Monday, February 15, 2010

Ralph Bowen

“In a way, the entire act of music is mind put into sound. It has to go through some sort of physical medium in order to be heard. I chose the saxophone, but the whole issue is to have such control over the instrument and over what you hear that the instrument physically doesn't get in the way of visualizing sound. Technique to me means dealing with an instrument in the most efficient manner possible so that it's no more than peripheral to expression." – Ralph Bowen

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

The above quotation from Ralph Bowen says it all; I've never seen a more succinct explanation of what's involved in the process of making Jazz. 

When this feature posted to the blog on February 15, 2010, it did so without a video "example" of Ralph's music.

The editorial staff at JazzProfiles with the assistance of the crackerjack graphics team at CerraJazz LTD and the production facilities of StudioCerra has since remedied that as you'll see when you come to the end of this feature.

In celebration, we thought we'd re-post the piece and a new way of "meeting" Ralph Bowen once again.

Twice a year, every year, Gerry Teekens, owner of Dutch-based Criss Cross Records, makes a spring and winter Jazz pilgrimage to New York City to record a handful of up-and- coming Jazz musicians.

For some of these musicians, the Criss Cross albums that ensue from these trips are the only recorded exposure they ever get under their own name.

For Jazz fans like me who are without easy access to the scene on the East Coast, these recordings have proved to be an invaluable introduction to the music of some fine, young players.

For example, without Gerry Teekens’ efforts, I may have missed hearing the likes of pianists David Hazeltine, trumpeter John Swana and guitarist Peter Bernstein; all of whom have been featured on JazzProfiles.  

Criss Cross Records also helped acquaint me with the work of tenor saxophonist Ralph Bowen, who combines the sound that John Coltrane and Michael Brecker get on the horn, along with their approach to harmony, with a style of improvisation that is very smooth, sinuous and sonorous. He technical command of the instrument is such that his playing creates the sense that he is almost effortlessly gliding through the music.

Ralph appears on trumpeter Jim Rotondi’s latest Criss Cross disc entitled The Move [1323] and a full list of Ralph’s recordings on the label can be found by going here.

And Ralph has his own website.

The following insert notes by Ted Panken from Ralph’s Soul Proprietor Criss Cross [1216] may serve as a starting point for familiarizing JazzProfiles readers with Ralph Bowen and his music. Of particular interest in what follows may be Ralph’s interesting descriptions of what he finds special about each of his saxophones heroes. In addition to being a very fine Jazz musician, Ralph is very literate and articulate when it comes to talking about the music and describing how he goes about the process of making it.

© -Ted Panken, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“It's ironic that saxophonist Ralph Bowen, who lives in central New Jersey, a mere 40 minutes from New York City, is heard most often on Philadelphia bandstands. There he appears not infrequently with Shirley Scott and Trudy Pitts, veteran avatars of feel-good, toe-tapping organ jazz that transcends the grits-and-cheesesteak function. That's the way they've liked it in Philly since Jimmy Smith started spinning out his wild flights of fancy in the 1950s, inspiring other such distinguished homegrowns as Charles Earland, Don Patterson, and Joey DeFrancesco.

So, as Bowen puts it, "when Gerry Teekens asked me to do an organ date, it only made perfect sense." He interprets the enspiriting genre masterfully on Soul Proprietor, pairing up on the front line with Philadelphia trumpet-EWI king John Swana - a Criss Cross veteran and Bowen associate of long standing in various units led by local bass icon Charles Fambrough - and deploying the breathe-as-one rhythm section of organist Sam Yahel, guitarist Peter Bernstein and drummer Brian Blade, with four years behind them as a working New York unit. He draws upon the lingua franca forms of modernist jazz - a Rhythm variant [I Got Rhythm], a fast blues, a Coltrane form, a Songbook ballad, a Joe Henderson standard - and imparts to them his personal stamp, masking their genesis with clever reharmonizations and rhythmic manipulations that fire the creative juices of the intuitive young virtuosi, whose ability to spontaneously compose as a unit imparts to the music a fresh, orchestrated sound.
Bowen uses Bernstein as a third horn voice at several points on Soul Proprietor; they're old friends from Rutgers, where the guitarist studied with the late Ted Dunbar, but had never worked together. "Peter's sense of time and phrasing are great," Bowen says, "and I like his comping. But one thing that really strikes me is the way he arpeggiates extended vertical structures in an eighth-note type of line to make them feel linear in essence.

"Sam swings hard with his left hand, and the way he uses sustain on the organ, juxtaposed against the more percussive-rhythmic aspect of the comping, inspired me to play in specific ways that I wouldn't otherwise have done.

"As for Brian, I was thrilled that he wanted to make the date. Brian uses space exceptionally well, and I love the colors he gets out of the drums and cymbals. He interprets the various sections of the piece differently; he develops each piece as though it were through-composed."

Consider Bronislaw Kaper's Invitation, the set-opener. Bowen writes a subtle counter melody on the bridge, then spins a surging, rhythmically fluid solo over a dynamic straight-eighth pulse; after Swana's probing statement, the rhythm section morphs into insouciant 4/4 swing for an elegant Bernstein turn. Then hear the title track, a fast 8-bar blues predicated on the changes to John Coltrane's "Resolution." Bernstein kicks off with two choruses of fleet-but-never-rushed melodic invention over Blade's loping four, then tenor and trumpet state the theme as a brisk interlude. Bowen hurtles into a solo that traverses the horn's range on an enormous, buoyant cushion of sound. Yahel ingeniously deploys the aforementioned organ sustain on his immaculate, mercurial comp, then solos with guitaristic grit, eating up the advanced partials in the manner of his stylistic model - Larry Young. Swana takes a clarion final lap.
Only musicians with the entire tradition in their bones and sinews can pull off performances that tweak it so lucidly. As Bowen remarks, "I try not to have anything worked out beforehand when I play, and just let things happen. I've immersed myself in singling people out, studying them and trying to get to their essence - to find the one thing about them that embodies what and who they are and identify how it will help me become a better musician."

Then Bowen precisely describes the essences of his heroes. "When I think about playing the saxophone, I visualize Charlie Parker for his physical approach, which facilitated the content of everything he played," he says. "I think he had complete control of mind over matter. I love Cannonball Adderley's spirit, his uplifting joyfulness and bounce, his sense of time and freedom, his flexibility over the barline and in changing keys. Coltrane for me embodies the quality of horizontal air flow, imparting velocity to the line, being able to play a line from the bottom to the top of the horn with no drop-out, so that every note speaks. With Sonny Rollins it's his spontaneous interpretation of ballads, his augmentations and diminutions to stretch and pull and compress the rhythmic aspect of a melody. I look to Joe Henderson for establishing rhythmic points of departure and of cadence so that when you play over the bar-line, you don't need to think about hitting one - it's a gestural approach. The drummer Carl Burnett pointed that out to me when we were playing with Horace Silver years ago. I can't begin to describe how much I've learned from drummers over the years. I try to sit with them on the plane or the bus, and pick up as much as I can.

"In a way, the entire act of music is mind put into sound. It has to go through some sort of physical medium in order to be heard. I chose the saxophone, but the whole issue is to have such control over the instrument and over what you hear that the instrument physically doesn't get in the way of visualizing sound. Technique to me means dealing with an instrument in the most efficient manner possible so that it's no more than peripheral to expression."
On the ballad My Ideal, waxed indelibly by Coleman Hawkins in 1943, it's evident that Bowen - out of Guelph, Ontario, the early student of Hawkins, Lester Young, Don Byas, Wardell Gray, and Stan Getz played this sort of Songbook material in regional dance bands from the age of 12 - is visualizing the plush timbres of old-school heart-on-the-sleeve tenor saxophony through a modernist Rollinsesque prism. His intensely flowing melodic variations inspire operatic declamations from Bernstein and Yahel.

Even the most jaded observer of hardcore jazz will take pleasure in Spikes, a cleverly disguised Rhythm changes form of the leader's construction. Bowen double-times Coltranesque intervals with the precision of Sonny Stitt, another early influence. "He's like a textbook for lines," Bowen remarks self -descriptively. "You could throw a dart near the end of the page and know he's going to land on one after four groups of 16th notes." Bowen's final chorus is a fierce unaccompanied duet with Swana that springboards the trumpeter into his solo.

"John and I have worked in various quintet situations for the past two years, and we do a lot of duo playing live," Bowen says. "From the first time we tried it, we seemed to hook up without any effort. I don't think twice about where he is in terms of the one or the form, because his internal rhythmic clock is so good; it's possible to play over the back side of the beat or over the barline, and not worry that he'll interpret it the wrong way."

Under A Cloud is an evocative Bowen-composed slow waltz; the lovely melody "states and restates itself a few times while the harmony is moving down; I was trying to make use of a minor VII-augmented V chord in a somewhat unconventional manner."

Bowen's trumpet-tenor line on The First Stone, a blues with a bridge based on a sequence of fourths, is the composer's homage to "Unity," a classic date led by Larry Young - who came up in Newark, a mere hour from Philly - with Woody Shaw and Joe Henderson. All members solo with panache and heat, particularly Yahel, whose slow-building solo reminds you of a bear coming to grips with fresh prey.
A pair of rearrangements of the canon follow. Joe Henderson's whirling Inner Urge is one of the tenor legend's numerous jazz standards. "I hadn't played it for quite some time, but came back to it recently," Bowen relates. "The arrangement, the introduction and the interlude come from the second part of the tune that I put into 3/4 and harmonized." Note Blade's inventive concluding solo. On Meltdown Bowen brings John Coltrane's "Countdown" down a whole step and punctuates the theme in 7/2 meter, morphing into 4/4 on the blowing sections. Blade's seamless beats and Yahel's insinuating bassline give the comp an organic feel, and Bowen, Swana and Bernstein create surging, joyful statements.

For a coda, Bowen offers a moving "a cappella" reading of Peace by Horace Silver, his employer from 1988 to 1991, while he was a member of O.T.B., the popular Blue Note-organized "young lion" band whose personnel included Bowen's close friend Ralph Peterson, saxophonists Kenny Garrett and Steve Wilson, and pianists Renee Rosnes and Kenny Drew, Jr. The lessons he learned in both outfits deeply inflect the sound of Soul Proprietor.

"From playing with Horace, I learned structure and form, and most importantly, how you can define the sound of a group in composition and arranging," says Bowen, who for several years has held the position of coordinator of the noted jazz studies program at Rutgers University . "Horace comps with a plan; it starts somewhere and ends somewhere. His tunes have an introduction, an interlude, with inner voices moving, and this gives them a character. I don't think I played a single tune with him that didn't have some sort of arrangement.

Keen attention to detail applied with a light touch is the hallmark of Soul Proprietor throughout, and it makes the album a signpost document in the Philadelphia-style organ-and-horns canon. In Bowen's able hands, the redoubtable function is equally as suitable for extending the parameters of the imagination as it is for finger-snapping and rump-rolling."

Ted Panken Downbeat, Jazziz, WKCR

The tune on the following video is entitled Soul Proprietor on which Ralph is joined by John Swana on trumpet, Peter Bernstein on guitar, Sam Yahel on Hammond B-3 Organ and Brian Blade on drums.