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USF Distinguished Professor Chuck Owen Earns 2 GRAMMY Nominations
Call it the journey of a lifetime. When USF Distinguished Professor Chuck Owen wrote his new CD, River Runs, he was inspired by his own personal journeys down America’s most iconic rivers. Now, he has been nominated for one of the nation’s most iconic and prestigious music industry awards.

At the 2014 GRAMMY Award nomination announcement on December 6, Chuck Owen was among the nominees in two separate categories:  Best Instrumental Composition for Bound Away, and Best Instrumental Arrangement for Side Hikes: A Ridge Away. Both tracks are part of Owen’s newest CD, River Runs: A Concerto for Jazz Guitar, Saxophone & Orchestra (MAMA Records) – a five-movement concerto, more than an hour in length, combining a full symphony orchestra with a jazz ensemble (The Jazz Surge) and jazz soloists on guitar and saxophone.

“Certainly one of the greatest challenges I faced was one of balance—composing a work in which the orchestral and jazz ensembles not only felt like equal partners; but where, in spite of the massive size of the combined orchestras, the piece retained the intimacy, looseness, and improvisational feel so vital to jazz,” Owen explained.

“Just as challenging, however, was the recording process itself – one quite different than prior Jazz Surge projects. The musicians more than rose to the occasion; they approached this somewhat unknown terrain with incredible dedication and enthusiasm. Meanwhile, engineer and co-producer Tom Morris provided his constant innovation to accommodate my musical desires as well as the challenges posed by such a large ensemble. I couldn’t have asked for better partners!”

“In the years that I've been working with Chuck on his various recording projects, the one constant has been the quality of his writing and arrangements,” said Morris, founder of Morrisound studios in Tampa (FL), which recorded the album. “I'm thrilled to see Chuck finally get the kind of acknowledgement for composing and arranging that he so richly deserves.”

“Morrisound's association with Chuck Owen and USF Music dates back to the early 1980s when Chuck brought the large student ensemble in to our original studio location,” Morris added. “Since then, we have not only recorded nearly all of the jazz program's student recording projects, but many of the faculty projects as well, including all of Chuck's projects with The Jazz Surge. When Chuck approached me to go over his concept for this latest project, I was very excited. The scope and depth of it (recording a big jazz group along with a full symphony orchestra) was beyond anything that I had undertaken before. It presented many challenges, both technically and creatively, which made it irresistible.”

That kind of innovative approach also earned Owen a fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation to begin the project in 2010.

“This was a massive undertaking! It was a very ambitious project that simply wouldn’t have come to fruition without the Guggenheim Fellowship,” Owen said. “Fortunately, their mission is designed to provide artists and scientists alike the opportunity to explore creative, unconventional ideas and follow their research wherever it leads them.”  

Journeys of discovery are also central themes of the album, which was released in April 2013.

“In a large piece like this, it’s important to have an overarching concept to tie it all together, so that while each movement has its own distinct character, all the movements have a relationship to those that come before and after,” Owen said.

He explained, “The idea of simply using rivers as a metaphor for life journeys felt much too generic.  So, instead I drew from a wealth of very personal experiences canoeing and rafting, winnowing a lengthy original list down to those trips that either had a significant impact on my life or whose distinct characteristics evoked an atmosphere and/or emotion I desired to portray musically.”

“For example, the first movement, Bound Away, flows through the rugged terrain of the Greenbrier and New Rivers of West Virginia, in what was my first ‘great, independent adventure’ as a teen. The second movement, Dark Waters, Slow Waters, meanders among the lush foliage, cypress knobs, alligators, and brackish waters of the Hillsborough River here in Florida, evoking a tone of rudderlessness that I felt keenly during the time following my father’s death. The third movement, Chutes and Wave Trains, skitters down the whitewater of the Chattooga River (Georgia and North Carolina) with playful exuberance, excitement, and pure joy – recalling a recent trip with my son, Carson. The fourth movement, Side Hikes—A Ridge Away, depicts out-of-water moments on the Green and Colorado Rivers out West, portraying the majesty and poignancy of sitting high on a cliff overlooking endless vistas. The fifth movement, Perhaps the Better Claim, takes us on a journey down the pristine and relentless Salmon River in Idaho, referred to as the “River of No Return” by explorers Lewis and Clark.  The title is from a line in Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken, whose sentiments dovetailed nicely with themes I was trying to portray through much of the concerto.”

The album has received widespread national attention from the music industry, critics, and news media. David Liebman, one of America’s leading jazz saxophonists, described the album as “an incredibly colorful portrait. You can feel the power and majesty of these natural settings. Excellent music!” Rufus Reid, a renowned jazz bassist, educator and composer, called the album “a tour de force in contemporary orchestral composition.”

“It’s a privilege to work with Chuck. He’s a genius, and if anybody ever deserved this nomination, he does,” said Darby Christensen, head of MAMA/Summit Records, who published the album. “It’s pretty special that he received nominations in two different categories for the same album.”

Owen is no stranger to taking musical risks or innovating breakthroughs in his genre. In fact, he received his first professional experience composing for orchestra while he was still a student in college—when conductor Erich Kunzel asked him to arrange a couple of contemporary works for the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra.

“He sent me a program of the performance, and there I not only proudly saw my name — I was astonished to see it listed right next to Ella Fitzgerald’s – the guest artist for the concert!! ” Owen said.

That was the beginning of a more than 30-year career as a composer, arranger, and educator for Owen, who is currently a Distinguished Professor, Guggenheim Fellow, and Director of the Center for Jazz Composition at the University of South Florida in Tampa, FL, where he also received the President’s Award for Faculty Excellence. Additionally, Owen directs the USF Jazz Ensemble and is the founder of the 17-member Jazz Surge performing ensemble. River Runs is his fifth CD. Owen has also served as President of the International Association for Jazz Education; as a “governor” for the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences; and as a panelist for the Pulitzer Prize in Music, the National Endowment for the Arts, and numerous regional arts associations. He has performed with renowned artists including Ray Charles, Doc Severinson, and Lionel Hampton.

“I am so grateful to the Guggenheim Foundation, the University of South Florida, and the USF College of The Arts for helping make this project possible,” Owen said.

Click here to read more about what the national media is reporting about Chuck Owen and River Runs.