Charles “Chuck” Owen and his wife got home from a reception late one Friday evening last month. A friend from Los Angeles had left a message on his answering machine. When he heard who it was from, Owen, a USF professor of jazz studies, felt he knew the purpose of the call before listening.
“I went to the computer to check, and that’s when I found it,” he said.
He found his name among the list of musicians nominated for the 56th Annual Grammy Awards.
Owen was nominated for two categories — Best Instrumental Composition and Best Instrumental arrangement. Both nominations are for tracks on his newest album: “River Runs: A Concerto for Jazz Guitar, Saxophone & Orchestra.”
Owen began composing the five-movement, hour-long concerto in 2010, following the announcement of his John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Composition fellowship, a prestigious award that allowed him to take a year-long sabbatical from his work as a professor to focus on his piece, in 2009.
He began writing the piece in January 2010 and finished by the following summer.
The result was “a very large, massive piece” which was largely jazz-influenced, but contained a hint of “classical sensibilities.”
The idea spawned from decades of Owen’s experiences.
Owen’s entry to the world of music was one he called “roundabout.” He started his career as a pre-medical student before realizing his real passions lay in music. He switched his major to music education and got involved with jazz bands, where he began composing.
After finishing his master’s degree, Owen began teaching at USF, where he has remained for more than 30 years, helping create the USF Center for Jazz Composition.
Before winning the Guggenheim fellowship, Owen said, “the idea of doing the big, multi-movement jazz piece was — up until that point — just something I kind of flirted with.”
The album was inspired largely by his appreciation of canoeing and rafting in some of America’s most “unique” rivers, which started while he was in the Boy Scouts.
Composing the piece, Owen said, “became much more personal.”
The first movement of the concerto, “Bound Away” is based on the Greenbrier River and the New River in West Virginia.
“It’s based on a trip I took as a teenager — it was a very meaningful trip,” Owen said. “It was one of the first big canoe trips — it started off as a canoe trio—and then once you get to New River it turns into a huge, raging gorge.”
He and his friends built a homemade raft to float down the river.
“That movement is supposed to be looking at the beginning — at adventure — looking forward,” he said.
By Fall 2011, Owen was ready to record.
He went to Morrisound Recording, a Tampa recording studio, to take his music from paper to sound.
Tom Morris, a founder and engineer at Morrisound, said he and Owen share a recording partnership that dates back almost 30 years, when Owen first came to Tampa.
He was intrigued when Owen approached him about this project.
“Based on the history Chuck and I have, and my knowledge of his writing, I’ve always been a fan of Chuck’s writing,” he said. “The complex harmonies and melodies all join together and form a beautiful whole.”
The challenge was a matter of logistics.
They scoped both the U.S. and Europe for potential concert halls and studio musicians. Ultimately, the decision was made to record right in Tampa.
“To maintain quality control and to keep the budget within reason, we could do it all at our studios,” Morris said.
Recording for the album concluded in Spring 2012 and was released by MAMA Records in 2013.
“I think this is something long overdue for Chuck,” Morris said about the Grammy nominations. “I think his composition and arranging skills are fairly unique in the world.”
Owen said he is appreciative of the moment, but is aware of the bar he set for himself.
“I have hopes that it will result in more project opportunities, and more performance opportunities for this piece,” he said. “It waits to be seen.”
Owen plans to attend the Grammy Award ceremony Jan. 26 with his family.
“It’ll be a party,” he said.