Artist Blog

Chuck Owen: Within Us – An Invincible Voice

(Chuck’s new album with the Jazz Surge “Within Us” will be released Sept. 17th.   The band will be celebrating with a performance at New York’s Birdland jazz club, Sept. 26th at 5:00 PM.  Another recording project with the WDR big band (not yet titled) is planned for a Spring 2022 release.)

As I write this, “Within Us” – the 7th album I’ve recorded with the Jazz Surge – is poised to launch in just a couple of weeks and the obvious subject matter for this blog.  Planning for this project began almost 2 years ago when I wrote the first of several grants seeking the funding I would need to even begin to consider to mount it.   At the time, the primary impetus and concept was to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Surge’s first recording project (back in 1996) by doing what we love most – making music!!  And, while Covid did its best to derail it, pushing the original recording plans back almost 9 months, we were able to gather outside of Orlando, FL in late May of this year in what must be one of the most joyous musical occasions of my life!  What a reunion!!!

Now keeping a big band afloat for 25 years is quite the milestone! . . . . or millstone . . . . sometimes I’m not sure which!!  In any event, it’s a great time to pause a minute and reflect.

In fact, most of the compositions on “Within Us” were centered around the nature and significance of milestones in general – how they’re important measures of who we are and what we value.  (I even mashed up the iconic “Milestones” with the very first chart I ever wrote expressly for Surge. . . aptly entitled “Surge”.).   Looking back, it’s pretty easy to view each successive album as a mile marker of sorts.  I feel like the evolution in my writing is clear; one which I can only describe as becoming more and more personal, . . . more and more confident. . . . more and more focused.   Of course, we all strive to develop our “own voice”- that elusive quality that defines our work and likely distinguishes it from others.  How does one develop that?  Well, I won’t pretend that I can answer that for you; but I will offer a few observations that, upon reflection, have been significant in my own development as a composer.

 

Founding of Surge

They say that every journey starts with a single step; and, in my case, making the decision to form my own professional big band (at the age of 42) was probably the best decision I could have made.  As you have, undoubtedly, heard from any number of other composers, “the best way to learn to write is . .  . . .write!”  Amen!!  The corollary to that is that you then need to have it played by the very best musicians available.

Most every commission, conducting opportunity, grant, award, residency, etc. has come from having my own ensemble and the visibility that the Surge recordings generated – particularly for a composer located in Florida.  Now it seems almost a no-brainer!  But, at the time, it was anything but.  I was a single parent with a very full-time teaching job with no outside funding or assistance.

However, having that big band gave me something to write FOR while giving me carte blanche to write what I want!   In the process, I also found a group of musicians (now dear friends) that inspired my writing and provided invaluable feedback along the way.    Want to develop your own voice . . . you need to write!!

 

Influences

“Who are your greatest influences?”  It’s a stock interview or clinic question; but I’ve been inclined to give it a little more thought than usual recently.  Like most, I was steeped in the jazz tradition while studying at Univ. of North Texas and Cal State Northridge, and I don’t think there is any substitute for learning one’s craft through the big band works of Thad, Duke, Bill Holman, Gil Evans, & Bob Brookmeyer (just to name a few) or the writing done for the classic small groups – Blakey, Silver, Miles, Mingus, etc.  One of the benefits of being a jazz studies professor is that in teaching this canon to my students, I was constantly revisiting these works, falling in love with them all over, and discovering new insights with each academic year.

However, when I consider the music that I believe led to a more personal approach to the big band, primarily non-big band artists stand out.  I remember first hearing Bill Frisell and how taken I was with the atmosphere he created by pairing simple, folk-like melodies with just 1 or 2 other notes.  I transcribed some of these directly; but mostly I simply adopted the “less is more” philosophy and found myself looking for more transparency and exposed “rubs” in voicings – particularly in trombones and low clarinets.  Likewise, the eclectic San Francisco based group “Tin Hat” was a big influence for their gypsy, classical, folk, jazz mash-up as well as odd phrasing.  The sultry, blues, country/folk recordings by Cassandra Wilson completely captured my imagination and led in part to my decision to utilize two guitars (particularly dobro).  And, though I am not a minimalist at heart, I’ve found the orchestral compositions of John Adams influential in the way in which his development is so seamless and almost inevitable (my students will note this word with a smile!).

I relate these influences (just a few of many!) not because I think others should adopt them; but because they are undoubtedly uniquely mine!! They represent an even longer personal interest in American folk, contemporary classical music, R&B, and funk that extends back to the 60s; but that I had compartmentalized and kept separate from my jazz writing for years.   Once I gave myself permission to explore these influences (a hyper focus on melody, simple harmonic foundations less based on functional harmony, atmospheric settings that connote a sense of place, and adopting a wide variety of voicings or chordal structures from simple intervallic relationships to those that defy analyzation but just sound right to my ear) doors to new worlds began to open.  Musical worlds that I was not only eager to explore but instantly felt authentic and more personal.  My advice: make sure your influences are broad and diverse and, ultimately, reflect YOUR unique sensibilities.

 

Instrumentation

The standard instrumentation of the Jazz Surge differs from most other big bands in its inclusion of both a 2nd (acoustic) guitar as well as a violin.  While their inclusion started with independent guest appearances for specific pieces, I became totally enamored with the coloristic as well as rhythmic and soloistic possibilities each offered. In addition to advancing some of the American folk sensibilities I’ve discussed, I’ve always had a desire to get the big band to feel concurrently more improvisational as well as more orchestral.  The violin and acoustic guitar(s) beautifully addressed both. I found the enhanced orchestral palette I desired; but I’ve also employed them liberally as “color commentators” . . . . encouraging short improvisatory or atmospheric fills that provide a looseness that big bands often don’t have.

Below, you’ll find a partial list of the myriad ways I utilized both instruments just on “Within Us”.   The sheer variety of options is indicative of why I find both chairs (as well as the spectacular musicians who have come to inhabit them!!) so valuable.  More to the point, I have become aware of how their inclusion has continually sparked new compositional ideas that extend far beyond the use of the individual instruments themselves.  I am so grateful that I not only opened that door; but had the sense to follow that path even when I wasn’t sure where it led.

 

Intimacy

The final characteristic I believe has played a role in developing whatever personal voice I have is a bit more challenging to define.  Nevertheless, I have felt it more and more deeply with each successive project – the desire to connect with my listener as intimately and honestly as I can – one on one.  Early in my career, while not really acknowledging or even recognizing it, I tended to write more for the acclamation of audiences, peers, and critics I hoped would hear my music.  Now my desire is to forge a relationship with an individual listener.

“American Noir” probably does a much better job of portraying my conflicted feelings about the state of this country than I could ever put into words.  I lament the state of the environment and offer a personal prayer in “Apalachicola” while celebrating my love of family, friends, & this wonderful band through the playfulness of “Sparks Fly”.  And, in the title tune, “Within Us”, I reveal my rose-colored glasses persona with a sentimental portrayal of the power of community to move forward despite the challenges we all face.

While the concepts I expressed above offer clues to the listener about my intentions and inspirations; I’m interested in making the point of the connection the music – not a script.  Therefore, I believe my writing must be not only honest; but open and vulnerable as well.

While I may be more comfortable expressing joy, triumph, excitement, humor, and just plain good-natured fun; at some point, I’ve also got to reveal the pain, loss, heartbreak, and sorrow.  That’s where the voice will come from.

 

Use of Violin & Acoustic Guitar in “Within Us”

Violin

  • In Soloistic Capacity
    • As Featured, Improvising Soloist or on Solo melody
    • Written Solo asides
    • Improvised Melodic or Atmospheric Fills, Commentary on other soloists
    • As part of collective improv. group
  • When Scored with Woodwinds
    • Doubling Flute or Alto Fl. melodic lines
    • Doubling Sax Section (or partial sax section) unis. melodic lines & runs.
    • Doubling Lead Alto at pitch or 8va in Sax Solis
    • Effect – Tremolo over sustained WW note / Pizz. With light saxes/piano.
  • When Scored with Brass or Mixed Ensembles
    • Doubling mixed Ens. melodic lines or counterlines
    • Doubling Trpt. Section melody in unison or octaves.
    • Doubling Lead Trpt. In full brass voicings (Typically at pitch when in low or mid register – 8vb when Ld Trpt. Is in extremely high register.)
    • Occupying Lead line on top of full ensemble.
    • Octaves and Dbl Stops for hits, glissandi, bends etc. to bring out intervallic “rubs”
  • Interacting with Rhythm Section
    • Supporting guitar strumming with double stops.
    • Doubling rhythm section unison ostinato

 

Acoustic Guitar

  • In Rhythm section capacity (Steel string)
    • Propelling time/energy via strumming
    • Strummed arrival chords and long tones.
    • Providing or doubling ostinato grooves
    • Providing or doubling written arpeggiated licks
    • Delicate comping behind light melody
  • When Scored with Winds
    • Doubling arpeggios with woodwinds
    • Doubling mixed WW & mixed wind voicings
    • Doubling WW melodies, unison licks, runs.
    • Double stops with Trumpets
  • Dobro Specific
    • Blues-drenched atmospheric fills/improvisational effects
    • Doubling open 5ths bass/bass trombone line.
    • Accenting fat brass chords
    • Funky, 2nd-line comping
    • Freddie Green comping
    • Dry, single-note picking

Musical Examples

Within Us

#1 – Intro

 

Gtr. – Nylon Str. doubles ostinato line in piano, flute, & HD.

Vln. – plays solo line on top of winds.

 

#2

Gtr. – Steel String enters setting mood.  Comps under melody

Vln. – Doubles WW melodic lead.

 

Sparks Fly

#3

Gtr. – Strumming and providing groove

Vln. – Melody with mixed ensemble

 

#4

Gtr. – Plays ostinato fig in opposition to piano/marimba

Vln. – Supports brass punches, Uses Dbl stops emphasizing intervallic structures

 

Milestones

#5

Gtr. – Dobro plays bluesy fills, Doubles bass line at bridge

Vln. – Improvised fills, Doubles unis. licks, Melody at bridge

 


About the Author:

The recipient of a 2009 Guggenheim Fellowship and five individual GRAMMY nominations, Chuck Owen’s compositions have been performed widely; by the Netherlands’ Metropole Orch., WDR Big Band, Brussels Jazz Orch., Aarhus Big Band, Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orch., Tonight Show Orchestra, Cincinnati Symphony, and numerous others.  Chuck’s thoughtful, evocative, and intensely personal work is steeped in the jazz tradition but draws liberally and often playfully from a diverse array of influences.

Since 1995, Owen’s primary creative outlet has been his own 19-piece Jazz Surge.  Serving as conductor as well as primary composer/arranger, he has produced each of the Surge’s 7 highly feted CDs.  Whispers On the Wind, released in 2017, was recognized with 4 Grammy Nominations (including for best composition) while also named #1 Big Band Album in the annual Jazz Station Awards.  River Runs (2013), a stunning 5-movement genre-bending orchestral/big band hybrid and The Comet’s Tail (2009) also received Grammy nominations.   Their most recent recording Within Us is slated for a Sept., 2021 release.

Owen recently retired from the University of South Florida where he taught for 40 years, accorded the title of “Distinguished University Professor”.  He continues to serve as President of ISJAC (International Society of Jazz Arrangers & Composers), an organization he was instrumental in founding, while formerly serving as President of IAJE, as well as a panelist for the Pulitzer Prize in Music, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Recording Academy, and numerous others.

A recently recorded project with the wonderful WDR Big Band is slated for a Spring 2022 release.  Meanwhile, ReSurgence, a sextet featuring several members from the Jazz Surge along with the irrepressible Matt Wilson on drums, offers yet another intriguing platform for Chuck’s evocative compositions.