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Education

USF prof bound for Grammy Awards

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Published:   |   Updated: January 25, 2014 at 08:55 AM

TAMPA — He’s about to rub elbows with the likes of Bruno Mars, Katy Perry and a couple of Beatles, but Chuck Owen insists he’s not prone to celebrity worship.

With certain exceptions.

“Now, if Herbie Hancock walks by,” he said, raising his eyebrows. “There’s somebody who’s not only a minor celebrity, but a huge name in the jazz world, and whose work I’ve just loved for years,” said Owen, professor of jazz studies at the University of South Florida.

Owen could cross paths with plenty of the music industry’s biggest stars Sunday in Los Angeles, where he’s up for Grammy awards in two categories: best instrumental composition and best instrumental arrangement for separate movements on his newest CD, “River Runs: A Concerto for Jazz Guitar, Saxophone and Orchestra.”

The celebration by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences is being televised on CBS beginning at 8:30 p.m.

Owen is flattered, of course, although he considers music awards “a funny thing.”

“Several of the others nominated are personal friends of mine, and they’re great composers. That old cliché, ‘It’s an honor just to be nominated’ — well, I can’t tell you how much I buy into that now,” he said.

“It truly is an honor to be with these folks whose music I love, and when you start looking down the list of people who have been nominated in the past, it feels great to be included.”

Owen has been composing, arranging and teaching for more than 30 years. He came to USF in 1981 after earning a master’s degree at Cal State-Northridge and freelancing on the piano around Los Angeles. He now serves as director of the USF Jazz Ensemble.

He’s released four previous CDs with his big band, The Jazz Surge, and found out on Dec. 6 that his latest was up for the music industry’s most prestigious award.

“River Runs” takes listeners with Owen on his own personal journeys down some of the nation’s most iconic rivers.

“I’m an advocate for using some sort of overriding concept,” he said. “Particularly when it’s a larger piece like this one was going to be, to kind of keep the tone the same, keep control of the flow, and make sure that what is at the beginning of the piece is clearly related to what is at the end. That was clearly the challenge when I was doing a five-movement concerto.”

The disc opens with a prologue, “Dawn at the River’s Edge,” and the first movement is “Bound Away,” which earned the composition nomination. The track takes the listener along with Owen on a teenage trip down the Greenbrier and New rivers of West Virginia.

“It was a complete adventure,” he recalls. “It was exciting, it was exhilarating, it was stepping outside my comfort zone, opening up new doors, and that’s what that whole movement is supposed to be about.”

He tried to capture the feeling of morning, of fog hanging over the Greenbrier, the sun rising.

“I think you can hear it, and you can feel the current running, gradually pulling you further and further, and when you drop into the gorge, you can hear a drop in the music,” he said, calling the movement “much more literal” than his other works.

The nomination for arrangement came for “Side Hikes — A Ridge Away,” a rumination on the Green and Colorado rivers out West.

The Hillsborough River gets a shout-out, on a movement titled “Dark Waters, Slow Waters.”

Owen received a Guggenheim fellowship in 2009 that allowed him to take a year off from USF to compose “River Runs.” It took three years to come to fruition, with the CD released last April.

It was recorded at Morrisound Studios in Tampa, where founder Tom Morris said he’s thrilled Owen got the nomination.

“ ‘River Runs’ is certainly the most ambitious thing not only that he’s written, but that I’ve ever recorded in over 30 years of doing this,” Morris said. “He’s a lot of fun to work with. It challenges you, and I love the challenge.”

Owen has been to the Grammy ceremony before, having been affiliated with another nominated project and in his role as president of the International Association for Jazz Education. He calls it “an incredible show.”

The whole family will tag along — his wife, teenage son and two grown daughters.

Owen hopes to reap some benefits from the nomination whether or not he comes home with the gramophone statuette.

“I’m really delighted with the attention it’s brought to this project. It’s something I want to see performed more by orchestras, and I’m very hopeful this will help fuel that,” he said. “I’m also delighted by the attention it’s brought to the university, and hopefully that will bring us better grad students and more opportunities to do some very cool things.”

jstockfisch@tampatrib.com

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