Composer/Arranger/Saxophonist Steve Owen is one of the Pacific NW's best kept secrets. Having spent the greater part of his career as the director of Jazz Studies at the University of Oregon, opportunities to hear his work are few and far between for those of us living outside the Eugene area. I've always been enamored with his large ensemble pieces. So when I received a copy of his debut album, "Stand Up Eight," I was enthralled. I could hardly wait to put the disc on the stereo, which I did within a matter of minutes. As it turns out, it's a work of pure beauty -- stunningly honest art performed at the highest level. The sonic quality of the recording is also amazing. You can hear the soul and breath of each instrument. Hopefully, "Stand Up Eight" will help put Owen's name on more people?s radar.
The ensemble, which is comprised of a cast of great musicians from around the country (who all happen to be universitylevel jazz educators). This recording not only serves as a conduit for Owen's immense talent and unique vision, it introduces us to some great musicians who might not have the high-profile of Joe Lovano or Kurt Rosenwinkle but are operating at the same artistic level, with a profound individual voice on their instrument (all while making a living at it!). The old prejudicial opinion about jazz educators sounding "mechanical" or "formulaic" has been smashed to bits and pieces by this ensemble. The American university has essentially become a new jazz scene, a place where great musicians congregate, innovations take place, and audiences go to listen.
The opening piano intro and windensemble chorale of "Fall Down Seven, Stand Up Eight" might have you believing you're listening to a work written by the love-child of Aaron Copeland and Maurice Ravel, before the rhythm section enters to remind you that this still might be a jazz album. After over five minutes of steadily growing intensity, it feels like the tune is coming to an end--when suddenly we're greeted by Don Aliquo, a tenor saxophonist whom I had never heard before, but whose playing I immediately fell in love with. Aliquo builds an incredible solo over the next five minutes, a re-rendering of the intensity of the initial statement of the form. The tune tapers off into the initial feel-good groove until a final return to the chorale: the calm after the storm. It's this kind of drama which makes "Stand up Eight" stand out against a sea of other modern recordings, many of which have a certain homogenized sameness to them.
If there's one quality that ties all the music on this album together, it's Owen's patience when it comes to pacing his compositions and arrangements. The music is allowed to unfold in an organic manner, devoid of ego or cliches. The excellence and honesty of musicianship amongst the players only further enhances this ideal. The music throughout this recording conveys depth of emotion without ever sacrificing craft or ingenuity.
Though the level of ensemble playing on this recording is nearly unmatched in this day and age, none of the players are mere "section players." Each has a unique voice that is allowed to shine when it comes time for them to improvise. Saxophonists Peter Sommer, Todd DelGuidice, Will Swindler and Aliquo all contribute thoughtful, heartfelt and masterful solos. There are no imitators here. Trumpeter Brian McWhorter, know for his forays into contemporary classical music as well as cutting edge avant garde jazz, is given a moment to shine on the hilarious, if scary, "State Of The Union." That tune is, as Owen says in the liner notes, "My attempt to give a voice to the frustrations of the average, intelligent person striving to be heard over the din of @#$%^ parading as new and by a public unwilling to face reality."
Trumpeter Clay Jenkins (Eastman School of Music) is a modern master of the instrument. Once again, he might not be as well known as Tom Harrell or Wynton Marsalis, but Jenkins could hold his own on any stage with them. He gives us a gorgeous meditation on sound and space on Owen's "Still," a nod to Miles Davis' ability to frame music with silence. It's reminiscent of some of the freer music recorded by the ECM label during the mid 1970s. The time is so free and elastic (largely due to an ostinato guitar part played in a rubato fashion against the tempo), one might get the impression that the entire band is playing out of time. Jenkins continues to blow a hauntingly beautiful, expressionistic solo onward to the conclusion. The rhythm section here is the driving force behind the power and delicacy of this ensemble (I know it sounds like a Jaguar commercial...sorry). Together, these men propel the band through every possible feel: from the heavy metal Rage-Against-The-Machine angst of "State of The Union," to the heartfelt ballad-tribute from Owen to his father, entitled "Following in Your Footsteps," and to the Latin groove of the Jobim/Claire Fischer-influenced "A Delicate Balance." When the music is paired down to soloist and rhythm section, you find yourself listening to a great small group where the members are conversing with one another.
Other tracks include a Thad Jones/ Bob Brookmeyer-like take on the Cole Porter's classic, "Everything I Love." Radiohead's 'Kid A" gets a brand-new treatment here. And the thing I really enjoy about Owen's arrangement of "Kid A" is it's unexpectedness as a large ensemble cover-tune. Owen takes advantage of the original recording's focus on sound and timbre (relying heavily on the muted analog-synth-like sounds of the marimba here), more so than any melodic "hook" another more "obvious" song might have provided. "One Voice" is Owen's tribute to West African folkloric music, which again relies heavily on marimba and percussion to create an atmospheric sea for the rest of the band to sail upon.
It might not be economically feasible for a band of this size to tour the world, or even the US in today's economy, but hopefully Owen's music will make it's way around the globe through more recordings and performances by others. I could honestly write for days about how great this album is, but I?d run out of harddrive space. "Stand Up Eight" is so diverse and eclectic, you owe it to yourself to experience it uninterrupted, headphones on, cell phone and other gadgetry off, and your eyes closed. You'll find your ears traveling to a new place every time.