Chuck Owen and the Jazz Surge Deliver an Explosive Epic
Most music about water doesn’t do it justice. As Dick Cheney knows better than anyone, water can be absolutely terrifying. Florida outdoors enthusiast and bandleader/comoposer Chuck Owen portrays some of the wild rivers of the American south in all their fearsome glory on his new album River Runs with his large ensemble the Jazz Surge. But far more than mere musical portraiture, it’s as if Owen has captured an entire ecosystem with its messy, sometimes awe-inspiring, sometimes opaque, frequently frightening detail. Like water, Owen’s music will go everywhere it can: his colors are amazingly diverse. Outside of western swing, is there another big jazz group that uses a dobro? That’s just one example of how imaginative, paradigm-shifting and often exhilarating this album is, combining elements as diverse as swing, heavy metal, bluegrass and the avant garde and making them work together seamlessly.
Solo instruments, notably Jack Wilkins’ dynamic tenor sax, LaRue Wilkinson’s often searing electric guitar, Per Danielsson’s versatile piano and Rob Thomas’ even more eclectic violin hold the center as the towering, majestic arrangements whirl and crash behind them. In jazz terms, Owen’s unorthodox, symphonic instrumentation extends further to include Corey Christiansen’s slide guitar, Maurizio Venturini’s bassoon and Anna-Kate Mackle’s concert harp as well as a 24-piece string section. Solos maintain a thematic consistency with the pulsing backdrop of the orchestra to a point that while they sound improvised, they might not be: Owen’s attention to detail is that focused.
The suite begins with a brief, creepy string prologue that slowly brightens with a lush intensity as the reeds and eerily pinging percussion rise and then recede back into the ether. Movement one, inspired by West Virginia’s Greenbrier and New Rivers begins with a rippling excitement and rises from there, an endless series of voices – tenor sax and dobro, violin and bass, guitar and strings – exchanging motives, the tenor eventually leading it up to a subtle quote from the similarily high-voltage Brooklyn Suite, by Chris Jentsch (whose first work for big band, appropriately, was the Florida Suite – maybe there’s a connection here). Rising strings, a scampering bluegrass theme and amiably spiraling guitar lead back to a pensive grandeur: the coda is surprising, given the white-knuckle intensity of everything that came before.
The second movement depicts the Everglades and neighboring Hillsborough River with a misty, Gil Evans-ish menace. A storm brews with brooding, cinematic atmospherics and flamenco-tinged guitar, swells upward, descends to a tense ominousness punctuated by eerie bells and then all of a sudden it’s a jaunty clave tune! Movement three explores the Chatuga River, featured in the film Deliverance: here, it gets a lively, balletesque depiction. It’s album’s most avant garde number, hints of latin melody dancing against each other and the orchestra’s austere close harmonies with a funky unease that once again brightens when least expected. The arc toward blue-sky cheer continues with a reminiscence of a family river trip: it isn’t long before moody strings give way to an animated exchange between sax and violin, then the sun comes out and then ripples with a terse, Brazilian warmth over a languid, summery backdrop.
The album winds up with a ferocious cliffhanger, a heart-stopping trip down the Salmon River. Peril is everywhere, from the horror-movie foreshadowing from the strings, a roller-coaster ride with the orchestra pulsing in and out of the arrangement. Lulls appear out of nowhere and then disappear as the waves come crashing in, eventually with a menacing, funky pulse, as if the rocks underneath were making contact with the vessel inches above them. This could just as easily be a portrayal of war, or an escapee on the run from something predatory and lethal. It’s darker and more gripping than anything else here, an apt coda for Owen’s magnum opus.