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Interviews

Nobu Stowe: Beyond Free

By Published: August 25, 2010
AAJ: Your new album Confusion Bleue (Soul Note, 2010) has just been released. You explored yet another direction with this album. The improvisation on this album contains your musical signatures, such as tuneful melody, structural cohesion, and kaleidoscopic variations, but also incorporates more free elements than usual with great energetic focus. What was the basic idea?



NS: After the introverted chamber-free music of Hommage an Klaus Kinski and the highly melodic An die Musik, I wanted to record energy-charged music leaning towards more overtly "avant-garde." So that was the basic idea which was reflected in the choice of members who participated in this recording. While Lee Pembleton's influence from musique concrète was primarily reflected in Hommage, I wanted to put the spotlight on his background as noise musician as well. I again counted on Ross Bonadonna's versatility, especially his fantastic guitar parts, which hugely contributed to this album. I believe Ray Sage's rhythmic propulsion is rarely matched in free drumming and for his fire, he can be compared, in my opinion, even to the greatest masters, such as Elvin Jones
Elvin Jones
Elvin Jones
1927 - 2004
drums
, Rashied Ali
Rashied Ali
Rashied Ali
1935 - 2009
drums
and Andrew Cyrille
Andrew Cyrille
Andrew Cyrille
b.1939
drums
. While I prefer bass-less setting for fully improvised music—this is to keep my harmonic choices open, I asked Tyler Goodwin to join on double-bass because of his acute ear and quick harmonic reactions.

While the focus of this recording was on energy, I wanted to infuse as many musical elements and moods as possible especially that of melodic, tonal inventions, structural cohesiveness within the overall framework of free music. I wanted to infuse a lot of colors into the music. This was also the reason why I improvised not only on the acoustic piano, but also on Wurlitzer electric piano and glockenspiel. I am well satisfied with the results, and very happy to know many critics seem to think highly of this album.

AAJ: While incorporating a fair amount of free music languages, your fully improvised music sounds almost based on a pre-composed material, because of strong melodic motifs, often tonal based harmonic progressions and well-defined rhythmic changes. Do you make any preparations for this?

NS: First, I would like to assure that none of my fully improvised music is based on any pre-composed material, including melodic motifs. I think if I have any special talent in music, it is the creation of tuneful melodies. The melodic motifs I improvise or spontaneously compose often sounds very tuneful—some people even suggested that I should re-use these melodies as composed materials. Indeed, a lot of my compositions were spontaneously composed. But if I indicate the performance was fully improvised, I can assure that no pre-composed material, even "sketches," were used. I expect the same from other members.

Not for solo, but for group improvisation, I do make some preparations to generally define the direction of improvisation outcome in order to avoid unorganized chaos—is the opposite of the organized chaos—which is the musical chaos and to ensure the focus, energy and tension. Selection of appropriate improvisers for an intended musical setting—or the blueprint—is one of such preparations. In a group work, especially involving collective improvisation, the matching among each musician is extremely critical. If the matching level is low, the direction of improvisation tends to be diffusive, and the resulting music will lack the focus, energy, and tension. So it is important to have a blue print of the intended musical outcome and to select the improvisers according to this blueprint.

For small group improvisation, as long as each musician has the ability to listen to each other and be versatile—an important capacity for the all inclusive total improvisation, the musical path will likely open automatically and spontaneously. But, for larger group improvisation, I often provide basic instructions before each collective improvisation. For example, I would say something like "let's do the next improvisation in the mode of chamber-free" or "let's start from guitar and drum duo," etc. This is because collective improvisations by a large group, especially a group of four or more improvisers, are often prone to unorganized chaos. But I never give more specific instructions such as "let's start in the key of E-flat on a funk vamp," for example.

AAJ: As previously mentioned, your improvisations cover a wide range of musical styles rarely heard in fully improvised music. At the same time, you manage to infuse your own definitive musical identity in each of your performance with different improvisers under different settings. How do you accomplish that?

NS: To increase the chance of establishing the musical focus and cohesive organization—that includes organized chaos in group improvisations, I often assume the role of the leader and conductor. In this regard, my approach to collective improvisation is fundamentally not democratic or liberal. I can do so partially because the piano is a very dominant instrument—it is essentially a solo instrument that can sufficiently cover the three (traditional) fundamentals of music, melody, harmony and rhythm by itself.

But again, the key is the spontaneity which always guarantees the musical freedom under any framework. So within the given direction and framework, each improviser is free to explore. Also, I thrive to be fluid in my leadership; to be open for the ongoing ideas by other members. So yes, my group improvisations are not a democratic collective improvisation, but they are the products of collective effort, nevertheless.


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