Making up tunes on stage isn’t for the feint of heart, but the best musicians like Keith Jarrett can handle it. I would imagine it’s much tougher with a five piece band, where everyone has to listen so closely to what everyone else is playing and constantly prepare for a song changing on a dime. Such was the case when Nobu Stowe (Steinway grand piano, Fender Rhodes & Wurlitzer electric piano), Ray Sage (drums), Ross Bonadonna (electric and acoustic guitars, alto saxophone, bass clarinet), Lee Pembleton (sound) and special guest Chris Kelsey (soprano sax) performed for a New York City crowd at the Roulette during the fall of 2010.
The resulting Roulette Concert, by Stowe’s creation Confusion Bleue, is part of a pair of releases by this improvisational ensemble, the other being the studio event trumpeter Brian Groder guested on, East Side Banquet.
It’s almost contradictory to take a measured survey on music that was created without any forethought, but it’s also easy to marvel at music that gives listeners an open window into their hearts instead of their heads so much.
Stowe is one of such “heart” performers, who, as evidenced on East Side Banquet, is already heart inclined. He infuses Oscar Peterson-styled flourishing runs with classical stateliness and Cecil Taylor abandon. And as the leader of this ensemble, he very effectively herds the band into the same direction on songs that are abstract and dense enough to spiral out of control if not for his guiding hand.
Divided into for separate performances from “Partie I” to “Partie IV,” the last three parts are further subdivided into mood-defining suites. Clocking in at a svelte sub-five minute running time, “Partie I” is defined by Stowe’s billowing classical piano as Kelsey flutters around on soprano sax, and Bonadonna’s guitar making a discreet entrance at end.
“Partie II” gets off to a frantic start, beginning with free jazz drums, quickly followed by everyone else playing free, though Stowe appears to be loosely attached to a progression that eventually takes shape. Kelsey and guitar soon latch on to it, too. After that idea is spent, a funky section emerges with Stowe’s percussive dark chordings as Kelsey and guitar lightly dance around it. The song settles gradually into a peaceful third section, where Stowe’s chords go from strident to flowing. At that point, Bonadonna goes from guitar to alto sax and join Kelsey in more simultaneous ruminations.
Stowe alone kicks off the twenty-one minute “Partie III,” and Sage’s drums softly march in about a minute later when Stowe locks in on a pulse. Meanwhile, the two saxes solo each on their own channel. The next phase begins about 4-1/2 minutes in, which is working off completely different key, and Sage get more restless. After a period of searching, a groove emerges from Stowe. Kelsey and Bonadonna continue to improvise, but stay within orbit of Stowe’s vamp. On the final phase, Bonadonna returns to guitar that’s bluesy but delicate, as Stowe plays flamboyantly in the style of Monty Alexander, putting forth a melody that has a touch of flamenco to it.
A free-for-all launches “Partie IV,” which gradually steps down in intensity, but chaos remains halfway through. Around this time, Stowe can be heard luring Kelsey and Bonadonna (on bass clarinet) into his emerging strain and they are ultimately won over. Finally at the end, Sage’s drums are tamed.
Instead of charts, Roulette Concert is a musical discussion, with the flow, argument and agreement that comes from a group of people having a conversation. Like telling a story that you make up as you go along, it can be a very enticing story if the inherent pitfalls are avoided. On that September night in New York City, Confusion Bleue avoided those pitfalls and navigated its way through a memorable performance.
Roulette Concert is slated to go on sale at Amazon February 19 by Ictus Records.