I don’t particularly follow any big bands but I always enjoy a good one, and Germany’s WDR Big Band is one of the best. Their pairing with American composer Chuck Owen and his arranging prowess makes for one of the most enjoyable recordings of the year.
Chuck Owen received a 2009 Guggenheim Fellowship and has five individual GRAMMY nominations. His Chuck compositions have been performed by the Netherlands’ Metropole Orchestra, Brussels Jazz Orchestra, Aarhus Big Band, Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, Tonight Show Orchestra, Cincinnati Symphony, US Army Jazz Ambassadors and many others.
There’s a long story to the planning, recording, and release of Renderings, as with so many projects that started in 2019 and were interrupted by Covid. Suffice it to say that Owen used the time to create some exciting arrangements (“renderings”) of others’ pieces for this masterful ensemble to record … when it was again possible to get a bunch of people together in one room. He’s added up-and-coming violinist Sara Caswell as a guest soloist on a couple of pieces, and throughout this generous project Owen and WDR paint with sound in beautiful and sometimes unexpected ways.
Take alto saxophonist Karolina Strassmayer’s “Of Mystery and Beauty,” which was the starting point for Renderings when she asked Owen if he’d like to do an arrangement of it. Both Strassmayer and Caswell take dramatic solos on this soaring, inspirational piece, which fully lives up to its title.
Another high point is the stunning take on Chick Corea’s “Arabian Nights,” the other track featuring Caswell, who this time matches solos with guitarist Philipp Brämswig – and a majestic, psychedelic guitar solo it is!
Owen calls for unexpected colors and textures in these arrangements, and the band is up to the task. On Owen’s New Orleans-flavored composition “And Your Point Is?”, we’re treated to the delightful combination of Mattis Cederberg’s tuba and Billy Test’s organ, and fine alternating solo breaks from Andy Hunter’s trombone and Gabor Bolla’s tenor sax. Moods change too, from the jittery feelings provoked by Owen’s opening track “Knife’s Edge” to the closer, alto saxophonist Johan Hörlén’s calming “Canoe,” with a couple of beautiful ballads in between: the Sinatra-Dorsey classic “This Love Of Mine” and John Goldsby’s gorgeous “Fall Calls.”
I don’t know about you, but there are times when I just crave some swinging music with creative solos and lovely melodies over big horn charts. Renderings perfectly fits the bill.
(MAMA records, 2023)