Chuck Owen & the Jazz Surge: Whispers on the WInd – Mama Records 1054, 73:59 (9/8/17) ****½:
Ambitious charts for 19 piece jazz band with folk American highlights and heartland landscape tone painting of the Maria Schneider school of composition.
(Chuck Owen; composer and accordion/ Sara Caswell; violin/ Clay Jenkins; trumpet/ Gregoire Maret; harmonica/ Randy Brecker; trumpet/ Jerald Shynett; trombone/ Corey Christiansen; guitar/ Danny Gottlieb; drums Valerie Gillespie; alto saxophone/ Tom Brantley; trombone/ LaRue Nickelson; guitar/ Mike Iapichino; trumpets Jim Hall; bass trombone)
In this age of insolvency for the working jazz artist, it is hard to believe that it is possible for a large ensemble to stay together, perform and record for any reasonable time. Somehow the 19 piece jazz orchestra, the Jazz Surge led by Chuck Owen have done this since the mid ‘90s. Based in central Florida, Owen has built up an agile and disciplined unit which has hosted major guest artists from Nat Adderly to Randy Brecker and put out half a dozen recordings. In the process, he has refined his own distinctive style which welds the classic techniques of Brookmeyer and Bill Holman to the eclectic Americana influences of Maria Schneider, to whom he might now be justly compared. On this release, Whispers on the Wind, Owen has decided to urge the Surge to swing harder than ever while he adds even more Heartland special effects These include a large dose of Gregoir Maret’s harmonica, a lot (but not enough) of Sara Caswell’s violin as well as dobro, accordion and hammered dulcimer. It seems the ambition is to move on the inside lane and close the gap at the finish line with our generation’s pace-setting Maestra Maria Schneider and her illustrious orchestra.
Seven long tracks allow for careful exposition, dramatic narration and an array of solos. The third number, A Phares of the Heart seems to begin with homage to Maria Schneider in its harmonic palette and long-intervaled theme which evokes landscape and horizon. Indeed, that connection is made explicitly in the notes which reference the composer’s childhood growing up on the Nebraskan plains where the wind blew with a devouring persistence. Natural features of weather and landscape are evoked throughout the session. Phares builds from its simple melodic materials outward patiently, allowing the layers of orchestra to find their place in a handsome structure. Maret’s harmonica solo skirts the line between nostalgia and novel freshness; his technical prowess is a marvel and the warm tone blends surprisingly well with the reeds and brass. All Hat No Saddle is a rollicking Western inspired groove with Corey Christiansens’s snappy acoustic guitar the main ingredient. The melody and Texan-swing delivery of the violin recalls the finest moments of Tin Hat Trio, but when the band enters we are lifted off the ground by the Nebraskan gale force winds.
Warped Cowboy features a razor sharp Sara Caswell solo and the soprano sax of Tamara Danielsson. At 14:27 it is an epic arrangement with a more-is-better approach to orchestral layering. It must be a crowded score, but the Surge hurtles through the changes with perfect control, arriving at the end much less exhausted than the listener. Into the Blue begins with cinematic effects of the dobro on a dark vamp. Dissonant trombones announce a sharp entry of zagging horn themes and clamorous antiphony all against the static harmony. Busy soloing ensues but the piece is more about the low brass drive. When the tension eases into a swinging Bill Holman style chart, we are familiar turf. Randy Brecker shines on a fleet solo. Trombone and and guitar give good account.
Sentinel Rock is in honor of the iconic Hoo-Doo rock of Bryce Canyon that toppled last year from natural causes. An odd tribute but a stand-out piece. Again the happy uses of whole notes on the opening theme make me think of Dame Schneider, whose pastorally vivid language this piece emulates. My doubts about the harmonica are dispelled by an evocative phrase that becomes an orchestral them. Valerie Gillespie on alto sax is splendid. The piece is unhurried, languid even. One can find no connection to falling rocks or eroding winds. It’s more like drowsily drifting down a river in summer.
Sara Caswell is too accomplished a musician to ever be pegged in one genre. I once saw her in a remarkable trio called 9 Horses and it was one of the most sublime demonstrations of fiddling I have ever seen. Her playing on “jazz” records seems seems constrained by comparison with that ensemble. However, I expected wonders and they arrive on the solo of Can’t Remember. She rescues a chart that seemed to wander in search of a theme. Immediately the band no what to do. Jack Wilkins follows with a thoughtful solo. It is worth noting that the soloists on the Surge differ from their counterpart on the MSO by what might be considered subtraction of personality. The exhausting ramping up of technical demonstration, so much a feature of MSO is not a notable feature of this ensemble which gives the ensemble playing and the charts more potency.
Mr. Owen dedicates the last chart to the members of the Jazz Surge. And well they deserve it. It is the second or third chart to push the cinematic image of the music further west than Nebraska. Dobro and accordion set up a brooding atmosphere of menace. A big brass bottom pick up the beat and there is some ensemble swagger. There is some fine counting and tricky syncopation and all manner of clever repartee. Danny Gottlieb gets in some wicked paradiddles. Wilkins is exquisite on sax. Guitarist whose recent outing was favorably reviewed on these pages, shows that the dobro can fit this flexible musical scheme perfectly.
In all this is a most rewarding CD and commands our unstinting praise for its passion, depth and generosity of vision. If it falls short of the finest of the MSO it is by a small and contested margin. I look forward to future recordings by this super-talented composer and his surging band mates.