Ralph A. Miriello
Member of Jazz Journalist Association
On Friday November 7, 2014, the Manhattan School of Music's Jazz Philharmonic Orchestra, under the able direction of maestro Justin DiCioccio, produced a river of sound that washed through the school's Borden Auditorium to a packed house of music lovers.
The occasion was the world premiere of University of South Florida's distinguished professor Chuck Owen's dynamic suite River Runs in its entirety. The 2013 recording was among the nominees for the 2014 Grammy Awards in the categories of Best Instrumental Composition for "Bound Away," and Best Instrumental Arrangement for "Side Hikes: A Ridge Away." Both compositions are part of Owen's five-movement concerto, combining a full symphony orchestra with a jazz ensemble and jazz soloists on violin, guitar and saxophone. The soloists were the tenor saxophone firebrand Donny McCaslin, the sensitive violinist Sara Caswell and the masterful guitarist Jack Wilkins.
The music is an exhilarating compositional tour de force, combining the multiple musical voices, colors and timbres that a full orchestra can command with the individual jazz expressions of the featured solo instruments of electric guitar, tenor saxophone and violin.
On this night maestro DiCioccio was exuberant in his direction of the music, as his orchestra produced brilliant tones and waves of sound that swept over the audience in the music's ebbs and flow. The music was conceived by Mr. Owen as a representation of multiple adventure trips he has taken canoeing and rafting down various rivers in this country. Each movement is a musical depiction of various aspects of these trips.
The opening composition "Prologue: Dawn's at River's Edge" is an impressionistic piece, all about the anticipation of waking up to nature in the early morning, ready to embark on another challenging journey down the mysterious waters that lie ahead.
The Grammy nominated "Movement I: Bound Away" is a musical recollection of the shimmering light reflected off the rippling pools of the Greenbrier and New Rivers of West Virginia. The trip meanders through a gorge where the thunderous sound of the approaching rapids is the clarion call that Owen's music recreates.
"Movement II: Dark Waters, Slow Waters" is a representation of Owen's time on the Hillsborough River in Florida, A river edged with drooping cypress and lined with murky pools of ominous swampy waters. The music becomes much more tranquil as you go on a more languishing journey through the humid, moss-covered banks of the Everglades. There is a sense of foreboding in this piece, an ominous feel of not really knowing what to expect around the next bend of the route.
"Movement III: Chutes and Wave Trains" is a depiction of Owen's time on the Chattonoga River as it makes its way down through Georgia and South Carolina. The music compresses and swells at times, similar to the way the water is compressed when funneled through a restrictive chute carved out of the architecture of the river banks, building up pressure and speed only to be released on the other side of the obstruction, into the opening calm.
"Movement IV: Side Hikes -- A Ridge Away"
This Grammy nominated composition is inspired from Owen's trips to the Green River in Utah and the Colorado River in Colorado,and was also adapted from the CD Ridgelines, a recording made by the saxophonist Jack Wilkins (no relation to the guest guitarist) who was the featured saxophonist. The unifying factor in both pieces is the concept of reaching a nearby ridge for an overview of your surroundings. Finally reaching the ridge you see many other ridges in your horizon, many never to be experienced, always just a "Ridge Away" from your reach. The composition appropriately creates a wistful sense of longing for the next great adventure.
"Movement V: Perhaps the Better Claim: The River of No Return"
With a line borrowed from Robert Frost's haunting poem "A Road Not Taken," Owen chooses this title for a musical trip down Idaho's Salmon River, a river known for its fierce rapids, its deep canyon, its treacherous terrain and its stunning scenery. The musical depiction sent the occupants of this auditorium-on-pontoons into a swirling and satisfying conclusion.
The music was masterfully played by the MSM's Jazz Philharmonic, who conquered the suite's demanding musical nuances, creating the atmosphere that so brilliantly depicts the natural musical sounds of the river rafting experience.
The soloists were in top form. Ms. Caswell was particularly poignant when her violin was featured as a soloist and at times in counterpoint to her two fellow soloists. Saxophonist McCaslin is a firebrand of a player. He always brings a sense of energy and excitement to his work. He was particularly effective producing a "wave of sound" deluge that flowed from his horn much like the rapids of Owen's compositions. Guitarist Jack Wilkins was playing a Fender Telecaster through an amp and the sound was unfortunately somewhat muted from where I sat. Wilkins is one of those players whose technique is precise and immaculately clean; a consummate player whose melodic solos, (the ones I was I was able to hear clearly), were fluid, fleet and precise. His interplay with McCaslin was particularly noteworthy as the two fed off of each other brilliantly.
Mr. Owen was in the audience for this performance, and in speaking to him briefly afterwards he was obviously gratified to see his music performed so admirably.
To be able to imitate the sounds of nature; to be able to magically reproduce the rapturous feeling one can get from communing in the woods on such an endeavor as white river rafting or hiking is an extraordinary achievement. I related to this album when I first reviewed it back in July of 2013. Now having seen it performed live by the MSM Jazz Philharmonic, it only reinforces my original convictions. If you get a chance to see this work performed live and you enjoy nature, you will not be disappointed with this brilliant piece of music.
Photo of Sara Caswell, Donnie McCaslin, Me, and Justin DiCioccio.
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Review. River Runs