Fresh off of celebrating the silver anniversary of his Grammy-nominated big band The Jazz Surge, Florida-based composer, arranger and bandleader Chuck Owen returns with a brilliant new collaboration with one of the most renowned large ensembles in the world, Germany’s WDR Big Band. Featuring new and reimagined compositions by Owen along with arrangements of jazz standards and pieces contributed by members of the ensemble, Renderings focuses on Owen’s vibrant gifts as an arranger, which led journalist Dee Dee McNeil to refer to him as “a painter with sound.”
Due out July 21, 2023 via MAMA Records, Renderings is somewhat unique in Owen’s big band catalogue for concentrating not on original compositions but on his arrangements of works by other composers alongside reprises from his earlier work. Where the wonders of the natural world have in the past provided inspiration for album-length suites, here the concept is the collaboration itself. The idea came together when Owen discovered the dual meaning of “rendering” that gave the album its title: “1. A depiction, interpretation, or perspective; 2. The act or instance of performing a piece of music.”
“I was trying to come up with a title,” Owen recalls, “and I thought of a rendering as being something that you’re taking and putting a different spin on. When I actually looked it up in the dictionary, one of the first definitions they gave was in terms of performing a piece of music. I thought it was perfect because as my first project with the WDR Big Band, I’m arranging renderings of these compositions and they’re rendering my music.”
Along with the virtuosic musicians that make up the WDR Big Band, Owen invited master violinist Sara Caswell as his special guest for the project. The Grammy-nominated artist and DownBeat Critics Poll winner for “Rising Star – Violin” is part of Owen’s sextet ReSurgence and has been a key member of The Jazz Surge in recent years, appearing on the band’s last two releases, Within Us (2021) and Whispers on the Wind (2017). She is the featured soloist for two tracks on Renderings, Karolina Strassmayer’s “”Of Mystery and Beauty” and “Arabian Nights” by Chick Corea. “Sara is a musician that I absolutely trust, and she inspires me,” Owen says. “Her lyricism is second to none.”
The recording of Renderings spans two years, interrupted by the pandemic. When Owen returned to Cologne, Germany in the spring of 2021 to resume work on the project, it was the first time in well over a year that he’d been able to play music with a large group of people. Of course, those early days of emergence from lockdown provided their own challenges, as the WDR had instituted special distancing procedures that allowed them to resume work earlier than much of the rest of the country.
“It felt like a luxury to be able to get together with a band,” Owen recalls, “but then I discovered that Germany was still completely shut down. Not even my hotel restaurant was open. And of course, the airline lost my luggage, so I had no clothes and no place to buy things. I ended up borrowing shirts from the lead alto player, Johan Hörlén.”
None of those mishaps and stresses can be heard in the gorgeous and beautifully performed music that comprises Renderings, however. Wanting to separate the project from his contemporaneous work on The Jazz Surge’s anniversary album Within Us, he asked the members of the WDR Big Band to submit their own compositions for consideration. Three pieces were arranged for the album: “Of Mystery and Beauty” by saxophonist Karolina Strassmeyer, “Fall Calls” by bassist John Goldsby, and “Canoe” by saxophonist Johan Hörlén. “The problem I had was that there are so many good writers in the band,” he says. “I ended up with much more material than I could use, so I hope we get to do this again.”
Owen’s sole new composition, “Knife’s Edge,” opens the album. Like so much of his work, it was inspired by nature, in this case a daunting, narrow trail leading to Maine’s Mt. Katahdin that the composer hasn’t dared to hike. (“It’s the sort of thing I would have done in a heartbeat at a slightly younger age,” he demurs.) Kicking the proceedings off at a rollicking pace, it’s one of the most straightahead, swinging big band charts Owen has crafted in ages, and a stellar, vigorous example of the form.
Owen also revisits two earlier pieces, “A Ridge Away” from his River Runs concerto, and “…And Your Point Is?,” originally written for his sextet. While the first was given only minor modifications, adapting a piece originally conceived for a smaller group featuring violin, guitar, sax and accordion proved a more enticing challenge. The album is completed by a radical reimagining of the classic standard “This Love of Mine,” which Owen was commissioned to arrange for a small group 20 years earlier; and “Arabian Nights,” which The Jazz Surge had performed with its composer, the late, legendary Chick Corea.
The challenges of writing and arranging for a band on the scale of the WDR, in parallel with composing for The Jazz Surge and during the most trying time in recent memory, are obvious. But what Owen stresses are not the hardships but the joys and camaraderie of the project – qualities that shine through vividly on these eight lustrous pieces. “Much like with the Surge, I feel like I’ve gotten to know the members of the WDR Big Band personally,” Owen says. “So this really was a chance to write for individuals, and it’s the individuals that make the difference. I can feed off of that, and it’s really fun and challenging.”
Central Florida-based Chuck Owen has been a revered composer and bandleader as well as a committed, passionate and nationally respected jazz educator for over 40 years. His primary creative outlet since 1995 has been his 19-piece big band The Jazz Surge. Owen has served as conductor, primary composer/arranger, and producer of all of its highly-feted releases, which have garnered seven Grammy nominations. During its history the Surge has hosted such special guests as Chick Corea, Joe Lovano, Randy Brecker, Bob Brookmeyer, John Clayton, Dave Douglas and Gerald Wilson, among many others. Owen also leads the sextet ReSurgence and has written for the WDR Big Band, Netherland’s Metropole Orkest, and many others. He is the recipient of Guggenheim Fellowship and currently serves as the founding President of ISJAC (International Society of Jazz Arrangers & Composers).