Ralph Bowen: The Power Play

Diana Kondrashin By

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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.


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