Nobu Stowe: Brooklyn and New York Moments

Budd Kopman By

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"Free jazz" is actually a misnomer. Noise is free while music has some form of order imposed upon the sounds, which do not have to be strictly "musical" notes. Success in playing free jazz hinges upon the degree to which the players listen to each other and inter-react to form larger structures.

In such settings, what each musician plays is therefore not actually free but dependent upon what everyone else is doing. Feedback loops abound as sensitive players give and take, lead and follow, fight and acquiesce. The result can be thrilling, as the listener is pulled into the process and is able to follow what is going on.

Nobu Stowe is a disciple of fellow pianist Keith Jarrett's method of "total improvisation"—which means "not only to experiment with 'sound textures' but also to spontaneously create 'songs' (melodies with tonal harmonies)." To Stowe, the term "inside" means not only to play within a tonality, but also to create recognizable melodic structures, while "outside" implies the absence of those qualities.

The trio and quartet recordings below were done as Stowe explored the world of outside improvisation while simultaneously staying truthful to his inside nature.

Nobu Stowe/Blaise Siwula/Ray Sage
Brooklyn Moments

Brooklyn Moments, recorded on September 4, 2005, was the second meeting of the trio comprising Stowe, reedman Blaise Siwula and drummer Ray Sage, with the first being but a few weeks earlier.

Even to listeners open to free jazz, the juxtaposition of regularity and tonality, primarily from Stowe's piano, and the irregular and atonal may sound jarring, almost perverse. What ends up happening, however, is that the regularity is repeatedly touched upon and left, with the lengths of time spent in either mode determined by the needs of the moment. The result is that the inside becomes architectural, allowing the outside to be freer, since it now has a context.

The opening of "Part I" sounds tentative, with Stowe seeming to want to establish immediately his inside nature, by playing a very clear and ponderous cadential progression. Siwula sounds intrigued and responds in kind and the music takes on a humorous edge. Soon, however, Stowe, perhaps pushed by Siwula and Sage, moves into irregular territory and the energy level begins to rise, as the players push and pull each other.

"Part II" begins with a very beautiful slow waltz by Stowe that is commented upon by both Sage and Siwula. These opening minutes show that beauty and freedom are not mutually exclusive. Drama and tension fill the air, as the music seems to take a breath, thins out, and then takes off. Stowe seems to want to close the circle by playing strong intervals in his left hand, while Siwula and Sage resist, but Stowe wins out and the piece ends, running into "Part III."

The last three "Parts" actually form a triptych, and the group, now much more in synch, is much faster on its feet. The inside and the outside have become more blended, and on many occasions the ebb and flow between them feels very natural.

Stowe's playing can be very classical sounding and overtly beautiful, as in the opening to "Part III" and his entrance after Sage's drum solo and Siwula's flute which begin "Part IV." That piece takes on a mysterious majesty as Stowe's left hand is matched in depth by Siwula's bass clarinet, from which later comes a full-fledged melody on a pedal point. Density, texture and tension is controlled and developed, leading to "Part V," which moves from a driving storminess and crashing bass piano notes to an elegiac piano solo ending that is quite moving.

The music works very well much of the time, but with periods of struggle where Stowe and Siwula sound locked in a battle for control. This feeling is not necessarily a negative, but the following New York Moments builds on the successes of Brooklyn Moments, dissolving any of the roughness present here.

Nobu Stowe/Blaise Siwula/Ray Sage/Dom Minasi
New York Moments

The trio felt that Brooklyn Moments was a qualified success and was able to perform together publicly four months later. They were joined at the gig by two other musicians, which showed them the potential of extending the trio. Siwula and guitarist Dom Minasi have played together for quite a while, so it seemed natural for him to be added to make a quartet.

If adding a fourth player complicates the challenge of producing coherency, it is not apparent on New York Moments. The blending of the inside and outside that happened on the later tracks of the earlier record is present from the very beginning here.

The addition of Minasi proved fortuitous. An amazing technician, he many times plays collaborating, very fast lines with Siwula, using a sound that is distinct yet exists somewhere beneath the surface. At other times (as in "Quartet IIb"), his sound comes more forward as he plays gorgeous accompanying lines.

Stowe seems determined not only to maintain a total-improvisational attitude through each track, but through the entire session. He does this by playing a descending chromatic theme in various guises in each track, and as the disc proceeds, this theme becomes recognizable and forms a backbone allowing the creation of a larger form.

Each player is clearly listening to the others and there are many entries and drop-outs to change textures. The music takes on an organic feeling as true development takes place, many times ending quite logically and decisively. A clear ending can only happen when the preceding music has taken some kind of form.

Stowe's inside contributions are much more sensitive on this album, and he sounds much more confident and in control. His moves to the outside always sound as if they come from somewhere and returning to the inside becomes natural. Siwula, for his part, is completely in touch with what is happening and his inside playing is quite convincing. Sage also plays delicately but forcefully, managing to be light and driving simultaneously.

By any measure, but especially as "total-improvisation," New York Moments is a rousing success.

Visit Nobu Stowe on the web.

Tracks and Personnel

Brooklyn Moments

Tracks: Part I; Part II; Part III; Part IV; Part V.

Personnel: Blaise Siwula: alto & tenor saxophone, bass clarinet, bamboo flute; Nobu Stowe: piano; Ray Sage: drums.

New York Moments

Tracks: Quartet IIa; Quartet IIb; Trio I; Quartet IIIb; Trio II; Quartet IIIa; Quartet I.

Personnel: Blaise Siwula: soprano, alto & tenor saxophones; Dom Minasi: guitar; Nobu Stowe: piano; Ray Sage: drums.

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