Ralph Bowen: The Power Play
RB: Well, there are many players who have set the stage for me whether dealing with the saxophone or just music in general. When I started playing it was King Curtis, then Stan Getz, and it wasn't until I turned 17 when I was studying with Pat LaBarbera and John Coltrane came up. In terms of tenor saxophone, ultimately I think the default for me is Trane, but particularly in the Prestige and Atlantic years. His sound and his approach during those recording years is something I gravitate towards. That doesn't mean that I don't draw inspiration from many other musicians of course.
AAJ: Was there any core experience in your life that helped you in finding your own voice?
RB: I have to go back to my teens, the time when I studied with Pat LaBarbera. I was around 16 when I started. I think that through him and his passion for the music of John Coltrane, I learned a great deal. He was playing with Elvin Jones at that time. I studied with him for seven or eight years. I think that was the most important part of my life, because through him I developed a definitive style of playing, and through him I found a connection with the music and style of Trane. Then in terms of improvisation and composition, an important mentor was David Baker, with whom I studied for four years.
AAJ: So those were basically academic influences, right?
RB: Yeah, but also remembering my years back in Toronto, I had an experience of playing with drummer Keith Blackley, who was an enormous influence for me. We played duo often, like three times a week. He was an incredible mentor. I was very fortunate to have all these people around when I was young.
AAJ: Speaking of Coltrane, he used to study the harp method to get skillful in arpeggios. On the master class, you were saying that it's important for a musician to study different instruments to know what your peers in the band are doing.
RB: What I was referring to in the clinic, is that as a player there is a necessity to have a working knowledge of the melody, harmony and rhythm. You can also add vocals to that in terms of lyrics. It's important to understand how piano, bass and drums worknot only to be able to execute your own harmonic, rhythmic, and melodic ideas, but also to be able to react to what the rhythm section is playing. Like running a restaurant business for example: one must have a working knowledge of every aspect of the business in order to be effective and successful. You can either play bass lines on your instrument or you can actually pick up the bass which is of course another experience. One point is to practice rhythm, and another one is to get on the drums and try to get the sense of the sonic and physical aspect of playing the drums. Compositionally it's even more involved, I remember Mike Mossman carrying a guitar with him on a tour once. He was learning how the guitar worked for compositional purposes.
AAJ: Well, there is a standpoint that it's better to be specialist in a narrow field rather than know a lot of stuff at the surface level. Does it work for instrumentalism?
RB: There are musiciansand I am not one of them!who are skillful in playing different instruments very well. Like Don Thompson, a Canadian musician in Toronto, he's just one example of many multi-instrumentalists. He plays piano, vibraphone, and bass exceptionally well. He toured with George Shearing for years playing multiple instruments. He even plays drums and saxophone as well. Amazing! Scott Robinson from New York is another great multi-instrumentalist.
AAJ: But how about you, do you practice the flute sometimes?
RB: For sure! That's a pretty common thing for a saxophonist to play the flute.
AAJ: Each time you go into the studio you invite some interesting musicians, and each time an album has a new feeling because of the shifting bandmembers. We can look at Power Play (Posi-tone, 2011) which was a jazz quartet, and then we see Total Eclipse (Posi-tone, 2013) which is a band with an organ and a guitar. How do you choose what band to invite into the studio?
RB: Sometimes it starts with the musicians, or other times it might start with the instrumentation such as an organ group, or doing a classic quartet or quintet, etc. And in terms of the choice of the musicians, what I found over the years is that it's very helpful to have a rhythm section of musicians that play together often. The most amazing thing that I've seen so many times is when I come to the rehearsal and bring the music to musicians who have a history of working together, all I do is sit back and watch the magic happen. I think that if they already have affinity and feel comfortable with each other both musically and personally. They are very quick to try things, and they just work things out in places where I myself might not be completely sure how I want things to go.