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.

AAJ: Your style is unique within fully improvised music, especially compared to avant or free-jazz type persuasions. I feel you are trying to achieve something beyond so called "free music." How do you set yourself apart from the free musicians? How do you go beyond free?

From left: Nobu Stowe, Achille Succi

NS: One of my problems with avant-garde/free jazz, in particular with free improvisation, is the monotonic nature of many performances. I mean why free improvisation is predictably atonal, arrhythmic and demanding to the ears, if it is really free from any form and cliché?

Of course, there are the Holy Grail works by the masters, such as Derek Bailey, AMM, Evan Parker and others, that transcends these issues I just raised. And I do appreciate a good number of free improvisation outings. But I believe free from traditional elements is not the sufficient and necessary condition for free music. This is because as soon as the music becomes free of the traditional elements, it is trapped, hence not free from untraditional or let's say "traditionally free" elements. So I believe that true free music is only possible through understanding but not by denying traditional elements.

I believe that spontaneity is the key to achieve the true musical freedom, and so, melody is the answer. What I mean here by "melody" is the tuneful, song-like and hummable melodic phrases which can transcend cultural barriers. I feel such melody only comes spontaneously. So the process of melody creation belongs to the realm of intuition—the creative process that is largely independent of a learning process. This assures the fact that melody creation is spontaneous and free from cliché.

AAJ: While your music is firmly based in improvisation, arguably the most critical element in "jazz," it subliminally draws upon vast influences. Is it intentional or a natural vibe?

NS: It is both intentional and natural. I am a composer, improviser, pianist, and keyboard player, but I do not consider myself a jazz player, per se. First, I need to admit that it took me over 20 years to appreciate jazz. There are many talented jazz musicians, who naturally understood jazz to begin with and are well educated in the jazz tradition. I dare not compete with these jazz naturals for straight jazz idioms. On the other hand, I am a natural improviser, improvising as far as I remember. And by the time I finally discovered jazz in college, I had been already fluent in other music idioms, including progressive rock, pop, classical music, various ethnic music—at least superficially. So I wanted to find my own jazz idiom reflecting my personal music history and influences. For this, I intentionally avoided formal jazz education.

AAJ: So who were your primary influences before discovering jazz?

NS: I was born and raised in Japan until I moved to the States at age 18, and have been influenced by many genres of music from different cultures. My music preferences changed somewhat dramatically over the time.

My parents did not listen to jazz, but had a good collection of records, classical music, movie soundtracks and also ethnic music, such as French chanson, Italian canzone, Andes folklore, Indian raga, Chinese traditional music, and so on. My favorite classical composers were J.S. Bach, Beethoven and Chopin. I also loved the film composers, such as Nino Rota, Michel Legrand , Henry Mancini and Ennio Morricone. As a soundtrack, but not as a jazz album per se, I listened to Ascenseur pour l'échafaud (Universal,1958), by Miles Davis, and Orfeu Negro (Emarcy, 1959) by Luiz Bonfa and Antonio Carlos Jobim. When I was around 12, I fell in love with The Beatles. This fever lasted for three years or so, and I listened everyday to The Beatles (including member solos), and their contemporaries, such Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones. Then, I became heavily into progressive rock, not only the pioneering British bands, like Yes and King Crimson, but also the bands from Europe and South America. I listened to jazz-rock, but my favorite was symphonic rock. I was especially fascinated by the Italians, PFM, Banco, New Trolls, Area, Le Orme etc. The singing, tuneful melodies, generally characterizing the Italian music, caught my attention. During this period, I also listened to some of the classic jazz albums, such as [Miles Davis'] Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959) and [John Coltrane's] A Love Supreme (Impulse!, 1964). But I felt these albums were all boring! However, I remember enjoying Ballads (Impulse!, 1962), by Coltrane, probably because of his deeply emotional melodic playing.

I attended UC Berkeley, double-majoring in Psychology and Music (composition). In college, I heard the ECM masterpiece Return To Forever (1972) [Chick Corea]. The naturalistic melody and sounds infused with the Brazilian music made a big impression. So I started listening to fusion bands, Weather Report and Mahavishnu Orchestra, etc. Then, I moved from Berkeley to Chicago to attend graduate school. During that time, one of my friends strongly recommended me to check out Keith Jarrett. I first bought his most famous album, Koln Concert (ECM, 1975). I liked it, but not necessarily loved it. But something clicked, and so I bought another album—My Song (ECM, 1978). I still remember vividly the first time I ever listened to this album. It was on a chilly late autumn day in Chicago. From the first note of the album, the music captured my heart. I love the entire album, but the track "Country" is my favorite. After this, I started collecting any album with Keith, then anything on ECM, and eventually pretty much any subgenre of jazz. Other than Keith, Michel Petrucciani, Django Reinhardt, Charlie Parker, Chet Baker, Duke Jordan, Joachim Kuhn, Steve Kuhn, Aldo Romano, and Masahiko Togashi are the jazzmen who gave me the strongest impressions. But I do have many more favorite jazz musicians.

AAJ: At what age did you start playing the piano?

NS: I started classical piano lessons when I was three years old. Frankly speaking, I did not like playing or more precisely, practicing the piano then, but managed to continue the lesson with a private teacher into my high school years.

AAJ: Chart the progress of your musicality from, let's say, your teen years up to your debut recording in 2006?

NS: Following Beatles-inspired bands, I formed a progressive rock unit called "Pale Ghosts" at age 15. This was a trio consisted of Takashi Kanai (guitars, bass), Honyo Ohte (drums) and myself (keyboards, vocals, guitar). We played my original compositions that were close to the style of Italian symphonic rock with strong classical music influence (especially Baroque era), emphasis on the group ensemble rather than individual soloing. We did some live activity, but this was mostly a studio project. I kept playing with this trio all through my college years even after moving to the States. We made several demo recordings which brought several contract offers. But I was foolish enough not to take these offers because I was dreaming or more likely imagining to be signed by Sony. By the way, Ohte is a talented illustrator and is responsible for all covers of my albums on Soul Note and Konnex.

I started shifting my musical direction from rock to jazz. I was never formally educated in jazz, but learned the vocabulary through listening to many albums—I am an avid LP/CD collector—and by practicing on my own. I first tried fusion, played and composed in this style for a few years. Then, I met Vytis Nivinskas—a super-fine double-bassist who had come to Chicago from Lithuania to study jazz at DePaul University. Vytis is now back in his native land, and teaches at Vilnius Conservatory. With Vytis, I formed my first jazz unit, Outside In. We played original compositions by Vytis and myself, plus some standards. We did not publish any official album, but I have kept in touch with Vytis, and am planning to perform and record with him again in the near future.

In Chicago, I also started publicly performing total improvisation. I undertook a few concerts of fully improvised music, usually with a drummer. The musical success of these concerts gave me the confidence for the direction I wanted to pursue as for total improvisation. By the way, piano-drums duo is my favorite format of total improvisation. I am hoping to make many duo albums of total improvisations with different drummers throughout my music career.

After receiving the doctorate degree in Psychology from the University of Chicago, I moved to Baltimore where I still live. In Baltimore, I formed Trio Ricochet with Tyler Goodwin on double-bass and Alan Munshower on drums. Trio Ricochet played mostly my original compositions, but also some standards as well. The trio played at the Blue Note NY, Knitting Factory, and Smithsonian Institute. The trio was offered several contracts, but there has not been an official release, and that's largely my fault. While I consider the composition-based piano trios like Trio Ricochet or Outside In as my main project, I have not been playing in this format for awhile. But I am planning to revive a composition-based piano trio very soon, and hopefully, can finally release an official album in 2011.
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