Chuck Owen’s Florida-based and Grammy-nominated Jazz Surge is back in the saddle with another series of impressive musical portraits, Whispers on the Wind, whose genesis harkens back to Owen’s childhood in windy Omaha, NE, and whose inspiration derives in part from the works of three contemporary authors: Larry McMurtry, Cormac McCarthy and Stephen King (the last, as Owen writes, from King’s Dark Tower series). To help cast the spell, Owen uses a number of instruments not generally associated with big-band jazz including violin, dobro, steel guitar, harmonica, accordion and hammered dulcimer (the last two played by Owen himself).
As implied by that prefatory description, Owen’s charts are rather far removed from the straight-ahead patterns espoused by Basie, Herman and others of their ilk, relying instead on a more elaborate design in which the ethos and power of the orchestra as a whole supersedes the more candid and personal framework of years gone by. That’s not to say the Jazz Surge doesn’t swing. Owen writes with seductive rhythms in mind and sets aside ample room for earnest blowing by a number of splendid soloists including a trio of notable guests: trumpeter Randy Brecker (“Into the Blue,” “Gunslingers”), violinist Sara Caswell (“Warped Cowboy,” “Can’t Remember Why”) and harmonica virtuoso Gregoire Maret (“A Phares of the Heart,” “Sentinel Rock”).
“Warped Cowboy,” the first of Owen’s seven singular compositions, lives up to its name, ambling easily along in a neo-Western vein whose brass and woodwind broadsides lead to allusive solos by Caswell and soprano saxophonist Tamara Danielsson. “All Hat, No Saddle,” amplified by Corey Christiansen’s steel guitar and Clay Jenkins’ agile trumpet, weaves and gallops its way to the cleverly named “A Phares of the Heart,” a warm-hearted ballad written by Owen for his wife, Vicky Phares (crisp solos by Maret, Jenkins and tenor Rex Wertz). “Into the Blue,” whose lyric framework (underlined by shifting time signatures and brassy flare-ups), is hard to describe, was written for and dedicated to the U.S. Air Force Band of the West. Brecker makes his solo debut here alongside guitarist LaRue Nickelson and trombonist Jerald Shynette.