Home » Jazz Articles » Ralph Bowen: The Power Play


Ralph Bowen: The Power Play


Sign in to view read count
[Editor's Note: A shorter version of this interview was originally published at Jazz.Ru. It has been translated and expanded exclusively for All About Jazz.]

Ralph Bowen was born in Canada but he has pursued a jazz career in the United States for over 20 years, as tenor saxophonist, composer and arranger. He strikes neatly with his recordings as a leader, just like it was done last year with Total Eclipse, an album recorded with his quartet: organist Jared Gold, guitarist Mike Moreno and drummer Rudy Royston. Bowen has a spotless reputation in the U.S. jazz community, but remains virtually unknown to international audiences. Bowen is an Associate Professor of Music at Rutgers University and a Visiting Associate Professor at Princeton University. His academic responsibilities are the primary reason why he seldom travels. When he does tour, he rarely ventures far from the northeastern region of the United States. But in mid-March, Bowen came to Russia for the second time. His quick, distinctive, powerful playing was a fresh discovery for the majority of Russian listeners. His only other trip to Russia was in 2011, when he was invited to join an international band led by pianist Ivan Farmakovsky. The 2011 project involved Farmakovsky's jazz arrangements of Russian songs. For his most recent visit in March, Bowen performed a program of his own music, backed by Farmakovsky's trio. The idea was received with evident warmth by audiences who had no idea of Ralph Bowen as a composer.

Bowen's first important musical association, in the 1980's, was with an ensemble that was popular with fans and respected by critics, OTB (Out of the Blue). They were a group of young artists who all recorded for the prestigious Blue Note label. After OTB, Bowen was a member of the Horace Silver quintent and the Michel Camilo quintet. Bowen's discography includes many appearances as a sideman and nine albums under his own name—his most recent on the Los Angeles-based Posi-Tone label. Some of the strongest players in jazz play on Bowen's records, such as trumpeters Ryan Kisor and Sean Jones, pianist Orrin Evans, bassists John Patitucci and Kenny Davis, and drummers Antonio Sanchez, Brian Blade, Bill Stewart and Donald Edwards.

In a review of the album Dedicated that appeared in JazzTimes in 2009, journalist Thomas Conrad wrote the following: "Ralph Bowen should be famous, given that he is one of the most skilled tenor saxophonists in jazz. But Bowen plays pure, hardcore, complicated, concentrated music that requires the undivided attention of listeners as committed to the art form as himself." This might be the core idea of Ralph Bowen's identity in jazz.

During one day with Bowen, which started off with a master class at the Russian Academy of Music in Moscow and continued with a performance at the Igor Butman Club, the concept behind the "complicated and concentrated music" of "one of the most skilled tenor saxophonists in jazz" began to take shape. The basis for Bowen's complexity, his sophisticated superstructures, is simplicity. It is an idea that he came to after years of practicing, learning, playing and teaching. "We had just arrived from a very Northern city, Tarko-Slaye, where it was minus 38 degrees Celsius," he said to the students at the clinic. "The locals are used to this weather. So should we be in terms of dissonance in music. Feeling comfortable with the resulting tension and dissonance—having had prior experience with it—is essential to a relaxed and musical execution. Dissonance and tension can be uncomfortable and unless we equip ourselves properly, we can abandon them too quickly. Or, in some cases, fear sets in and we can overplay and force things, which can become unmusical. Grabbing a hot pot without oven mitts, or going to Tarko-Salye without a coat, will result in a very quick retreat."

All About Jazz: Let's start with the most obvious question: how did you come to jazz?

Ralph Bowen: That goes back many years. I grew up on a farm about an hour outside Toronto, Canada. My grandfather was a dairy farmer, but oddly enough, he played the saxophone. He actually was a bandleader in Toronto, he had a band called Gordon Bowen and his Merry Melody Makers in which he played C melody saxophone. So there was a lot of music in the house. And my parents were big jazz fans. They listened to jazz and went out dancing to the big bands. And then my oldest brother played tenor saxophone in cover bands, playing music of Blood Sweat & Tears and Chicago. I started on the clarinet and piano, but as my brother played tenor saxophone, I wanted to do that as well. So that was how I switched to the saxophone.

AAJ: That was the exact reason why Wayne Shorter picked up the saxophone instead of clarinet.

RB: (Laughs) You know, the funny thing is that I practiced a lot when I was young, and my parents never complained. I could have gotten up at 6 o'clock in the morning and played all the way through to 2-3 a.m., they just slept through it. They were also at all of my gigs. When I was young we usually played many after-hours gigs and my parents would always be there in the club, 'til 4 a.m. sometimes.

AAJ: So then you went to college to study music?

RB: You know, in the U.S. it's rare for someone not to go to college right after high school, but in Canada it's a little bit different. Not everyone goes to college. I graduated from High School rather early, when I was 16 and started studying with Pat LaBarbera in Toronto. University just wasn't something that was in my mind. My father asked me when I finished high school "Do you want to go to a music school, Julliard or something like that?," but it was just so far from my reality, so I said no, and then I just practiced for many years. Then, one of my mentors in Toronto (Jim Blackley) suggested that I go to Indiana University primarily to study with David Baker—so I did. I would go down to Indiana once a month and stay for a week. During that week I would get about 10 lessons with David. I did this for about two years. And finally, David and I were talking, and decided that since I was going down there so often, I might as well just stay there. So I enrolled in the IU Artist Diploma program. I was there for two years. Then I went to Rutgers University where I actually got my Bachelors and Masters in Music. You know, I was 23 when I went to Indiana University—a late starter by USA standards.

AAJ: It's amazing that David Baker is still the head of the jazz studies there.

RB: It's incredible, I know. He can't retire—every time he tries to retire they won't let him go! He's got enormous energy, it's really amazing.

AAJ: But when did you yourself start teaching?

RB: I was doing my Masters degree in classical flute at Rutgers under James Scott and Robert Dick. I began teaching jazz theory and saxophone, and gradually it worked its way into a full-time position, and now I have been here at Rutgers for 22 years.

AAJ: I know from an interview with Anthony Branker that he was the one to build up a significant program in jazz studies at Princeton University.

RB: Tony and I have known each other for a long time. I was in a group called OTB, Out of The Blue, and we performed in a college in Pennsylvania called Ursinus College. Tony was teaching there at that time. Years later, when I was coming up for tenure at Rutgers, I was taking some interviews elsewhere in case things didn't work out. The funny thing is that both Tony and I were on the short-list for a position at Hunter College in NYC, and Tony got that job. He switched to Princeton shortly after. He's done incredible things at Princeton. It's not typical to have the course offerings that he offers, and the certificate programs and ensembles that he has at an Ivy League school.

AAJ: What do you think makes a good teacher?

RB: There are various ways to study. Basically, I think about both instrumentalism-which has to deal with the technique of your instrument, and musicianship—which is about everything within the music making process outside of the actual instrument, which is non-instrument specific in other words. And then there's the larger scope of things in terms of being a performer, and the actual artistic side of things which sometimes can get lost. I believe our role is not to simply do something well according to guidelines, but to actually try to create something that is our own within the artistic world. Starting with instrumentalism, having studied with great teachers, I think that it's very important for a pedagogue to cover a lot of styles and repertory and deal with instrumental techniques, and certain problems that come up with them so that we can pass along things in a coherent manner. I don't thinks it's enough to pass along ideas simply because it's the way we do it—we need to take into account a great amount of information. I've mentioned a few of the great people whom have been great teachers and mentors to me over the years—there are so many more such as Phil Nimmons, Bob Mintzer, Kenny Barron, "Prof" Bill Fielder, Keith Blackley, Eugene Rousseau, and Ted Dunbar.

On the other side there is musicianship, which deals with things such as having a good ear, rhythm, and interpretation. These are the things that one learns and develops over time from study and experience, and which requires a lot of introspection. And obviously it is very important to listen to a lot of recorded and live music. I think it's necessary to look at things not just from a standpoint of music, but from a larger standpoint of life. Metaphors can be extremely helpful in the learning process because often times, we simply can't "see the forest for the trees" when the horn is in our hands. There are many parallels between the musical arts and other art forms as well. The culinary arts, martial arts, theatre, and athletics for example can all be related to music—after all, we use the same mind and body to do many different things. Essentially, I would say that living life itself is very important. I'm not sure that if someone lived in a closet their whole life they would be a good teacher. As a teacher, often times we are trying to correct problems in a student's playing that are actually symptomatic of a fundamental deficiency. I've learned over the years not to react immediately to something I see or hear in a student's playing that requires improvement or correction. Sometimes I have a student to come to numerous lessons, analyzing the same problem in order to figure out the best way to approach his/her particular issue in terms of trying to correct it.

AAJ: I know that you are the kind of person who keeps things in order. In the process of writing music, obviously, too. How does it usually happen in music writing, that you are satisfied with what you have written, or does in happen that the music goes beyond and literary "writes itself"?

RB: That's a good question. First of all, I believe that there is a certain order within the 12-tone system. There's gravity, certain rests/resolutions. I might have an idea how I want the composition to go, I might have a particular harmonic progression in mind, I might have a particular scale in mind. Even if I have these ideas I tend to follow my ear. I think you can be comfortable with that only if you developed your ear and your musical intuition—which is an ongoing process both in terms of skills and perception. You know, having an intellectual idea is one thing, but you can't force that on music, you have to follow your ear and the natural order of the 12-tone tone system, and everything works out. This also includes rhythm—which is like speech, and similar to telling a story or joke. For instance, accents, weighting, tone, and the phrasing of the syllables and words all play a role in the successful conveyance of an idea. I've noticed that I tend to compose better when I am under a deadline, when I have less time to think about things too much.

AAJ: Tell us about your involvement in the band OTB?

RB: I was at Indiana University in the mid 1980s. Blue Note Records and The Bridge booking agency had come together to set an audition for the rhythm section of the group. They were trying to revive the concept of the "Young Lions." The audition was in New York, and Robert Hurst who was at IU at the time had auditioned and won the bass chair for the group. So Rob came back to IU, and I learned both through him and David Baker that there would be an audition for horn players. I contacted them and came out to New York and won the audition for the group. And then we went on to record.

AAJ: Right away? I mean you were a brand new band...

RB: Yes, it was a completely new band of six young musicians. As I understand it, it was a group of young musicians who were going to compose their own music, and Blue Note Records would promote and record them in cooperation with the booking agency. The idea was that beyond the group performing and recording, each member would eventually go on to their own respective solo careers. In the original group, we had Harry Pickens on piano, Robert Hurst on bass, Ralph Peterson on drums, and on the horns myself, Michael Mossman on trumpet, and Kenny Garrett on alto saxophone. The second stage involved Steve Wilson on alto saxophone, Renee Rosnes on piano, Kenny Davis on bass and Billy Drummond on drums. And it turned out that Mike Mossman and I remained the only original members of the group. As you can imagine, the band was touring a lot, and sometimes there were subs needed. Such musicians as James Spaulding, Kenny Drew, Jr., the late David Eubanks, Antonio Hart, Johnny King, used to sub. So, we were recording for the Blue Note Records and we made regular trips to Japan-the band was very active.

AAJ: I'm sure it was a great start for you as young musicians in terms of experience and promotion.

RB: Oh yes, it was good for everybody, a terrific springboard. I see comments from time to time on the Internet. I think younger musicians are just discovering the recordings.

AAJ: There's actually very little information about OTB at the moment, and the albums are difficult to find.

RB: Yeah, I think they are out of print—mostly found in second hand stores.

AAJ: How did you meet Horace Silver and join his band?

RB: The band that I was playing with, OTB, had the same booking agent as Horace, and he was auditioning for a new band. I don't know how many other saxophone players auditioned, but I was fortunate to get the gig and stayed with him for three years. I learned so much working with him.

AAJ: What was the main thing you learned from those years?

RB: Horace Silver has a very specific style. I learned a lot from that in terms of discipline. His rhythm feel was great, and every composition that he writes has a certain simplicity, with wonderful inner voices, backgrounds, intros, codas and so on. His discipline is carried over into his comping as well, which builds each and every chorus, supporting the soloist. I feel that he is thinking compositionally from the downbeat to the end of the tune. I think that's what gives his music so much character.

AAJ: When you became a member of Michel Camilo's band, did you have to adjust your playing somehow to the kind of music he played?

RB: Definitely. In a way I had to adjust my voice. His original band consisted of Anthony Jackson on bass and Dave Weckl on drums, Chris Hunter on saxophone, and Lew Soloff on trumpet. It was an incredible band. I used to go see them in a place called Mikels on the Upper West Side in New York. Mike Mossman used to sub for Lew. At some point around 1987, Chris had other obligations and Mike recommended me for the gig. It has been an amazing ride since then. And, even more wonderful, over the years I've been able to play in the band with both Chris and Lew via Michel's big band. I admire Chris' playing very much. Mike and I have worked together a lot since the OTB days—with Michel, Horace Silver, etc. I learned so much from his rhythm section, from Anthony Jackson and all of drummers that he has had, Joel Rosenblatt, Cliff Almond, Horacio "El Negro" Hernandez, and percussionists Sammy Figueroa and Guarionex Aquino.

AAJ: Who is your greatest inspiration?

RB: Well, there are many players who have set the stage for me whether dealing with the saxophone or just music in general. When I started playing it was King Curtis, then Stan Getz, and it wasn't until I turned 17 when I was studying with Pat LaBarbera and John Coltrane came up. In terms of tenor saxophone, ultimately I think the default for me is Trane, but particularly in the Prestige and Atlantic years. His sound and his approach during those recording years is something I gravitate towards. That doesn't mean that I don't draw inspiration from many other musicians of course.

AAJ: Was there any core experience in your life that helped you in finding your own voice?

RB: I have to go back to my teens, the time when I studied with Pat LaBarbera. I was around 16 when I started. I think that through him and his passion for the music of John Coltrane, I learned a great deal. He was playing with Elvin Jones at that time. I studied with him for seven or eight years. I think that was the most important part of my life, because through him I developed a definitive style of playing, and through him I found a connection with the music and style of Trane. Then in terms of improvisation and composition, an important mentor was David Baker, with whom I studied for four years.

AAJ: So those were basically academic influences, right?

RB: Yeah, but also remembering my years back in Toronto, I had an experience of playing with drummer Keith Blackley, who was an enormous influence for me. We played duo often, like three times a week. He was an incredible mentor. I was very fortunate to have all these people around when I was young.

AAJ: Speaking of Coltrane, he used to study the harp method to get skillful in arpeggios. On the master class, you were saying that it's important for a musician to study different instruments to know what your peers in the band are doing.

RB: What I was referring to in the clinic, is that as a player there is a necessity to have a working knowledge of the melody, harmony and rhythm. You can also add vocals to that in terms of lyrics. It's important to understand how piano, bass and drums work—not only to be able to execute your own harmonic, rhythmic, and melodic ideas, but also to be able to react to what the rhythm section is playing. Like running a restaurant business for example: one must have a working knowledge of every aspect of the business in order to be effective and successful. You can either play bass lines on your instrument or you can actually pick up the bass which is of course another experience. One point is to practice rhythm, and another one is to get on the drums and try to get the sense of the sonic and physical aspect of playing the drums. Compositionally it's even more involved, I remember Mike Mossman carrying a guitar with him on a tour once. He was learning how the guitar worked for compositional purposes.

AAJ: Well, there is a standpoint that it's better to be specialist in a narrow field rather than know a lot of stuff at the surface level. Does it work for instrumentalism?

RB: There are musicians—and I am not one of them!—who are skillful in playing different instruments very well. Like Don Thompson, a Canadian musician in Toronto, he's just one example of many multi-instrumentalists. He plays piano, vibraphone, and bass exceptionally well. He toured with George Shearing for years playing multiple instruments. He even plays drums and saxophone as well. Amazing! Scott Robinson from New York is another great multi-instrumentalist.

AAJ: But how about you, do you practice the flute sometimes?

RB: For sure! That's a pretty common thing for a saxophonist to play the flute.

AAJ: Each time you go into the studio you invite some interesting musicians, and each time an album has a new feeling because of the shifting bandmembers. We can look at Power Play (Posi-tone, 2011) which was a jazz quartet, and then we see Total Eclipse (Posi-tone, 2013) which is a band with an organ and a guitar. How do you choose what band to invite into the studio?

RB: Sometimes it starts with the musicians, or other times it might start with the instrumentation such as an organ group, or doing a classic quartet or quintet, etc. And in terms of the choice of the musicians, what I found over the years is that it's very helpful to have a rhythm section of musicians that play together often. The most amazing thing that I've seen so many times is when I come to the rehearsal and bring the music to musicians who have a history of working together, all I do is sit back and watch the magic happen. I think that if they already have affinity and feel comfortable with each other both musically and personally. They are very quick to try things, and they just work things out in places where I myself might not be completely sure how I want things to go.

AAJ: But do you have any specific plans for your next recording?

RB: Well, I'd like to do an album of my arrangements of standards. You know, the majority of the music I have recorded was original compositions, and I want to try some interpretations of standards this time.

AAJ: Just in a classic jazz band? No guitars this time?

RB: Yeah, but who knows. Perhaps different instrumentation would help to make a new presentation of familiar tunes.

Recent Discography as a leader

Ralph Bowen, Total Eclipse (Posi-Tone Records, 2013)
Ralph Bowen, Power Play (Posi-Tone Records, 2011)
Ralph Bowen, Due Reverence (Posi-Tone Records, 2010)
Ralph Bowen, Dedicated (Posi-Tone Records, 2009)
Ralph Bowen Quintet, Five (Criss Cross Records, 2008)

Photo Credits
Page 1 and Page 4: Courtesy Ralph Bowen
Page 2 and Page 3: Gulnara Khamatova

Get the Jazz Near You newsletter All About Jazz has been a champion of jazz since 1995, supporting it as an art form and, more importantly, supporting the musicians who create it. Our enduring commitment has made "AAJ" one of the most culturally important websites of its kind, read by hundreds of thousands of fans, musicians and industry figures every month.

To expand our coverage even further and develop new means to foster jazz discovery and connectivity we need your help. You can become a sustaining member for a modest $20 and in return, we'll immediately hide those pesky ads plus provide access to future articles for a full year. This winning combination will vastly improve your AAJ experience and allow us to rigorously build on the pioneering work we first started in 1995. So enjoy an ad-free AAJ experience and help us remain a positive beacon for jazz by making a donation today.

Post a comment


View events near New York City
Jazz Near New York City
Events Guide | Venue Guide | Local Businesses | More...


Jazz article: Quiet Knowing: The Music Of Gentiane MG
Jazz article: Lew Tabackin: On Becoming and Barolo


Read Ramsey Lewis: Life is Good
Read Meet Abe Goldstien
Out and About: The Super Fans
Meet Abe Goldstien
Read Herbie Hancock: An Essential Top Ten Albums
Read Matthew Shipp: A Dozen Essential Albums
Read Lew Tabackin: On Becoming and Barolo
Read Bill Charlap's Stardust

Get more of a good thing!

Our weekly newsletter highlights our top stories, our special offers, and includes upcoming jazz events near you.