Ralph Bowen Flips the Script
If you were looking for a sequel to saxophonist Ralph Bowen’s 2011 release, Power Play, you won’t get it, at least not this time around. This blog called that one “hard-hitting, purposeful and tuneful beyond belief” and ranked it as one of last year’s five best jazz albums. Bowen’s new album Total Eclipse is quite a change. Although Jared Gold’s B3 anchors the tunes here, it’s hardly your typical organ-and-sax record. It’s as if Bowen decided to totally flip the script and do pensive and opaque instead of rigorously melodic. This one’s also a lot more rhythmically complex, but if you hang with it, it grows on you, with thoughtful and impactful playing from the rest of the band as well, Mike Moreno on guitar and the nonpareil Rudy Royston (of JD Allen’s trio) on drums. Bowen is playing a pair of cd release shows at Smalls this weekend, June 8 and 9 at 10 PM with a slightly different lineup, Gold on organ plus Freddie Bryant on guitar and Donald Edwards behind the kit.
All this is not to say that there isn’t memorable tunesmithing here. The closing cut, a soul ballad titled In My Dreams, begins with a nebulous, suspenseful sway and then artfully juxtaposes mysterioso ambience with Bowen’s warm, bucolic lead lines. A lickety-split showcase for Royston’s precise machine-gun attack, the funky Hip Check works clever rhythmic permutations on staggered sax clusters. Continuing in reverse order, the ten-minute epic Exosphere is the most ambitious and memorable track here. Beginning as a somewhat altered, anthemic soul tune held down by a signature Royston rumble, they go into tiptoe swing for a bit, Bowen adding some unexpectedly tasty microtones and chromatics, then bring it down ominous and suspenseful for a long, chordally-charged organ solo that Royston eventually can’t resist bringing out of the murk.
Arrows of Light alternates tricky funk with purposeful swing, Bowen setting an apprehensive tone early on that Moreno and Gold bring even higher in turn with a chromatic intensity. On Green (as in “go on green”), which precedes it, works a casual-versus-tense dichotomy, a pervasive sense of the unexpected finally resolving into a sense of triumph on the wings of Gold’s insistent, unpredictably stabbing chords. They set that one up with The Dowsing Rod, a similar tension (Bowen calm and bucolic, Gold on edge) resolving picturesquely when they suddenly hit the water table. There’s also the swaying, offbeat Into the City, sort of a polyrhythmic take on a go-go theme with some smartly intricate beatwise interplay between Bowen and Gold; Behind the Curtain, with pensive syncopation, Gold artfully shadowing a casually piercing Moreno solo (his fat, slightly reverb-tinged tone here always raises the intensity factor); and the opening, title track, brightly swinging but avoiding any type of resolution. Why explain these tracks in reverse? Because the album makes more sense that way: start with the catchy stuff and work your way back to the more abstruse numbers and everything makes more sense. It’s out now on Posi-Tone.