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Jazz band surges forward

Chuck Owen, a USF professor, and his 17-piece ensemble hope a new CD and a gig with the Manhattan Transfer will win them a bigger audience.

Published May 20, 2004

Having Chuck Owen and the Jazz Surge open for the Manhattan Transfer tonight at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center isn't the most obvious programming strategy: The concert's headliners tend toward a slick, smooth sound, but Owen's group is a decidedly arty big band.

Still, the two acts share common ground beyond their chosen genre, said Owen, a University of South Florida jazz studies professor, who organized the band nearly a decade ago.

"I don't know that (the match) is one that I would have ever chosen, but I think it's kind of neat," said Owen, conductor, composer and arranger for the 17-member Jazz Surge, which includes eight USF School of Music faculty members.

The Manhattan Transfer "get involved in orchestrating things in a way that a big band tends to orchestrate things," he said. "They get very involved in looking creatively at, and arranging, jazz standards."

Owen relied on a similar strategy for his imaginative interpretation of My Foolish Heart, from Here We Are, the group's just-released third CD. The old chestnut, its melody deconstructed and rebuilt, also showcases tenor saxophonist Jack Wilkins, USF's director of jazz studies. The arrangement was a result of a deadline assignment, a commission from the USAFE (U.S. Air Force in Europe) Ambassadors.

"It's always a nice situation to have your hand forced a little bit and to see what you can come up with," Owen said of the assignment. "It's such a memorable melody and such a strong melody that I feel pretty comfortable in displacing it an awful lot without it seeming disrespectful of the tune."

Ingrid Jensen, an acclaimed trumpeter and flugelhorn player based in New York, is heard on two tracks from Here We Are: the twisting, Americana-tinged E Ticket and a heady arrangement of Dave Liebman's Off Flow. The Surge offers bluesy grooves on Owen's Glib, featuring a B-3 organ turn by Gary Versace, who has played with Jensen and bassist David Friesen, among others.

The sound of violin sets the recording apart from the Surge's previous CDs, 2000's Madcap and an eponymous 1995 disc. Rob Thomas, whose credits include work with the String Trio of New York, Andy Summers and the Mahavishnu Project, initially was hired to play solely onDuets, originally composed as accompaniment for dancers. He subsequently wasasked to play on several tracks.

"I was so enamored with the results, I was determined to write him into virtually everything, treating him more like a regular member than as a soloist," Owen said.

The Surge, previously heard at TBPAC and on campus in USF's Monday Night Jazz Series, has played several high-profile concerts, including three performances at annual conventions of the International Association for Jazz Education. In January, the group, joined by Jensen, played for educators, musicians, recording industry representatives, radio DJs and journalists gathered in New York at the 31st annual IAJE conference.

The group's first two CDs (all are on the big band-oriented Seabreeze Records label) were played on jazz stations across the country, according to playlist information gathered by the Gavin Report.

"It's not the same old straight-ahead (swing)," Danny Beher, owner of Seabreeze, said during the IAJE convention. "I like (Owen's) writing because he's experimental - his voicings are a lot different than straight-ahead music. He just writes beautiful music."

Here We Are, despite the relative complexity and length of many tracks, could be the Surge's best opportunity yet to win the attention of jazz listeners.

"I'm not sure what it takes, but I do think the band has a distinct identity now, albeit one that is likely to continue evolving," Owen said. "This CD will, hopefully, help locate us, musically as well as geographically."

PREVIEW: Chuck Owen and the Jazz Surge open for the Manhattan Transfer, 8 tonight, Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, 1010 N MacInnes Place, Tampa. $29.50-$45.50. (813) 229-7827.

[Last modified May 19, 2004, 15:42:14]

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