Ralph Bowen: The Power Play
RB: That's a good question. First of all, I believe that there is a certain order within the 12-tone system. There's gravity, certain rests/resolutions. I might have an idea how I want the composition to go, I might have a particular harmonic progression in mind, I might have a particular scale in mind. Even if I have these ideas I tend to follow my ear. I think you can be comfortable with that only if you developed your ear and your musical intuitionwhich is an ongoing process both in terms of skills and perception. You know, having an intellectual idea is one thing, but you can't force that on music, you have to follow your ear and the natural order of the 12-tone tone system, and everything works out. This also includes rhythmwhich is like speech, and similar to telling a story or joke. For instance, accents, weighting, tone, and the phrasing of the syllables and words all play a role in the successful conveyance of an idea. I've noticed that I tend to compose better when I am under a deadline, when I have less time to think about things too much.
AAJ: Tell us about your involvement in the band OTB?
RB: I was at Indiana University in the mid 1980s. Blue Note Records and The Bridge booking agency had come together to set an audition for the rhythm section of the group. They were trying to revive the concept of the "Young Lions." The audition was in New York, and Robert Hurst who was at IU at the time had auditioned and won the bass chair for the group. So Rob came back to IU, and I learned both through him and David Baker that there would be an audition for horn players. I contacted them and came out to New York and won the audition for the group. And then we went on to record.
AAJ: Right away? I mean you were a brand new band...
RB: Yes, it was a completely new band of six young musicians. As I understand it, it was a group of young musicians who were going to compose their own music, and Blue Note Records would promote and record them in cooperation with the booking agency. The idea was that beyond the group performing and recording, each member would eventually go on to their own respective solo careers. In the original group, we had Harry Pickens on piano, Robert Hurst on bass, Ralph Peterson on drums, and on the horns myself, Michael Mossman on trumpet, and Kenny Garrett on alto saxophone. The second stage involved Steve Wilson on alto saxophone, Renee Rosnes on piano, Kenny Davis on bass and Billy Drummond on drums. And it turned out that Mike Mossman and I remained the only original members of the group. As you can imagine, the band was touring a lot, and sometimes there were subs needed. Such musicians as James Spaulding, Kenny Drew, Jr., the late David Eubanks, Antonio Hart, Johnny King, used to sub. So, we were recording for the Blue Note Records and we made regular trips to Japan-the band was very active.
AAJ: I'm sure it was a great start for you as young musicians in terms of experience and promotion.
RB: Oh yes, it was good for everybody, a terrific springboard. I see comments from time to time on the Internet. I think younger musicians are just discovering the recordings.
AAJ: There's actually very little information about OTB at the moment, and the albums are difficult to find.
RB: Yeah, I think they are out of printmostly found in second hand stores.
AAJ: How did you meet Horace Silver and join his band?
RB: The band that I was playing with, OTB, had the same booking agent as Horace, and he was auditioning for a new band. I don't know how many other saxophone players auditioned, but I was fortunate to get the gig and stayed with him for three years. I learned so much working with him.
AAJ: What was the main thing you learned from those years?
RB: Horace Silver has a very specific style. I learned a lot from that in terms of discipline. His rhythm feel was great, and every composition that he writes has a certain simplicity, with wonderful inner voices, backgrounds, intros, codas and so on. His discipline is carried over into his comping as well, which builds each and every chorus, supporting the soloist. I feel that he is thinking compositionally from the downbeat to the end of the tune. I think that's what gives his music so much character.
AAJ: When you became a member of Michel Camilo's band, did you have to adjust your playing somehow to the kind of music he played?
RB: Definitely. In a way I had to adjust my voice. His original band consisted of Anthony Jackson on bass and Dave Weckl on drums, Chris Hunter on saxophone, and Lew Soloff on trumpet. It was an incredible band. I used to go see them in a place called Mikels on the Upper West Side in New York. Mike Mossman used to sub for Lew. At some point around 1987, Chris had other obligations and Mike recommended me for the gig. It has been an amazing ride since then. And, even more wonderful, over the years I've been able to play in the band with both Chris and Lew via Michel's big band. I admire Chris' playing very much. Mike and I have worked together a lot since the OTB dayswith Michel, Horace Silver, etc. I learned so much from his rhythm section, from Anthony Jackson and all of drummers that he has had, Joel Rosenblatt, Cliff Almond, Horacio "El Negro" Hernandez, and percussionists Sammy Figueroa and Guarionex Aquino.