On this powerful and ambitious “concerto for jazz guitar, saxophone and orchestra,” composer Chuck Owen composer/conductor ‘s Jazz Surge is bolstered by a thirty-four member reed, brass and string section that helps guide the listener on a picturesque journey along a number of rivers of various shapes, sizes and currents whose aim is to rekindle through musical portraiture the indwelling love of water in each of us as it heightens our awareness of and appreciation for one of nature’s awe-inspiring and essential life forces.
Owen, a self-described “river rat,” draws on cherished memories from childhood to the present to help frame a musical picture of rivers he has known and loved, using melody, harmony and rhythm to epitomize the ebb and flow of West Virginia’s Greenbrier and New Rivers; the Hillsborough River in Florida; the Chattooga in Georgia and South Carolina; the Green and Colorado Rivers in Colorado, Utah and Arizona, and the Salmon in Idaho. The discrete movements are presaged by a portentous prologue, “Dawn at the River’s Edge,” which besides setting the scene for what is to come, introduces the concerto’s able soloists, guitarist LaRue Nickelson and tenor saxophonist Jack Wilkins, Owen’s colleagues at the University of South Florida in Tampa. Each of the five movements bears its own signature: “Bound Away,” “Dark Waters, Slow Waters,” “Chutes and Wave Trains,” “Side Hikes—A Ridge Away” and “Perhaps the Better Claim,” the last inspired by a verse in Robert Frost’s poem A Road Not Taken.
While the music itself is hard to encapsulate, let alone describe, Owen offers his perceptive appraisal of each movement in the booklet’s notes, along with his reasons for writing the concerto as a whole. In addition, there are warm endorsements from Randy Brecker, Dave Liebman, Bob Belden and Rufus Reid bass, acoustic , who offers this eloquent appraisal: “Chuck Owen’s River Runs is a tour de force in contemporary orchestral composition that conveys his musical ideas with immense dynamic clarity. This exquisitely produced recording defies categorization, as it is a synthesis of musical concepts woven into a luscious tapestry that intrigues and satisfies. . . . Each movement is rich with melodies abounding, vibrant tonal colors, impressive improvisations, infectious rhythmic grooves, and delightful harmonic surprises throughout.” You can’t sum it up it much better than that. Clearly, Reid could have been a wonderful reviewer.
And Owen has produced a wonderful recording, dexterously using every instrument at his disposal to engender a captivating voyage whose allure is by no means limited to those who cherish rivers as he does. As another enraptured listener, Bob Belden, puts it: “Jazz has never sounded better.”