Chuck Owen refers to Tom Morris as "my second set of ears."
Owen, 59, and Morris, 57, have been making records together for almost 30 years. Owen is a jazz composer, and Morris is a producer-engineer, co-owner, with his brother Jim, of Morrisound Recording in Temple Terrace.
"As an engineer, my job is to try to understand what an artist's concept is for their music and help them achieve that goal," Morris said. "Chuck and I have developed a real trust over time."
Owen and Morris were at the studio on the morning this month that their latest CD was released. It's called River Runs, a hybrid of symphonic jazz composed, orchestrated and conducted by Owen, professor of jazz studies at USF. Essentially a double concerto for saxophone and jazz guitar, it is performed by Owen's longtime big band, the Jazz Surge, with a pair of soloists — Jack Wilkins on tenor sax and guitarist LaRue Nickerson — and several other featured musicians, such as jazz violinist Rob Thomas and bass player Mark Neuenschwander. The recording, made in Morrisound's Studio A, also includes a large complement of classical strings, wind and percussion players, most of them members of the Florida Orchestra.
River Runs is put out by Arizona-based Summit Records. A jazz and classical label, it had a success with a previous album made by Owen and the Jazz Surge at Morrisound, Comet's Tail, a tribute to jazz saxophonist and composer Michael Brecker that was nominated for a 2010 Grammy Award.
With a prologue and five movements, Owen's new work has a theme, reflecting the composer's love for going down rivers by canoe, raft and kayak. Each movement was inspired by a river, such as the Chattooga River in South Carolina and Georgia, the Salmon River in Idaho or the Hillsborough River.
"When I started this project, it was not about rivers," Owen said. "I wanted to write a piece for jazz and symphony orchestra where both entities are equally involved and comfortable. The river is used as a metaphor for a lot of different aspects of life, the various currents you find yourself in and how you navigate them."
Many composers have tried the jazz-classical fusion, but few are able to bring it off. In River Runs, Owen, who cites influences from Bartok to John Adams to Chick Corea, has given his soloists and jazz players (especially Wilkins and drummer Danny Gottlieb) a glamorous showcase that allows them to soar beautifully. But what most distinguishes the piece is its sparkling orchestral writing. With a mix of technical complexity and pop brightness that is irresistible, like a New Orleans gumbo of Stravinsky and funk, it reflects intense sessions in the studio.
For example, the Chattooga-inspired third movement, Chutes and Wave Trains, opens with a section of intricate pizzicato strings, percussion, winds and brass that swings in a delightfully sophisticated way. "It was important that it came off as light and bubbly and tight," said Owen, who would be in the studio conducting the musicians while Morris ran the board in the control room. "There were times I had to be pretty demanding. The sessions were kind of a rude awakening for a bunch of the orchestra musicians because we had a lot of music to get through. I think they are still friends with me."
"I think you were just trying to get them to live in your neighborhood with some of the rhythmic phrasing in the piece," Morris added. "To have an orchestra that played with a jazz feel. Everyone was digging in."
With about an hour of music, Owen's opus has the dimensions of a symphony by Bruckner or Mahler. The prologue and first movement alone go on almost 20 minutes, which the composer calls the "kiss of death" for jazz radio play.
"It was not supposed to be 60 minutes long," he said. "At the outset I was bound and determined to keep this thing to 35 or 40 minutes. Just so it would be played. Sixty minutes is a tough sell. But a stopwatch should not determine how much my music is played. It's as long as it needs to be."
Two years ago, Morrisound went through an ordeal that threatened its existence, when thieves broke in and took a half-million dollars worth of recording equipment, including microphones. "Our entire mic closet was wiped out," Morris said. "They stole everything."
It took at least six months to replace what had been stolen, a process that involved long hours working with the studio's insurance company, but there was a silver lining. "When we were buying new mics, we were almost able to hand-pick the ones we used for River Runs, especially for the wind instruments," he said.
The music was recorded from November 2011 to January 2012, with different sets of musicians at sessions to play their parts, sometimes just a few measures at a time. All this yielded 130 tracks to mix into the final product. Even though it was a relatively well-funded album, with a budget that exceeded $100,000 (including a prestigious Guggenheim Foundation grant for $32,000 that the composer received), Owen and Morris had to sweat to get it all done over the next six months, while trying to keep their perfectionist instincts in check.
"You never really finish a recording project or a mix, because you can always tweak things," Morris said. "You just run out of something. Either time or money or patience."
"Every recording I've ever done I hear things that I would like to redo," Owen said. "A lot of times it's my own writing. But for the most part I still enjoy listening to this one."
John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.