Ellen Rowe Quartet: Wishing Well (2010)
Ellen Rowe's uniquely modern sensibility echoes throughout Wishing Well. Rowe is a virtuoso pianist who blends the dreamy abstractions of nineteenth century impressionism with the nervous energy of a bebop player. She plays as she breathessometimes in shallow gasps indicating an extreme sense of urgency, and at other times in seemingly endless runs with dallying notes and interminable phrases as if her lungs, filled with air, have propelled her arms and fingers into an endless sequence of events. Both aspects are breathtaking and fill the heart and mind with such joy that it all becomes an embarrassment of riches, an echo that lingers even when she has long since stopped playing a solo and is merely comping behind one of her band mates.
Rowe is also a wonderful writer, and although she may not extend the vocabulary of the piano with startling new literature, she make sublime use of existing forms, mixing them up so that structures like the blues often get a cheerful uplift with sharp, bop-ish ideas. "Lewisburg Bluesy-oo" is typical of the facility with which Rowe handles that aspect of her writing character. She can also revisit classic songs such as Victor Feldman's "Seven Steps to Heaven" (made famous by Miles Davis), and recast the core melody in a song of her own, changing the brooding character of the original to a puckish one. This is what she does on "Seven Steps To My Yard," a song that, incidentally, also quotes liberally from Charlie Parker's "Yardbird Suite."
But Rowe has much more going for her writing. She is sensitive, and can write songs that show other aspects of her multifaceted personality. "Tick Tock" has a smart, walking quality that recalls the music of the '60s without sounding mold, and features an unforgettable arco break by bassist Kurt Krahnke. Drummer Pete Siers also follows suit, paying rich tribute to Art Blakey. "Sanity Clause" has an urgency bordering on the cantankerous, which is not a bad thing at all, but rather defines the uniqueness of the song, while "Longing" is a beautiful dreamscape and "For Donald" is elegiac and sublime from beginning to end.
There is something else that is alluring and outstanding about Rowe's writing. She seems to know how her instrumentalist partners will sound; what they require melodically, in order to take off and put their individual stamps on the music. "For That Which Was Living, Lost" and "Longing" appear written for no one but Ingrid Jensen's fey flugelhorn. And no one else can wax as eloquent on tenor saxophone as Andy Haefner does with broad mournful tone on "For Donald."
There is an enduring quality about Wishing Well. If Ellen Rowe Quartet stays together and continues to make subtly beautiful conversation together, who knows what will come next?
Track Listing: For That Which Was Lost; Lewisburg Bluesy-oo; Night Sounds; Tick-Tock; Longing; Sanity Clause; Wishing Well; Seven Steps To My Yard; Alone Together.
Personnel: Ellen Rowe: piano; Andrew Bishop: tenor, soprano saxophones; Kurt Krahnke: bass; Pete Siers: drums; Ingrid Jensen: flugelhorn (1, 5); Andy Haefner: tenor saxophone (9).