Thursday, September 30, 2021

Hoosier violinist is vital to success of 'Within Us' by Chuck Owen and the Jazz Surge

 In addition to the well-crafted band arrangements of "Within Us," the silver-anniversary recording (Mama Records) by Chuck Owen and the Jazz Surge is welcome for the generous spotlight shone upon Sara Caswell, a violinist with a prominent Indiana University pedigree, trained early in classical music before she went through IU's renowned jazz curriculum created by David Baker.

Sara Caswell makes major contributions.

She gets several solo outings in the course of the eight pieces, some of them setting the stage for Owen's extensive ensemble thoughts. She introduces the deliberations of "Trail of the Ancients" with trenchant musings, and when a regular tempo is established and guitarist LaRue Nikelson sets a pattern, she supplements his recurring contributions in deft phrase endings. Later, Caswell soars, and the tasty voicings for the ensemble make a perfect setting.  After a guitar cadenza, there are exchanges between the two soloists to put a cap on a memorable performance. In sum, brevity as well as extrapolation are her soul of wit.

Solo distinction from others is a feature of the disc immediately, as soprano saxophonist Steve Wilson and first-rank vibraphonist Warren Wolf lead the charge through Chick Corea's "Chelsea Shuffle."

The tidiness and individuality of nearly every solo make up for what often struck me as a longwindedness in the arrangements that didn't always sustain interest. To my ears, "Apalachicola" and "The Better Claim" fall into this category. It's not that I can't pay attention for about 10 minutes to new music for big band, but that I felt here and in a few other places that Owen's exhilaration in the quality of his players got the better of his judgment. Gil Evans was the pioneer of this sort of thing several decades ago.

There's no doubt, however, that Owen has earned the loyalty of good players who appreciate when a well-designed ensemble shows them off at their best, and even when they take their places in the collective mix. Clay Jenkins' bright trumpet solo in "Milestones" manages to pay tribute to Miles Davis without imitation. It's set up by the band's fidgety romping through a riff until the familiar theme is nimbly laid out.

The band's rhythmic acuity is well displayed in "Sparks Fly," with closely aligned short phrases bursting out, punctuated by group glisses. The sparks are genuine. The title piece features a reflective piano solo from Per Danielsson, unaccompanied at first, then subtly reinforced by the band. The  ensemble sounds relaxed and probing at the same time. Rex Wertz's tenor-sax solo is rhapsodic. 

The performance aptly reinforces the note of hope Owen found in a quotation from Albert Camus that provides the title of both this piece and the disc, which was recorded last May. It says, in part: "In the midst of chaos, I found there was, within me, an invincible calm" — words worth applying to a project conceived and executed during the pandemic. Owen himself must be a kind of existentialist sage.

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