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.

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.


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