USF jazz professor Chuck Owen snags 4 Grammy nominations for new album

It wasn't just Jay-Z and Kendrick Lamar that got all the Grammy love.
Chuck Owen
Chuck Owen
Published Nov. 28, 2017|Updated Nov. 28, 2017

Bruno Mars had to pinch himself. Luis Fonsi started freaking out. Khalid was in a state of shock.

As artists reacted across social media to the 2018 Grammy nominations, Chuck Owen was at a car place in Tampa, sifting through an onslaught of texts, calls and emails while waiting on a tune-up.

"I'm trying to start going through this stuff, and the service manager's coming out, going, 'Look at this air filter, will you?'" Owen laughed. "I'm like, 'Man, just change the air filter!'"

Owen, the Distinguished University Professor of Jazz Studies at the University of South Florida, found himself overwhelmed by congratulatory messages after his own whopping Grammy haul on Tuesday — four nominations for Whispers on the Wind, his latest album with his band the Jazz Surge.

"I've learned not to have much in the way of expectations when it come to this, because it's just so hard at times to handicap," said Owen, who had previously been nominated twice in 2014. "I was astounded to see that we got four nominations for the project. That was far beyond my hopes. You always have hopes, but that was a stretch."

Whispers on the Wind's windfall included three nominations for Owen himself — more than Taylor Swift, Ed Sheeran, Foo Fighters or Miranda Lambert — and another went to violinist Sara Caswell in the category of Best Improvised Jazz Solo. In addition to his nod for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album, Owen was also nominated for Best Instrumental Composition (Warped Cowboy) and Best Arrangement, Instrumental or A Cappella (All Hat, No Saddle).

These categories might not be televised, but even casual music fans know some of the legends who've won them in the past — John Williams, Chick Corea, Quincy Jones, Henry Mancini, even the occasional pop artist like Elton John, Randy Newman or Burt Bacharach.

Recorded in Tampa at the former Morrisound Studios and featuring a host of local musicians, Whispers on the Wind is a complex work about "local color and a sense of loss" that blends big-band jazz and more traditional roots and folk instrumentation — acoustic guitar, dobro, harmonica, hammer dulcimer. It was influenced in part by the works of writers like Cormac McCarthy and Larry McMurtry, and you can hear it in the finished product.

"I've had a lot of people say, for a lot of the album, it doesn't sound like a big band, and then all of a sudden, it's a big band," Owen said.

Owen was twice nominated in 2014 for compositions from his album River Runs. Before that, a song from his 2009 album The Comet's Tail received a nomination for its arranger, Vince Mendoza — who is up against Owen in two categories this year.

"Vince is always nominated," Owen said. "And he's an absolutely wonderful composer and arranger and a great guy. I won't be rooting for him, but if he should beat me, it would go to a wonderful composer."

Owen has a lot of plans to make between now and the Grammys, which take place Jan. 28 at Madison Square Garden in New York. There will be receptions, parties, red carpets and tickets to wrangle for family and friends — and his label might ramp up its Grammy "for your consideration" ad campaign.

"I would say I won't lose any sleep over it, because there's not much you can do about it," he said. "It's out there, and people will vote how they want to vote. It's kind of done."

As honored as he was for each nomination, when he called his Jazz Surge players to relay the news this morning, he joked that he hoped the Grammy love might bring them something even better.

"Maybe now," he said, "we'll get a local gig."

— Jay Cridlin