Nobu Stowe: Beyond Free
AAJ: Your style is unique within fully improvised music, especially compared to avant or free-jazz type persuasions. I feel you are trying to achieve something beyond so called "free music." How do you set yourself apart from the free musicians? How do you go beyond free?
From left: Nobu Stowe, Achille Succi
NS: One of my problems with avant-garde/free jazz, in particular with free improvisation, is the monotonic nature of many performances. I mean why free improvisation is predictably atonal, arrhythmic and demanding to the ears, if it is really free from any form and cliché?
Of course, there are the Holy Grail works by the masters, such as Derek Bailey, AMM, Evan Parker and others, that transcends these issues I just raised. And I do appreciate a good number of free improvisation outings. But I believe free from traditional elements is not the sufficient and necessary condition for free music. This is because as soon as the music becomes free of the traditional elements, it is trapped, hence not free from untraditional or let's say "traditionally free" elements. So I believe that true free music is only possible through understanding but not by denying traditional elements.
I believe that spontaneity is the key to achieve the true musical freedom, and so, melody is the answer. What I mean here by "melody" is the tuneful, song-like and hummable melodic phrases which can transcend cultural barriers. I feel such melody only comes spontaneously. So the process of melody creation belongs to the realm of intuitionthe creative process that is largely independent of a learning process. This assures the fact that melody creation is spontaneous and free from cliché.
AAJ: While your music is firmly based in improvisation, arguably the most critical element in "jazz," it subliminally draws upon vast influences. Is it intentional or a natural vibe?
NS: It is both intentional and natural. I am a composer, improviser, pianist, and keyboard player, but I do not consider myself a jazz player, per se. First, I need to admit that it took me over 20 years to appreciate jazz. There are many talented jazz musicians, who naturally understood jazz to begin with and are well educated in the jazz tradition. I dare not compete with these jazz naturals for straight jazz idioms. On the other hand, I am a natural improviser, improvising as far as I remember. And by the time I finally discovered jazz in college, I had been already fluent in other music idioms, including progressive rock, pop, classical music, various ethnic musicat least superficially. So I wanted to find my own jazz idiom reflecting my personal music history and influences. For this, I intentionally avoided formal jazz education.
AAJ: So who were your primary influences before discovering jazz?
NS: I was born and raised in Japan until I moved to the States at age 18, and have been influenced by many genres of music from different cultures. My music preferences changed somewhat dramatically over the time.
My parents did not listen to jazz, but had a good collection of records, classical music, movie soundtracks and also ethnic music, such as French chanson, Italian canzone, Andes folklore, Indian raga, Chinese traditional music, and so on. My favorite classical composers were J.S. Bach, Beethoven and Chopin. I also loved the film composers, such as Nino Rota, Michel Legrand , Henry Mancini and Ennio Morricone. As a soundtrack, but not as a jazz album per se, I listened to Ascenseur pour l'échafaud (Universal,1958), by Miles Davis, and Orfeu Negro (Emarcy, 1959) by Luiz Bonfá and Antônio Carlos Jobim. When I was around 12, I fell in love with The Beatles. This fever lasted for three years or so, and I listened everyday to The Beatles (including member solos), and their contemporaries, such Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones. Then, I became heavily into progressive rock, not only the pioneering British bands, like Yes and King Crimson, but also the bands from Europe and South America. I listened to jazz-rock, but my favorite was symphonic rock. I was especially fascinated by the Italians, PFM, Banco, New Trolls, Area, Le Orme etc. The singing, tuneful melodies, generally characterizing the Italian music, caught my attention. During this period, I also listened to some of the classic jazz albums, such as [Miles Davis'] Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959) and [John Coltrane's] A Love Supreme (Impulse!, 1964). But I felt these albums were all boring! However, I remember enjoying Ballads (Impulse!, 1962), by Coltrane, probably because of his deeply emotional melodic playing.
I attended UC Berkeley, double-majoring in Psychology and Music (composition). In college, I heard the ECM masterpiece Return To Forever (1972) [Chick Corea]. The naturalistic melody and sounds infused with the Brazilian music made a big impression. So I started listening to fusion bands, Weather Report and Mahavishnu Orchestra, etc. Then, I moved from Berkeley to Chicago to attend graduate school. During that time, one of my friends strongly recommended me to check out Keith Jarrett. I first bought his most famous album, Koln Concert (ECM, 1975). I liked it, but not necessarily loved it. But something clicked, and so I bought another albumMy Song (ECM, 1978). I still remember vividly the first time I ever listened to this album. It was on a chilly late autumn day in Chicago. From the first note of the album, the music captured my heart. I love the entire album, but the track "Country" is my favorite. After this, I started collecting any album with Keith, then anything on ECM, and eventually pretty much any subgenre of jazz. Other than Keith, Michel Petrucciani, Django Reinhardt, Charlie Parker, Chet Baker, Duke Jordan, Joachim Kuhn, Steve Kuhn, Aldo Romano, and Masahiko Togashi are the jazzmen who gave me the strongest impressions. But I do have many more favorite jazz musicians.