Transcendence and Thrills From a Great Florida Big Band
One of the best large jazz ensembles in the country hails from Florida. So it’s possible that Chuck Owen and the Jazz Surge‘s new album Within Us – streaming at Spotify – is the first big band album to be recorded in a convivial, energetic studio setting here in the US since live music and free assembly in general were criminalized throughout most of the country in March of 2020.
Tellingly, the bandleader takes the album title from Albert Camus’ essay Return to Tipasa, about finding hope and joy even in the darkest times. There’s a jubilant sway but also a dark undercurrent to the opening number, Chick Corea’s Chelsea Shuffle. The late pianist was slated to record this with the band, but tragically never got that opportunity. Soprano saxophonist Steve Wilson brightens the atmosphere with a bubbling solo, passes the baton to vibraphonist Warren Wolf and then a triumphant strut from bassist Mark Neuenschwander before a swaying, brass-fueled outro. It’s a refreshingly optimistic way to kick off the album.
Trail of the Ancients is classic Owen, a colorful, imagistic epic rising from a suspenseful intro with a Sara Caswell violin solo, to tensely pulsing brass counterpoint. If Pete Townshend is aware of the LaRue Nickelson guitar break announcing Caswell’s flurrying second solo, no doubt he’s laughing. But the mood turns 180 degrees from there with the pairing of Nickelson with steel guitarist Corey Christiansen. Caswell – who turns out to be the star of this record – returns for a cheery series of exchanges with Nickelson, over an understated latin pulse. It’s a Maria Schneider-class composition.
With its unabashed political theme, American Noir begins subdued and moody, trombonist Jerald Shynett over a somber guitar-and-piano backdrop, the orchestra looming in. But suddenly alto saxophonist Tami Danielsson cirlicues around, and there’s a break in the clouds waiting for Shynett’s return. From there it’s a colorful, bracing ride, through a piercing peak to a sudden, mysterious false ending.
The second cover here is Miles Davis’ Milestones, reinvented first with a funky bounce and playful bursts from the horns, tenor saxophonist Jack Wilkins and trumpeter Clay Jenkins offering sagacious cheer over drummer Danny Gottlieb’s muted New Orleans beat. Owen’s choice to detour into the noir makes a stunning contrast, considering how he brings the tune full circle.
The album’s second big epic is Apalachicola, reflecting the ecological devastation of eastern Florida’s oyster industry. Pensive overlays and counterpoint interchange with cries and flurries from Caswell’s violin. Christiansen’s over-the-top blues seems satirical, and spot-on as a portrait of greed, or at least cluelessness. Likewise, Brantley’s garrulous if somewhat subtler trombone solo. And Caswell’s closing solo drives home the cruel toll that pollution takes on our coastlines.
During the recording of Sparks Fly, the local fire department evacuated the band from the studio since sparks had been spotted on the roof – that’s what happens when you get musicians who haven’t played in awhile in the same room all together, for the first time in months! The group rise from a lithe, balletesque pulse on the wings of Caswell’s flights and then back for a jaunty conversation between Wilkins and Wilson, the latter on alto this time.
The Better Claim, first released on Owen’s landmark 2013 epic River Runs, is considerably less turbulent, from the subdued duet between Wolf’s lingering vibes and Jenkins’ wistful trumpet, to bright, brassy crescendos, contrasts between a delicate Wolf solo and the trumpeter’s bluesy sagacity.
The band wind up the record with the title track (subtitled, aptly, An Invincible Summer). In the liner notes, Owen cites Camus’ text as an inspiration: “No matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger – something better, pushing right back.” Airy suspense from Wolf and Caswell introduces pianist Per Danielsson’s spare, solo lyricism, interchanging with resonant hope and surprising tenderness from the ensemble. Rex Wertz echoes that gentle resolve on tenor sax,
Owen’s most symphonically successful album to date is River Runs, a surging portrait of American waterways, but this one is a joy and an inspiration, hands-down one of the top ten jazz albums of the year. May there be many more of these in the years to come.