Meeting at the intersection between classical music and jazz, composer Chuck Owen’s River Runs is an ambitious musical achievement much on the model of such predecessors as Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue or Duke Ellington’s “A Tone Parallel to Harlem.” Subtitled “A Concerto for Jazz Guitar, Saxophone and Orchestra,” the hour-long composition combines soloists, symphonic orchestra and big band in a five movement musical tour of some of the most majestic of American rivers. As Owen explains in a publicity release, “I’m a real believer in having a concept that unites a piece. That concept can be simply musical, but a lot of times it can be extra-musical, too.” In a piece as large as River Runs, that concept was even more important in keeping “focus.”
Using music to evoke “extra-musical” ideas and impressions is at the heart of program music, and Owen’s composer’s notes make his programmatic intentions perfectly clear. A self-described “life-long river rat,” the concerto is his attempt to capture his joyful passion in riding the rivers. He starts with a Prologue he calls “Dawn at River’s Edge,” and which he describes as the “most overtly impressionistic movement in the concerto.” It is an attempt to paint the scene as excited boaters wait expectantly for their adventure to begin.
The first movement is called “Bound Away.” It references West Virginia’s Greenbrier and New Rivers. The title is taken from the folk ballad “Shenandoah.” From its very opening notes it calls up the joy of the experience. The second movement, “Dark Waters, Slow Waters” refers to the Hillsborough River in Florida and calls up the threatening aspects of sometime swampy Florida waters. “Chutes and Wave Trains,” Movement lll, deals with the thrills of the rapids as represented by the Chattooga River bordering Georgia and South Carolina. The fourth movement is called “Side Hikes – A Ridge Away” and the last is “Perhaps the Better Claim.” Its title is taken from the Robert Frost poem, “A Road Not Taken.”
Although listeners may not always make the impressionistic connections Owen intended, I would suspect that needn’t take anything away from the work. This is remarkably beautiful music, and had we no composer notes to explain its significance, it would still be beautiful music. Neither “extra-musical” concepts, nor composer intentions need dictate listener’s response. The music must speak for itself, and this is music that is perfectly capable of doing so.
With the composer conducting an orchestra consisting mostly of musicians from the Florida Orchestra and Jazz Surge, the 17-piece big band he founded in 1995 featured soloists include guitarist LaRue Nickelson and tenor saxophonist Jack Wilkins. Rob Thomas also turns in some solo work on violin.