Ralph Bowen – Power Play (2011)

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photo courtesy of Posi-Tone Records

by S. Victor Aaron

It seems like it was not even a year since we were last here chatting up a new Ralph Bowen CD, and checking back, there actually is less than twelve months between his last one, Due Reverence and this one due out on February 8, Power Play. That makes his third Posi-Tone record in as many years. And given how deadgummed good the last one was, that is just fine by me.

On last year’s record, I made a big deal about how Bowen surrounded himself with top-notch sidemen to help him put together a strong tribute to various jazz heroes of Bowen’s. This time around puts the focus more squarely on the leader himself. Once again, he leads a quartet, but it’s an entirely changed personnel grouping: Kenny Davis on bass, Donald Edwards on drums and another Posi-Tone shining star Orrin Evans on piano. These are names that perhaps don’t jump out like the last line-up, but that does nothing to diminish the record, because the comping is rock solid and Bowen himself is the show. And, he puts on one hell of a show.

Bowen’s tenor sax possesses a big, soulful soundprint that is virtuosic but never ever lacking character; he always plays in service of the melody. His style has clearly absorbed many of the masters like Rollins and Coltrane, but a living inspiration for his approach seems to come from Bob Mintzer, who was one of handful of jazz greats he saluted in Reverence. Bowen’s intricate lines are sometimes electrifying but never hurts your head to appreciate. There are loads of moments like that everywhere. “K.D.’s Blues” no-nonsense toe-tapping jazz rhythm is the platform for Bowen’s equally no-b.s. sax articulations that swing mightily, flare with ideas, scale notes with rapid fluidity and is loyal to tradition but not enslaved to it. The following tune “Drumheller Valley” calls to mind the spiritual tone of alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett, and he deftly negotiates ascending and descending notes at varying cadences on “Two-Line Pass.” In case you need to hear how he handles standards, he gotcha covered there, too: “My One And Only Love” is given a tender reading, and testifies to his fealty to the beauty in a classic song.

None of this is meant to imply that Bowen is carrying the backing band; on the contrary, Evans, Davis and Edwards give primo support. Evans’ graceful touch complements “Walleye Jigging,” and his strong bop credentials come to fore when soloing on “K.D. Blues.” Although there’s nothing avant garde in Power Play, Bowen’s compositions features a lot of tempo and harmonic shifts in them; Davis and Edwards form a supple rhythm section able to guide the songs through the changes as smoothly as a well-functioning automatic transmission.

Once again, Ralph Bowen makes a new record that hits the streets in February and once again it’s a mainstream jazz delight. Hopefully he’ll make a habit out of this; the quality of these last two records make this a worthwhile post-Super Bowl tradition to keep going.

Purchase: Ralph Bowen – Power Play

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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