River Runs, 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.”
River Runs 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.