I haven’t done all that much canoeing, but I have continued to frequent rivers with my children, taking them on numerous raft trips. Sometimes for extended trips. I’ve found the river continues to draw me, and I love being able to share it with my kids.
PS: You have named the movements of this work after specific rivers. Have you negotiated them all?
CO: Yes, although the segment of the Colorado I have rafted was not the segment I utilized for inspiration in movement 4. There I reference a backpacking trip I did with my daughters at the Grand Canyon where we hiked down to the Colorado.
PS: What is the correlation between rivers and musical form? Does a river’s ebb and flow have something to do with it?
CO: Every river has characteristics that distinguish it from others: its width, water volume, flora and fauna, banks, river bottom, etc. Each of the rivers I selected stands apart in my mind as very different from the others, which helped provide the individual character for each movement. As one travels down the river, however, change is inevitable. It can be as dramatic as a waterfall or large rapids or it can more often be very subtle. Picturing that flow was conducive to envisioning the flow of the music: how it unfolds and transitions but, inevitably, leaving the put-in spot behind.
PS: Soloists LaRue Nickelsen (guitar) and Jack Wilkins (tenor sax) play a major role in this work. Did you write it with them in mind, and if so did you work with them during the composition process?
CO: I’ve worked with both LaRue and Jack in the Jazz Surge for years; both are great colleagues and wonderful friends. While I wanted to write the piece in a manner that would attract other soloists eventually, I couldn’t help hear their voices throughout. I did consult with LaRue on a couple of occasions to make sure some technical challenges wouldn’t interfere with his ability to perform the passages freely and musically. Beyond that, however, I wrote without consultation.
PS: I read that the fourth movement, “Side Hikes—A Ridge Away,” was adapted from an earlier piece for Wilkins.
CO: Yes, it was adapted from a version of
A Ridge Away
I had written for Jack’s CD,
. Jack’s part really doesn’t change much between the two versions, so I was extremely confident he would render this as beautifully as he does.
is in five substantial movements plus a prologue. Mahler would have called it a symphony, and to my ears it is conceived symphonically (despite its subtitle Concerto for Jazz Guitar, Saxophone, and Orchestra)—with “Dark Waters, Slow Waters” as the slow movement, “Chutes and Wave Trains” the scherzo, and so on. Did you ever consider naming it a symphony?
CO: I didn’t, although I’m not at all sure concerto (or more appropriately double concerto) is the most accurate description either. I chose to associate this piece with concerto form early on because it established a focus on the soloists—the guitar and tenor sax—which I intended to maintain throughout the entire work. What I found troubling was that as the piece took shape I kept investing more and more significance in the role of the jazz violin and acoustic guitar than I had intended. (The acoustic guitar’s inclusion was well after I had begun writing.) I didn’t want to dilute the concerto concept but felt their involvement strengthening the piece. For this reason, I wrestled mightily with whether to allow the violin a solo in the third movement. Ultimately, I decided I shouldn’t be restricting my musical instincts to try to conform to some model, so the violin has a pretty significant improvised solo right in the heart of a sax and guitar concerto!
PS: The symphony orchestra and the jazz musicians seem to complement each other, rather than working as opposing elements. I love the way the river at dawn is conjured up by the orchestra alone in the Prologue, but the energy of the river only arrives with the entry of guitar and saxophone, and the band. It’s like they all need to combine to bring the scene to life.
CO: Thank you, thank you, thank you! I think one of the reasons so many Third Stream attempts failed was this notion of opposition. My goal was not merely one of co-existence either, but, as you suggest, of complementing and hopefully even stimulating each other. I think it’s the entrance of the rhythm section (drum set, bass, and acoustic guitar) that really provides that drive in movement 1 and often elsewhere: the constant forward motion that replicates the river’s current. However, even that role is shared throughout, with the strings frequently taking it on—possibly most notably in the pizzicato sections of movement 3. Ultimately, this is a collective effort, with roles and colors shifting just as the river’s path does. Clearly, they are all needed at some point or another to bring this work to life.
PS: Because jazz by its nature requires passages of extended improvisation, the orchestra is sometimes reduced out of necessity to a ‘backing.’ How do you go about avoiding this and integrating the different elements so well?
CO: Here’s another one of those traps that have plagued many symphonic jazz efforts. I approach it in two ways: (1) to avoid restricting improvisation only to extended solos, incorporating short improvised responses throughout—whether from the soloists or the other jazz musicians—thus creating a loose, improvisatory feel throughout the work; (2) during more extended solos create counterpoint (just as one would behind a written melody) and rhythmic figures that continue to thematically and motivically move the piece forward. In other words, there are no “pads” of secondary or meaningless sonorities just to add ambience. All parts, whether they involve the soloist or the counterpoint, are essential in telling the story.
PS: How did the recording happen? Can you tell us about the process of getting the work onto CD?
CO: This really needs an entire interview in itself! Tom Morris, the marvelous engineer of this project, and I strategized for months on the best way to record this. I was eager to take the bull by the horns and record this straight away, rather than waiting possibly for years for a resident orchestra to take it on. After looking into the possibility, and the ramifications of engaging existing orchestras from all over the world, we decided that given the jazz musicians we wanted to use, it was more economically feasible to record it in Tampa. Morrisound Studios is a wonderful, state-of-the-art facility with the only restriction being the size of its main live studio, which wouldn’t permit the entire orchestra to record at once. So, we decided to “track” the recording, starting with rhythm section and soloists, then adding brass, woodwinds, strings, and finally harp/percussion in separate sessions. While artistically I would have preferred to have recorded a real-time performance of the work, given the fact we couldn’t afford much in the way of rehearsal, this allowed us maximum flexibility. At the end, the soloists and drummer came back to overdub their parts—this time being able to hear the complete orchestra!
PS: I would never have guessed it was done that way! What other projects do you have underway?
CO: I’m just now moving forward on that, exploring a partnership that would result in a conceptually similar recording (not an extended work this time), substituting a chorus for the symphony orchestra. I’m also considering something entirely different: getting away from the large structures and writing a series of songs for vocalists with a variety of chamber ensembles.
PS: Where I am based, jazz seems to have turned into a minority cult. The small bars, restaurants, and clubs that used to feature live jazz are no longer doing it, and work opportunities for jazz musicians in other gigs, such as backing popular acts, are fewer than they were 10 years ago. We seem to be producing talented young jazz players who have very few places to practice their art and practically no hope of making a living from it, outside of a couple of annual festivals. Is this also the case generally?
CO: What you’re describing is a frequent refrain throughout the world. So much has changed in the last 10 to 20 years in regard to how music (not just jazz) is presented, delivered, marketed, etc. Unfortunately, the jazz world (and particularly the traditional jazz world) has not always been willing to adapt nimbly. I believe there is still a strong audience for jazz but that new models of programming, more along lines of the ways classical music is presented, must be explored. Lincoln Center Jazz is a unique entity but an excellent example of how this can work. Of course, accompanying such efforts on more local/regional levels there must be a corresponding amount of support (both public and private) of the kind orchestras, museums, and dance/theater groups typically receive.
PS: Following on from that, I always like to ask my interview subjects about the “state of play.” Where does the type of contemporary music that you represent stand, and what of its future?
CO: The response I have received from all camps on
leads me to believe there is a tremendous future for new hybrid works such as this. Orchestras, who are clearly looking to find and engage their audience of the future as well, must continue to seek out new programming that stimulates and challenges an audience rather than alienating or, worse yet, pandering to it.
PS: Well, River Runs is exactly the kind of music to do it. I wish you every success with the work and with the disc.
Chuck Owen, cond; Jack Wilkins (t-sax); LaRue Nicholson (gtr); Rob Thomas (vn); Corey Christiansen (gtr); Mark Neuenschwander (bs); Danny Gottlieb, (dr); The Jazz Surge & O
SUMMIT 1044 (61:71)
, subtitled Concerto for Jazz Guitar, Saxophone and Orchestra, is an hour-long work of symphonic proportions. The ensemble also includes Owen’s group The Jazz Surge, comprising five saxophones (doubling other woodwinds), four trumpets, four trombones, violin, piano, acoustic guitar, bass, and drums. Owen is a longtime jazz educator and arranger, as well as a composer, and has a long personal association with American rivers that provides the basis for this work.
A brief prologue for orchestra alone (“Dawn at River’s Edge”) sets the scene “impressionistically” as the composer says, until the momentum of the first movement “Bound Away” begins the journey proper. A driving rhythm, subtle at first but slowly building in intensity, propels this 18-minute piece. The orchestra sketches in changing colors under continuous improvisational lines, mostly from Nicholson’s restless guitar. In this, as in the succeeding movements, my impression is that the orchestra depicts the river and its environment while the jazz musicians add what might be termed the human element; they complement rather than oppose each other. There is tremendous forward movement about “Bound Away,” which Owen specifically links to the Greenbrier and New Rivers of West Virginia.
The second movement is slow moving, lacking the forward drive of “Bound Away.” Titled “Dark Waters, Slow Waters” after Florida’s Hillsborough River, it makes use of thicker, more Debussyan orchestral textures that the soloists cautiously wind their way through. The listener gets a very clear vision of the kind of river this is: dark, mostly quiet, entangled with roots and overhanging greenery, placid in appearance, but replete with mysterious undercurrents.
The Chattanooga River of Georgia provides the inspiration for the scherzo-like third movement, “Chutes and Wave Trains,” where Owen brings a touch of funk to the proceedings, portraying a river that bubbles its way through sub-streams and cross currents, cunningly suggested by syncopated pizzicato string figures. It is here the composer most deftly integrates the symphonic and jazz elements of his score, including some impressive big-band riffs from The Surge’s brass section. They are aptly named: The music really does surge, yet at times the momentum slackens and the “river” of orchestral music widens. I also like the occasional bent blue note from the acoustic guitar, reminding us we are in the Deep South!
In filmic terms, the intermezzo fourth movement (“Side Hikes—A Ridge Away”) is akin to a long shot, taking us away from the close detail of the riverscape and showing us the big picture. There is grandeur here, as befits the vast rivers Owen specifies: the Green and Colorado Rivers, encompassing Colorado, Utah, and Arizona. This movement is the most laid-back (comparatively) and invokes a more mainstream jazz sound from the soloists over broad, string-drenched orchestral textures. The climactic moments are seamlessly prepared.
With the enigmatic title “Perhaps the Better Claim” (taken from Robert Frost’s poem
The Road Not Taken
), the final movement—as you would expect—provides an emotional summarizing of the entire journey. The river Owen conjures here is the Salmon River of Idaho, nicknamed the “River of No Return.”
is a remarkable piece of work, full of contrast and specific tone-painting, integrating jazz and classical elements with a sure hand and greater respect for both than has sometimes been the case in such hybrids. In my view, it is an unmitigated success. The performers are top-notch, not just Wilkins and Nicholson, who never sound out of their depth in any of these rivers, but also the rest of the musicians. Owen’s direction is obviously authoritative and, as usual with releases on the Summit label, sound quality is realistic and impressive.