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Nobu Stowe: Beyond Free

By Published: August 25, 2010
AAJ: At what age did you start playing the piano?

NS: I started classical piano lessons when I was three years old. Frankly speaking, I did not like playing or more precisely, practicing the piano then, but managed to continue the lesson with a private teacher into my high school years.

AAJ: Chart the progress of your musicality from, let's say, your teen years up to your debut recording in 2006?

NS: Following Beatles-inspired bands, I formed a progressive rock unit called "Pale Ghosts" at age 15. This was a trio consisted of Takashi Kanai (guitars, bass), Honyo Ohte (drums) and myself (keyboards, vocals, guitar). We played my original compositions that were close to the style of Italian symphonic rock with strong classical music influence (especially Baroque era), emphasis on the group ensemble rather than individual soloing. We did some live activity, but this was mostly a studio project. I kept playing with this trio all through my college years even after moving to the States. We made several demo recordings which brought several contract offers. But I was foolish enough not to take these offers because I was dreaming or more likely imagining to be signed by Sony. By the way, Ohte is a talented illustrator and is responsible for all covers of my albums on Soul Note and Konnex.

I started shifting my musical direction from rock to jazz. I was never formally educated in jazz, but learned the vocabulary through listening to many albums—I am an avid LP/CD collector—and by practicing on my own. I first tried fusion, played and composed in this style for a few years. Then, I met Vytis Nivinskas—a super-fine double-bassist who had come to Chicago from Lithuania to study jazz at DePaul University. Vytis is now back in his native land, and teaches at Vilnius Conservatory. With Vytis, I formed my first jazz unit, Outside In. We played original compositions by Vytis and myself, plus some standards. We did not publish any official album, but I have kept in touch with Vytis, and am planning to perform and record with him again in the near future.

In Chicago, I also started publicly performing total improvisation. I undertook a few concerts of fully improvised music, usually with a drummer. The musical success of these concerts gave me the confidence for the direction I wanted to pursue as for total improvisation. By the way, piano-drums duo is my favorite format of total improvisation. I am hoping to make many duo albums of total improvisations with different drummers throughout my music career.

After receiving the doctorate degree in Psychology from the University of Chicago, I moved to Baltimore where I still live. In Baltimore, I formed Trio Ricochet with Tyler Goodwin on double-bass and Alan Munshower on drums. Trio Ricochet played mostly my original compositions, but also some standards as well. The trio played at the Blue Note NY, Knitting Factory, and Smithsonian Institute. The trio was offered several contracts, but there has not been an official release, and that's largely my fault. While I consider the composition-based piano trios like Trio Ricochet or Outside In as my main project, I have not been playing in this format for awhile. But I am planning to revive a composition-based piano trio very soon, and hopefully, can finally release an official album in 2011.

AAJ: Did your family encourage you to pursue music?

NS: My parents were, and still are, very supportive of my music. But probably they would have been troubled if I told them "I want to be a rock star"—though I dreamed of this idea for awhile.

AAJ: What's the story behind your first leader/co-leader albums, Brooklyn Moments (2006) and New York Moments (2007) released on Konnex?

NS: After the move to Baltimore, I started collaborating with various improvisers. I am really a mainstream player with the focus and the talent in melodic and tonal playing, but have been trying to expand my musical horizons towards avant-garde and free playing. One of my early attempts to fuse the mainstream and free elements is documented on these two albums. I first met Blaise Siwula
Blaise Siwula
Blaise Siwula
in 2005 when I played a duo set with Vytis Nivinskas at C.O.M.A. series that Blaise was (and still is) hosting on a weekly basis. Blaise suggested performing together with Ray Sage on drums. So a month later we played a fully improvised trio set that was satisfactory to all of us and decided to record in a studio.

We recorded the first session as trio, and the second session as a quartet featuring the fierce virtuoso Dom Minasi
Dom Minasi
Dom Minasi
on guitar. These sessions were released as Brooklyn Moments (trio) and New York Moments (quartet). There are some rough spots, but I am still quite happy with the overall results. The trio and quartet covered a good range of musical genres, from atonal wailing, energetic free flights, spiritual modal playing, to tender ballads, always with open-end looseness backed by structured tension. The success of these sessions indicated a big potential for fusing the avant energy with my natural tendency for melodic and tonal playing.

I noted earlier that Leo Feigin praised New York Moments highly. He compared the album with the works by the legendary USSR unit, The Ganelin Trio. Leo even sent me one of their albums, Catalogue: Live in East Germany (Leo, 1979). Of course, I felt honored, but have to admit I was the only member who had been familiar with The Ganelin Trio. I was familiar with the music of the Soviet trio, partially because Vytis was the protégé of the reedman, Vladimir Chekasin.

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