Charles Owens: Keeping the Flame

Saxophone icon Charles Owens treated SD to a spiritually infused night of jazz

A meeting of masters across several generations took place at Dizzy’s in Pacific Beach on June 20, when Los Angeles saxophone icon Charles Owens (who grew up in San Diego) assembled a quartet featuring legendary bassist Marshall Hawkins, pianist Joshua White, and the ever-swinging drummer Brett Sanders for 90 minutes of spiritually infused, post-Coltrane music that satisfied on all levels.

In tribute to the recently passed Horace Silver, Owens opened the evening with “Song For My Father,” bypassing the melody in favor of charged declamations over White’s springboard harmonies, and the throbbing pulse and ping of the rhythm section. Owens has the sharp sound of a honed dagger and his solo was packed with thematic material; when White picked up the baton – “inside” harmonies dominated until clustered sequences drew Sanders into a fevered exchange where freedom reared its beautiful head. Everyone dropped out when Hawkins laid down a brilliant essay of small gestures that forced the audience to really listen – making his return to resonant pizzicato even more gratifying.

Owens followed with “Wild Fire,” an original straight out of the Coltrane tradition with modal chords and a twisted ostinato that saw the hornman load a potent mix of mercurial runs and judicious use of multiphonics into a burning whole, while White followed with cascading melodic motifs driven by brutal rhythmic repetitions. Hawkins’ strummed double-stops and rubbery glissandi made me think of Jimmy Garrison, and after a brilliant Sanders solo that surfaced from absolute silence to tell a story, one stroke at a time – Owens emerged on soprano for a gorgeous reading of “My Foolish Heart,” which soared and squiggled and made you imagine every word of the melody just as sure as if it were being sung.

On “Praise God,” White took one idea and directed it through multiple tunnels until it emerged on the other end with a whole set of distant-cousin themes that mingled, laughed and ran about like kids at a family reunion; Hawkins used the bow and his own voice simultaneously to strike a startlingly original conversation – he and Sanders then dialogued as if they were trying to “out-quiet” each other with stunning results. Owens started out with “Amazing Grace,” in a suspended, rubato feel, over bowed bass, shimmering cymbals and pensive harmonies, then suddenly shifted gears into the wicked blues swing of Sonny Rollins’ “Sonnymoon For Two,” jackknifing through the changes and twisting into a personal vortex that climaxed with trill of epic proportions. Everyone dropped out for White’s solo – an episodic masterpiece where James P. Johnson met Cecil Taylor at the altar of the Baptist church – exploding like the Big Bang and contracting on the gravitational pull of pure swing.

Kudos to Chuck Perrin of Dizzy’s for bringing a seldom-appreciated giant like Owens (he’s played with everyone from Buddy Rich to Horace Tapscott) into our fair city. The large crowd got a treat they shouldn’t soon forget.

 Robert Bush is a freelance jazz writer who has been exploring the San Diego improvised music scene for more than 30 years.

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