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Ralph Bowen: The Power Play

Ralph Bowen: The Power Play
Diana Kondrashin By

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[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.

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