Pianist Is on Record as Artist and as Head of His Own Label

Sandy Owen would probably blush beet red if he ever heard anyone describe him as a Renaissance man. Yet the pianist from Balboa Island is busy and versatile enough to warrant the description.

Typically, the days preceding his concert at Saddleback College tonight have been devoted not only to musical preparation, but to the care and sustenance of Ivory Records, his burgeoning record company.

Owen is one of a growing number of performers who have assumed the mantle of artist/businessperson. “It’s not without its difficulties,” he said last week, “since I have to play the piano, then switch hats and talk about distribution prices. But it affords me the option of putting out records with the quality and the style that I believe in.

“I’ve heard horror stories about artists who’ve made recordings they loved, only to have the albums be stuck in the can for a year and a half. That would drive me nuts.”


Owen has combined his creative and commercial careers virtually from the beginning. His first jazz trio recordings, in the mid-1970s, were released on his own Northern Lights label. The results were modest commercially, to say the least, so he had conservative expectations when he recorded a solo piano album in the early ‘80s.

“I thought I’d press up 500 copies and sell them from my house,” Owen recalled with a laugh. “I figured I’d sell a few, maybe play a club up in L.A. every 6 or 8 months and have some fun. But the album got a lot more attention than I expected. A lot of radio stations started playing it, and I wound up hiring somebody to give me some help on the business end. That’s how Ivory Records was born. Now we’ve got seven records of mine out, plus one by another artist, and things are looking good.”

Owen’s timing helped. His floating, jazz-based melodies were perfectly tailored for the emerging New Age music market. “I’d started out trying to sound like Les McCann, Ramsey Lewis and Joe Zawinul. I spent lots of time with a tape recorder, playing their things back at half speed, trying to figure out how they did the stuff they did.

“But at the same time, I’ve always liked to play what I kind of see in my head as movie music. Certain melodies in movies create real moods, and I like that. I’ve always loved jazz improvisation and rich harmonies, but I also liked what composers like John Barry were doing in things like ‘The Lion in Winter.’ There’s a lot of emotion and feeling in visualized music.

“When I started to do solo piano work in the early ‘80s,” Owen continued, “a lot of that visualized music--which has now become sort of New Age music--came into my work and got blended in with the McCann/Lewis stuff. So, now I consider myself to have one foot in the jazz world and one in the New Age world. And it works just fine.”

Owen is not enthusiastic about some of the more placidly meditative aspects of New Age music, but he does recognize its healing potential. “I guess I’ve always used music in a kind of healing way for myself,” he said. “If I hadn’t had the piano around as a buddy to talk to when I was growing up and having tough times, I’m sure I’d be a different person. That sort of musical connection has always been there for me.

“I think that the music I play is more emotional, rather than directly soothing. But I did write a piece called ‘Soaring’ that has a kind of soothing quality to it, and I know that it has been used to help patients who have pain and can’t take drugs. It makes me feel wonderful to know that my music can be used for that purpose.”

Tonight’s program will be a typical Owen combination of emotion and musical healing. Working with his former wife, Donna Thomas, on percussion and Paul Carman on saxophone, he will “do some ensemble pieces and a few solo portions. I’ll talk and dabble in the piano--like a New Age Steve Allen, play a little boogie woogie and, if things go well, we’ll project some slides and I’ll get a chance to do some of my visualized music.

“Mostly, I want the audience to feel the way they would if we were sharing an evening of music in my living room.”

Sandy Owen, percussionist Donna Thomas and saxophonist Paul Carman play in the McKinney Theatre at Saddleback College, 28000 Marguerite Parkway, Mission Viejo, tonight at 8. Tickets: $12. Information: (714) 582-4656.