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Nobu Stowe: Beyond Free

Glenn Astarita By

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The music of NS (Nobu) Stowe is synonymous with the musical storytelling characterized with spontaneity and melodic romanticism—a true rarity in the field of fully improvised music. Stowe has not only mastered the art of total improvisation—a method of fully improvised music that embraces song-like melody, tonal harmony and rhythmic propulsion as well as more commonly improvised free elements—but also unique sets of fully improvised music, incorporating his own vast musical influences, from Baroque and progressive rock to soundtracks, ethnic elements and many more, with loose-yet-comprehensive structures. The results are well-documented in the highly original works released on the German Konnex label and famed Italian Soul Note lab el—Brooklyn Moments (2006), New York Moments (2007), Hommage an Klaus Kinski (2007), An die Musik (2008) and, most recently, Confusion Bleue (May 2010).



Stowe's improvisation is essentially "spontaneous composition,"—which clearly sets his music apart from so-called "free improvisation." His writing talent is evident in his various composition-based projects—from progressive rock and fusion to post-bop units—dedicated to perform his individualistic originals of progressive attitudes, blended with popular music sensitivity. As evidenced by his growing international reputation, Stowe's music is friendly enough to attain the support from the masses and, at the same time, adventurous to satisfy even the most seasoned connoisseurs.

Like his music, Stowe is a unique individual person. Born as Nobuyoshi Suto in Japan, Stowe has been living in the US (Berkeley, Chicago and, currently, Baltimore) for most of his adult life. He is a psychologist educated at University of California at Berkeley (B.A.) and University of Chicago (Ph.D.), and currently conducts research at University of Maryland exploring the biological basis of motivation. He is also a journalist who has contributed intriguing articles, reviews, and interviews (including ones with Keith Jarrett, Michel Legrand, Gary Peacock, Paul Bley, Martial Solal, Bill Frisell, Marilyn Crispell and Chico Hamilton to the Japanese magazine Jazz Tokyo and the Spanish magazine Toma Jazz. Stowe is the contributing author of the first ever complete catalogue of ECM Records to be published in Japan (July, 2010).

All About Jazz: As leader/co-leader, you have published five albums on Konnex and Soul Note. Except a few composition-based tracks, the music on these albums is fully improvised. Unusual for fully improvised music, your improvisation covers a great range of stylistic variations, and sounds almost pre-composed because of the tuneful melodies, tonal harmonies and structural cohesiveness. The term "total improvisation" is used to describe your fully improvised music. How do you define the term?

Nobu Stowe: "Total improvisation" is the term coined by Keith Jarrett. Total improvisation is, like "free improvisation," which is a genre of fully improvised music. But unlike free improvisation which is often restricted to atonal and arrhythmic sound exploration, total improvisation embraces song-like melody, tonal harmony and rhythmic propulsion. It is essentially "spontaneous composition." There is a related term "instant composition" notably practiced by Misha Mengelberg and his Instant Composer's Pool (ICP) Orchestra. Compared to straight free improvisation, both total improvisation and instant composition tend to have more defined structures and rhythmic figures. I do not think there is a clear musical distinction between total improvisation and instant composition, but I think total improvisation is more melody and tonal harmony oriented.

AAJ: Your approach to fully improvised music is multifaceted and contains kaleidoscopic musical elements. How do you summarize your musical characteristics?

NS: I will list three keywords. The first is "storytelling." I love to narrate a story through my music. This is the reason why my music incorporates many different elements, moods, etc. The second is "spontaneity." I believe spontaneity is the key for the musical freedom, composed or fully improvised, to avoid the cliché and to attain the musical freshness. The third is "romanticism" which directly leads to the tuneful melodies and tonality-oriented harmonic progression characteristic of my music. In a recent email, the famed avant producer Leo Feigin wrote "NS, you are an incurable romantic!" A few years ago, Leo praised highly of my co-leader album New York Moments (Konnex, 2007). But in this email, he was essentially saying that my music is not for his label, Leo Records, because it is too "romantic." But I felt honored.

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