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Sax Sings Autumn Blues : Jazz veteran Charles Owens makes tenor his 'bread and butter.' He also has a weak spot for Latin sounds.

October 21, 1994|ZAN STEWART | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Zan Stewart writes regularly about jazz for The Times

BURBANK — The Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra is holding forth on a recent Sunday at the Jazz Bakery in Cul ver City, and protean tenor saxophonist Charles Owens is featured on a slow, sultry blues number. The notes he plays are breathy and long, like gusts of warm autumn wind, and the feelings underpinning these tones swirl around you, warming you like a friend's arm wrapped over your shoulder.

Though Owens also focuses on soprano saxophone and flute, he calls tenor sax his "bread and butter horn." "That's where I get my best sound," says Owens, a young 55 and veteran of ensembles led by such name jazz folk as Buddy Rich, Mongo Santamaria and Mercer Ellington. "It's a deeper, richer, bigger sound, and I'm more emotional on that horn."

And while he's well-versed in the blues and other strictly jazz modes such as be-bop, Owens has long had a weak spot for Latin grooves. He discovered Latin music while stationed in Puerto Rico in the Air Force in the early 1960s and deepened his affection during his 1970-71 stint with Santamaria, one of Latin jazz's most influential conga drummers. Moving to Los Angeles in 1972, he has found work with many Latin greats, from Willie Bobo to Francisco Aquabella.

"That music did something to me," he says. "It had so much power. It took me to another musical environment. And I started to appreciate the history of the conga in Latin jazz."

The saxophonist plays tonight with a quartet at Chadney's. His bassist, Roberto Miranda, also will bring along his conga, and there's a good chance congero Ray Armando will sit in. Owens relishes the times he can work with just a conga, or regular trap, drummer.

"Playing without a pianist or bassist frees me up so I can play anything. At the same time, it leaves me more exposed," he says. "I listen to the drummer play a pattern, and I try to put a melody together right quick. Sometimes I just try to find sounds I haven't played before. Hopefully, that will never end."

Situations like these often make for optimum improvising. "The greatest solos are composed of those moments when you're not thinking, flying blind, where you play something that you hadn't thought of," he says. "That's when you're playing what you're supposed to play, when your natural essence comes out. And sometimes that's when you get the best reaction from people, just being open and honest, which is very satisfying."

Owens will be surrounded at Chadney's by familiar musicians--drummer Roy McCurdy, bassist Miranda and pianist Kevin Toney--who have never worked together as a foursome. "So we'll see what kind of magic they bring about," Owens says.

The saxophonist pays high compliments to all his partners, but singles out McCurdy, the veteran drum ace who has toured and recorded with such greats as Sonny Rollins, Cannonball Adderley and Nancy Wilson. "McCurdy plays the grooviest straight-down-the-line time you ever heard," he says. "You count the tune off at a certain tempo, and that's where it stays until the end. I remember hearing him with Sonny on one record, and I was so impressed by his exactness. It was almost like looking at a diamond. He never wastes any motion but nevertheless he's exciting and progressive. He's talking to you all the time. I get chills even thinking about the gig."

Dennis Duke, who books Chadney's, says that Owens inspires similar feelings of regard from other musicians.

"I noticed the way his players looked at him the first time he played Chadney's," says Duke. "They seemed to love being around him. And not just those guys on the bandstand, but players in the audience too."

Owens, a native of Phoenix, grew up in San Diego in a musically rich environment. Before he was a teen-ager he knew he wanted to be a professional musician. He started playing saxophone at age 7, and by 10 he and his saxophone-toting friends were working on such die-hards of the jazz repertoire as Milt Jackson's "Bag's Groove."

"As young cats, we were hip, we were into it," he says with an infectious smile. And he was listening to the master of be-bop, Charlie Parker. "I couldn't imagine anybody that good," he says. "I didn't know what he was doing, but I was impressed by it."

Where and When

Who: Charles Owens.

Location: Chadney's, 3000 W. Olive St., Burbank.

Hours: 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. tonight.

Price: No cover, no minimum.

Call: (818) 843-5333.

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