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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."

In fact, Pryor writes about half of the band's original music. "We just realized that our composing styles are pretty similar, but you can tell what my tunes are and what one of Ryan's is. His are obviously more pianistic, but we both share the load and it's been a great collaboration because when I'm writing something, I'll bring it in and maybe that will inspire him, and because of that we have this continuity. Ryan and I talk a lot about how we have similar backgrounds in music even though we didn't know each other, we had similar interests, so we don't really have a lot of disagreements on the concept of the group sound."

Likewise, the other members of the group were specifically chosen for the unique skills and abilities they have that fit in with Rowden's vision for the group and it's sound. Both bassist Chris Hon and drummer James Yoshizawa are new additions to the group and were handpicked for their unique sounds. Of Hon, Rowden says " Chris Hon is one of the most creative bass players I know; endless creativity. He can just keep digging and digging and digging and going deeper. And he loves to solo, and that's the other thing, I wanted a bassist that loves to solo and didn't mind soloing over really hard tunes and stuff like that, trying to make it work. One thing that I like about everyone in the group is that everyone is very independent. They all have really strong opinions."

About Yoshizawa, Rowden says "The thing I liked about James is he's very organic with the way that he plays, he doesn't make really big loud gestures just to make them. He's really sensitive, and he studied or majored in orchestral percussion. He's like an orchestrator. I wrote a song for him, it's a feature. It's basically just a long, through composed form, that he solos over the whole time, and he's just amazing at it. It's fantastic; exactly what I envisioned. He has this way of painting a picture, just playing like the orchestra when you play. When you're soloing over the form of a tune, he's very conscientious of arc and structure, and that's really beautiful for me to hear that when I hear him play. I heard him at a jam session, and I immediately called him up and asked him to be in the group."

The careful attention to the group's roster helps Rowden carry forth the vision he has in mind for the group. " This group is definitely my passion and I think that the other guys feel the same way and we really just want to play and put the music out there, and thankfully it's been well received. The main thing with the group is I'm not a real staunch individualist who likes to take control of everything and make it all about my plan; I really value the input of other people. I think that we're meant for community and for needing each other to get by in life, so I don't see why music should be any different than that. The thing I like about this group is that everybody in the group shares those values. It's about you, but it's not about you. It's about that guy, but it's not about that guy. It's about all of us participating as one whole with our individual voices. I think the way that I see that definitely affects the decisions that I make when it comes to the direction that we go with certain songs. There's a lot of freedom in those charts, some of them are kind of written out a lot, but there's also a lot of stuff that's left up to the imagination of whoever's playing the part. At this point I'm learning the ways that their imaginations work, so I'm writing stuff that will hopefully be easier for the other guys to latch on to. Also, I'm soloing in a way that allows them to put input in there. It's not really about me looking good, or a soloist looking cool, it's about making something beautiful. If you want to go from ego to creating something of worth or value that's going to touch somebody, you have to let other people speak."

The band has picked up a lot of momentum since their debut at the beginning of this year; throughout the year they played at favorite L.A. jazz clubs such as the Blue Whale and the Baked Potato and were featured at the elastic hour showcase at Curve, Line, Space. More recently they played at the Alvas Showroom in San Pedro and at Typhoon in Santa Monica. In the near future they plan on playing a series of shows in L.A. and embarking on a tour of the pacific northwest in support of an upcoming album they will be releasing in the new year. They were recently signed to Daniel Rosenboom's new record label Orenda Records, the label on which their new album will be released. It will be a crowd-funded album, and the proceeds from the shows and tour will go towards making the album a reality.

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