Composer Chuck Owen is professor of jazz studies at the University of South Florida where he founded the school’s center for jazz composition. His music is influenced by composers of various types of music, such as Bela Bartók, John Adams, and Chick Corea. With regard to River Runs, he says, “When I started this project, it was not about rivers. I wanted to write a piece for jazz ensemble and symphony orchestra where both entities are equally involved and comfortable. The river is used as a metaphor for a lot of different aspects of life.” That being said, he is an indefatigable “river rat” who rafts, kayaks, and canoes when he has the time. Listeners who also love to do that will really appreciate the musical descriptions in this piece. Nature lovers will also enjoy his inclusion of a quote from Edward Abbey in his notes. In combining The Jazz Surge, an energetic 17-piece big band he founded in 1995, with an orchestra made up of classically trained players from the Florida area, he really has found a new sound for his 21st-century music. Owen describes this work as a concerto for jazz guitar, saxophone, and orchestra, and his soloists, LaRue Nicholson on guitar and Jack Wilkins on tenor sax, are “cool” virtuosos. So is drummer Danny Gottleib who provides the rhythmic base for many of the solos. Owen gives his soloists a fully fleshed out, musical vehicle that allows them to soar above the orchestra.
The Prologue is a soft evocation of fog and the colorless river one can encounter in early morning. As you “Bound Away” on a West Virginia River, you hear the reflections of the sunshine on the ripples as the tones of the tenor sax, guitar, violin, bass, and strings play various motifs. Tenor saxophonist Jack Wilkins plays delicious harmonies, some of which may sound improvised, but most probably are not. With a bluegrass tune and a rising theme in the strings, Owen makes us feel buoyed up by calm water with a slight current. This jazz-oriented piece is as well orchestrated as any classical concerto and its tutti brings us back to the majesty of the river with its relentless onward rush. “Dark Waters, Slow Waters” refers to the Hillsborough River in Florida, the peculiar beauty of which is bordered by moss-laden trees. Here, the percussion section keeps a steady rhythm as the guitar plays cadenzas. Florida is the home of the alligator, however, and plying a river in a fragile craft can be frightening, as Owen reminds us with his musical surprises. Here he unites unexpected musical elements like swing and heavy metal with his own modern style and, with a gradual crescendo he makes them into a unified movement. Inspired by the rapids on the Chattooga River that runs through Georgia and South Carolina, the third movement starts with pizzicato strings, syncopated rhythms, and broken shards of music that give a good representation of the rollercoaster ride you can take while rafting that body of water. By the end of the track the rapids disappear, however, and the sun emerges from a cloud to once again warm the traveler. In his musical description of the Green and Colorado Rivers, Owen speaks of raft riders leaving the river to climb the cliffs that overhang them. Here he has recycled a piece he wrote earlier, but it fits in perfectly. I love the piano part. The scoring of the movement that describes the Salmon, once said to be the “River of No Return,” is particularly translucent and although the full orchestra is playing brilliantly, the soloists are aurally well situated in front of the ensemble. Owen’s description of its whitewater rapids weaves its way into a magnificent finale as the river widens out before the intrepid raft riders. This is a fascinating piece of program music and it deserves to be widely heard. I think it belongs in the recording library of every fan of contemporary music.