When Jonathan Rowden and his four piece band went into the studio earlier this year to record their debut album Becoming, they went in not really knowing how these batch of original tunes would turn out. “The experience we all shared during that 12 hour lockout was a sort of aesthetic anamnesis: when we were done, we couldn’t overcome the feeling that before this, we didn’t really know what these songs were about, despite having written them and performed them for months,” admits Rowden. “It was like discovering something that had always been there, like a memory we didn’t have eyes to see. Actively participating in the moment – the sound, energy, and momentum – stepping into the character of these pieces was like taking a deep breath and ‘being’ for a moment – and finding that is what becoming really is.”
The saxophonist, composer and bandleader had assembled this band that includes Ryan Pryor (piano, 88 key Fender Rhodes “suitcase”), James Yoshizawa (drums, bodhran, pandeiro, percussion) and Chris Hon (bass) thirteen months earlier and over time road tested these compositions until they became less like notated music on sheets of paper and more like organisms. Becoming — out this past spring on Orenda Records — is the end product of a band that stopped thinking so much and began to let instinct take over. That’s not something I got just from reading Rowden’s remarks, because the music speaks this loud and clear.
Yes, the Jonathan Rowden Group is a spiritual group, but with their uncommon approach to jazz with unusual percussion, the tactical use of electronics and avant-garde impressions, “spiritual” doesn’t equate to “sounds like Coltrane.” They achieve this feeling in their own way.
There’s real emotion in these strains, strains that are both long and short, but you wouldn’t necessarily know that just by listening. Compositions flow into each other, Becoming is really just one big suite connected to each other (one song, “The Long Road Home,” is split up into three parts to place emphasis on movements.)
That organic flow the band conjured up from this collection of distinctive tunes makes the first eight minutes that traverses across “Becoming,” “Snowing In Paradise” and “Entrance” whip by so quickly. The first track is a sax drone, a ghoulish premonition that seems best suited for a haunted house and can fool you into thinking this is going to be an electro-acoustic, free jazz record. But Rowden, as it becomes apparent over the course of this record, uses dissonance as one of many means to shape mood, not to dominate it. As this murmuring subsides, a two chord ostinato emerges to signal the transition to “Snowing,” a first sign of jazz as most people know it, but with spurts of drum ‘n’ bass inspired galloping rhythms, interrupted by a pretty bass solo. When Rowden finally gets around to fully express himself on tenor, it’s a purposeful, streaming outflow of notes with the tone of Ben Webster but the composed passion of Joe Henderson, and he peaks in sync with the song’s ending.
With “Entrance” serving as a bridge, “The Long Road Home I” is a long, slow procession of soulful notes buttressed by Pryor’s Rhodes, while “The Long Road Home II” features Pryor’s same, gleaming electric piano used as chimes set against the expanding rustle of Yoshizawa’s drums. A bell-shaped song that peaks in the middle, Rowden let’s the rhythm section set the pace, and serves to put punctuation on the high point. For the third part of “The Long Road Home” trilogy, all timbres come from an exotic variety of percussion until the entry of a sparse piano about two minutes in. Pryor’s Rhodes and Rowden’s sax discreetly combine to strike a spectral sentiment.
Two extended performances follow. A slow burning blues swing defines “27-1″ with Rowden’s most expressive saxophone yet, and he stretches out his sound to reach all four corners of the harmonic square. Out of nowhere, Pryor comes crashing in with a real dirty-toned Rhodes. That spurs Rowden to go from expressive to downright heated. The song floats to a gentle landing, which segues right into “Autonation.” Composed by Pryor, it’s a melody that’s more hopeful than the prior one, and Hon’s poetic bass solo sets the stage for Pryor’s piano statements, his best of the album. Another motif is used as a springboard for Rowden’s own asides, highlighted by a sax/drums display of funky inspiration.
By pulling it together from sources equally from jazz and non-jazz worlds and an attention to sound over scoring, Becoming transcends simply being a set of songs to rise to the level of ‘becoming’ this breathing, ardent entity. The Jonathan Rowden Group achieves spiritual unity uncommon in much of jazz today and even rarer in a debut album.