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Jonathan Rowden: Group Identity

Paul Naser By

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The Los Angeles jazz scene has no shortage of prodigious talent; on any given night throughout the sprawling landscape that makes up the greater Los Angeles area there is always some exciting happening or unique event, and one is often hard-up to make a decision about where to spend their evening. There are musicians who established themselves years ago, young men and women just arriving on the scene and everything in between. All of it makes the thriving community of musicians an exciting one to be a part of and follow. The young tenor saxophonist Jonathan Rowden definitely belongs to this society. Spending much of his life studying and performing in Southern California, he recently formed a group dedicated to playing original music, The Jonathan Rowden Group, who debuted this January at Vitello's Jazz & Supper Club.

Rowden was born in Los Angeles, but moved to Seattle when he was still quite young. It was here that he first encountered the saxophone. "My dad is a musician, and he plays guitar and sings and writes songs. I think I messed around with his keyboards and guitars when I was a little kid, but when we were in Seattle he was recording, I think it was his second album, and he had a saxophonist from the pacific northwest, named Richard Cole there. He was a great saxophonist, and, looking back, he actually sounded a lot like Michael Brecker. Anyway, I heard him in the garage playing, and I remember going out to the garage and asking him if he could teach me how to play the saxophone, so I guess I really liked the sound of it. So I started learning saxophone when I was about 7 years old. I took lessons for a year, maybe less, and then it was right after that we moved and I never took lessons again until I started college."

Returning to Southern California, Rowden continued to play even though he was no longer taking formal lessons, while also pursuing many other creative interests; "Yeah I was always creative. I was really interested in visual arts for a while, and sometime in high school when I got my first saxophone, like actually got my own, it actually piqued my interest a little bit more. The high school band I was playing with at the time had a bunch of arrangements of like Buddy Rich and that was pretty fun, and that was the first time I heard John Coltrane, my dad got me the album."

The diversity of his musical interests and long time love of music illuminate the inspiration for his unique style and approach to composition. "My dad was really into Steps Ahead, so I think I heard Michael Brecker a lot. My sax teacher in Seattle sounded kind of like Brecker, and we had his album that we played at the house all the time. There were a lot of different musical styles; I was really into movie soundtracks, stuff like that. There was always an element of jazz within all the different music that was being played at the house. If not jazz, music that was really influenced by jazz. My parents were really into Sting, so they had all these Sting albums and I didn't realize how hip some of it was until much later. But I think it kind of attuned my ear , so when I started to hear other jazz, I started to really dig into it. I was also influenced a lot by other styles of music. I went through periods where I was listening to The Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana and Radiohead kind of stuff. Mostly rock, and actually I listened to a lot of hip hop in middle school and early high school and also classical music throughout the whole thing."

Some of his many influences on his individual compositional and improvisational voice include Pat Metheny, John Coltrane, Hank Mobley, Ben Wendel, Eric Dolphy, Joshua Redman and Craig Taborn, among a great many others. There is a wide variety to his musical tastes, and he says, "I like everything; if it's really accessible and it's beautiful then I like it, if it's really abstract and it's really out there, it still resonates with me. It doesn't have to be within a certain sub genre, in jazz or even in some other style of music, I think compositions that resonate with me are things that are really authentic and genuine." Aside from listening to many types of music, Rowden also studied and continues to study many styles of music.

He received his undergraduate degree in classical saxophone from Vanguard University and continued his education, getting his master's degree in Jazz Studies from California State University Fullerton. "In terms of composing, when I was studying 20th century music in college, and when I was in graduate school, when I got to study a little more in depth about the baroque era and early classical music and late romantic, I got really into the style of composing where you're trying to get a lot out of a little bit of material."

This idea of making a lot from a little summarizes Rowden's style well. He approaches both composing and improvising from this distinctive perspective, which he attributes to his fondness for classical music. "Everybody talks about Stravinsky and how he would fence himself in within certain parameters and then try to function within that. That's actually something that caught my eye about Ben Wendel's compositions when I heard him for the first time. He really prefers that sort of sound where everything sounded like it's coming from one core sort of cell theme, and then when I got a chance to talk to him about it, it turns out that that's exactly what he's thinking and he says that that also comes from his classical background."

His unique approach to playing and composing and the strong influence of classical music that can be found in both is one of the main motivators behind his decisions in choosing personnel in his group. Of all the members of the group, he has had the longest musical relationship with pianist Ryan Pryor, and upon listening to them play together the chemistry is readily apparent. "I wanted Ryan to do it because there are a lot of things I really like about his playing. He studied classically too, so there's a lot of that in there; there's kind of a more orchestral, sort of organic approach to the instrument that he has that works really well with what I like to do. When I'm doing long or stretched out melodies he has this way of filling it in that's like exactly what I'm looking for. You can't argue with that, when you find somebody like that it's just the right thing. I think that has to do with us having similar backgrounds, similar interests in music; what he ends up filling in most of the time is kind of what I'm hearing in my head. The interesting thing is it was even that way before we started playing together a lot. I just kind of understood where he was coming from, so what I was doing ended up making sense."
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