When Chuck Owen rolls into Northeast Ohio this week for gigs at BOP STOP and BLU Jazz+, he brings a variegated book of original compositions and a heady reputation as a bag-band arranger with him. What he won’t bring on this visit is his 18-piece big band, the Jazz Surge.
Instead Owen is traveling light with ReSurgence (see what he did there?) a strings-forward septet of violinist Sara Caswell, Corey Christiansen on guitar, bassist Mark Neuenschwander, Jack Wilkins on saxophones, and for this tour Adam Cruz subbing in the drum chair for Danny Gottlieb. “I’m going to be on piano and keyboards, trying to hang with everybody else,” Owen said.
The band also features boundary-spanning vocalist Kate McGarry, giving it a more aerated sound than the big-band punch of the aptly named Jazz Surge.
A more personal sound
“I wanted to do music that felt more personal and that led me towards things that involved more American folk music, both in the instrumentation as well as harmonic progressions and grooves,” Owen said on a video interview. “As I grew in confidence about my writing it became more personal. I think it’s something that feels more like me rather than being just a big band writer.”
Not that there’s anything wrong with being a big band writer. In its nearly 30-year history the Jazz Surge has received seven Grammy nominations, a remarkable feat for a band based in Tampa, far from the media and music nerve-centers of jazz.
That’s where Owen, 69, established himself in 1981 when he was tapped to create the jazz studies program at the University of South Florida. His 40-year tenure there put USF on the map as one of the premier centers of jazz education in the U.S and led to him being named a 2009 Guggenheim Fellow.
But Owen’s parallel career as a bandleader, composer and arranger was just as significant. His compositions have landed on the music stands of the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks and Tonight Show Orchestras in the U.S. and the Metropole Orchestra, WDR Big Band and Aarhus Big Band in Europe as well as being played by student ensembles worldwide.
That only makes sense considering that Owen has been an arranger since the beginning of his music career. Growing up in Omaha and Cincinnati, Owen came to music relatively late. “It probably wasn’t until I was a junior in high school that I really got serious about trombone,” he said. “That was mostly because our jazz band director kind of abdicated responsibility for that group and just left it to us students. I had an opportunity to start arranging music.
“I had no clue what I was doing. So I took some of the horn hits of the day, you know, Blood Sweat and Tears, Chicago, Ten Wheel Drive, Dreams, and either arranged tunes from some of those albums or converted them to something that we could play. As rough as those were, I just thoroughly enjoyed that process of writing something down and hearing it played back.”
Now retired from his academic position, Owen gets to double his enjoyment by adapting material written for the Jazz Surge to the more intimate ReSurgence setting.
Music that breathes
“With a big band, it’s really hard to get gigs and transport 20 pieces around, especially since the [players] come from seven different states.” Owen said. ”It just wasn’t realistic to do [but] I really wanted to get some of this music out there. So I started ReSurgence with the idea of taking pieces that I had written for the big band and re-orchestrating them in a small group setting, hopefully letting them open up a little, breathe a little bit more and have fun with them. But as we started getting together, I realized I just wanted to write for the group too.
“So it’s kind of a mixture right now of some of the Surge music that felt worked well in more of a small group and intimate setting and new compositions,” Owen said. “I think they all come out of my leanings towards my previous upbringing, which included folk music, rock music and eventually Latin music and everything. It just kind of merges into a huge hodgepodge.”
Writing for a small group wasn’t much of a stretch for Owen, but writing lyrics was something new. “I’ve been an instrumental composer and arranger my entire life,” Owen said, but added, “I’ve got five grandkids now and somehow, I love the idea of them actually being able to sing one of my tunes. So I wanted to take a shot at writing jazz songs and writing my own lyrics.”
Any jitters about writing for a vocalist as accomplished as McGarry soon vanished. “Kate was so kind when I very nervously sent her the songs. I said, ‘You know, this is my first shot at writing lyrics,” and she said, ‘Man, I love these. I think you’ve found a new trade.”