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As revolutionary as the compact disc has been to the music industry, sometimes you really can have too much of a good thing. More specifically, I can’t help but echo what producer Michael Cuscuna once told me about new releases. He bemoaned the fact that many of today’s discs are just too long, wearing out their welcome way before concluding their run, and I can’t help but admit that after about 50 minutes or so my attention starts to wander. So what does all this have to do with saxophonist Ralph Bowen’s most recent Criss Cross session as a leader? Well, at just about 70 minutes in duration, Soul Proprietor is definitely on the long side, but it holds up extremely well thanks to a great program of standards and originals and a cohesive ensemble that locks in tight for the duration.
Bowen first came to the fore as a member of the hard bop unit Out Of the Blue in the ‘80s. Since then the saxophonist has kept a low profile, active mainly as a college educator, yet his stature as a mature soloist has not diminished. Although he had previously recorded a set for Criss Cross many years ago, Soul Proprietor is a return to form and it features an outstanding rhythm section with organist Sam Yahel, guitarist Peter Bernstein, and drummer Brian Blade. As an added bonus, trumpeter John Swana fills out the front line on several tracks giving things an updated groove in the lineage of Larry Young’s Unity.
Bowen’s husky tone brings on “Invitation” with confidence, Swana quickly falling into the mix with his own distinctive voice. Things unfold in a relaxed manner, Bowen preferring to use space rather than cramming every beat with rapid flurries of notes. Peter Bernstein opens the title track and sings the melody in uncluttered fashion before stepping aside for Bowen to launch his initial gambit. “My Ideal” and “Peace” are spots where Bowen really gets to shine, the former a ballad feature and the latter a solo tour-de-force chock full of harmonics and over blowing. “Spikes” emerges as a cleverly disguised line built on Rhythm changes and at one point Swana and Bowen go at it without any accompaniment, their intertwined lines uniting in stimulating counterpoint. With a section in the odd meter of 7/2, Bowen’s “Meltdown” tackles Coltrane’s changes from “Countdown” but in a sage new way that offers a real challenge to all.
Of course, Yahel and Blade have worked together regularly, most recently as members of Josh Redman’s current trio, while the two joined forces with Bernstein on Yahel’s Criss Cross debut. Thankfully, Bowen and Swana have harnessed the power of this trio and the whole proves to be even greater than the sum of the individually gifted parts.
Track Listing: Invitation, Soul Proprietor, My Ideal, Spikes, Under a Cloud, The First Stone, Inner Urge, Meltdown, Peace
Personnel: Ralph Bowen (tenor sax), John Swana (trumpet), Peter Bernstein (guitar), Sam Yahel (organ), Brian Blade (drums)