Nobu Stowe: Beyond Free
AAJ: Where do you draw the line between structure and improvisation? Your music often conveys a seamless middle ground between vast expansionism and tangible theme-building motifs. These days, that is uncommon.
From left: Nobu Stowe, Alan Munshower, Badal Roy
NS: The all-inclusive approach is mostly a conscious choice, but the line drawing process between the traditional (structure/melody/tonal harmony) and untraditional (sound exploration/free rhythms/atonality) is rather unconscious. This line drawing process is a product of interplay, and is influenced by the musical characters of the other musicians in the particular setting. While I intentionally seek the tension that emerges when mixing structured thematic motifs and free sound explorations, I let the spontaneity decide the balance between these two elements.
AAJ: Your improvisation is characterized with tuneful melodies and tonal harmonies, which intimates a comparison to Keith Jarrett for some listeners. What is your take on this comparison?
NS: I frankly admit that Keith Jarrett has been the greatest inspiration to me, especially for my jazz and improvisation oriented works. The key words that I listed to describe my own music also adequately characterizes Keith's music. But I have to say that I was already practicing total improvisation before discovering Keith in college. I have old cassette tape recordings that captured my total improvisations from my elementary school years. Of course, back then, I was not aware of this concept, and was not consciously improvising per se, but rather I was spontaneously composing. In fact, a good portion of my original compositions arise from spontaneity as I already stated. What I am saying is that the overall elements of a composition, such as the melody as well as the basic harmonic structures and rhythmic motives, often come to me spontaneouslyjust as they were already composed.
A tuneful melody is definitively the most recognizable element in Keith's and my music. But I believe my sense of melody and also harmony is sufficiently different from those of Keith. I am not a virtuoso pianist like Keith, but I think I manage to avoid being a copy cat of Jarrett, and have something original to say. Having said that, I am not aware of musicians who are practicing this type of highly melodic approach to fully improvised music other than Keith and me. I could think of two other pianists, Stefano Battaglia and Richie Beirach. Specifically, I am speaking of the duo albums by Battaglia and Beirach, respectively, Omen (Splasc(H), 2007) with Pierre Favre, and Tidal Wave (3D, 2004), with Masahiko Togashi. By the way, I consider Togashi as the greatest improviser from Japan.
AAJ: In each of your otherwise fully improvised albums, there is one track based on pre-composed material. For example, there is a compelling and unorthodox rendition of "Blue in Green" on Confusion Bleue. What thought-processes led to this?
NS: I believe the creative process of improvisation is the same as that of composition. In my opinion, spontaneity is the single most critical element in any performance, fully improvised or not. What I mean is that one's playing is inevitably constrained by various factors, such as one's own limitation as a musician, personal history, type of instruments, members involved, the time and the location of performance, etc. These factors are present in both composition-based and fully improvised music. So improvisation, based on a composition or not, is not the automatic ticket for the musical freedom, but this fact appears to be repressed or ignored by many improvisers. The truth is that if one can be spontaneous, the musician can attain the musical freedom in any musical genre and framework. In a way, playing a composition such as a jazz standard is excellent practice for being spontaneous and free.
For these reasons, I am indeed proud of the rendition of "Blue in Green" in Confusion Bleue. This was the first time that I managed to materialize on a record my vision of standard interpretationspontaneous interplay, but with respect for the melody and overall structurein a recorded session. I am happy to report that this track was recently selected as one of the Top 10 renditions of jazz standards by the Spanish magazine, Toma Jazz.
My original composition "Pochi" is included in An die Musik. This song is dedicated to my cat of the same name. I found Pochi in front of my old apartment in Berkeley, and he moved with me to Chicago, and then to Baltimore. This is my favorite of my own compositions, and I was happy to release this song officially before the passing of Pochihe died of cancer at age 17, on September 2, 2008, about three months after the release of An die Musik. This song was originally written for my piano triothat was another project, which the legendary producer Giovanni Bonandrini regarded highly. The version on An die Musik is actually a shortened version. I am hoping to release the full version in the near future.
On the one-year anniversary of his passing, actually on September 1st 2009, I played "Pochi" as a duo with the fantastic multi-reed player Achille Succi at Sant'Anna Arresi Jazz Festival in Sardinia (Italy). Achille is a lyrical and melodic player at heart but with a progressive free mind, which is a rare but enviable combination. I got in touch with Achille originally, per the advice of AllAboutJazz critic Budd Kopman a few years back. Achille is still little known in the US, but I honestly believe his multi-dimensional talents deserve wider recognition.