Only his second album but hardly sophomoric, Skyward Eye represents a great expansion of scope for the saxophonist, composer and bandleader Jonathan Rowden. A weighty set of works by his Jonathan Rowden Group held together by a thematic purpose, Skyward (now available from Orenda Records) sets its ambitions, well, skyward.
Rowden’s envelope-pushing quartet brings back pianist, keyboardist and co-composer Ryan Pryor as well as James Yoshizawa on drums, taiko and percussion. Only Jordan Richards is the new kid on the block, replacing Chris Hon on bass and also contributing a backpacker guitar.
The three whole days of studio time spent over a three week period contrasts greatly with their Becoming debut that took only a single twelve hour session, with no overdubs or edits. Becoming is actually pretty polished for being recorded that way.
Skyward Eye takes polish to the next level. Not as in slick production or stilted performances, the JRG remains as we described before, “a spiritual group…with their uncommon approach to jazz with unusual percussion, the tactical use of electronics and avant-garde impressions.” But the coexistence of through-composed pieces and individual expression has more wrinkles, thanks to the greater willingness to leverage technology, embrace contemporary music trends and having at hand a greater amount of time allotted for this project.
Skyward Eye oozes cohesion, a product of transferring Rowden’s old graphic novel aspirations into a musical work with a cinematic sweep. It’s neatly divided into two ‘chapters,’ each chapter made up of four songs a piece that function as parts of a suite; oftentimes it’s hard to notice when one song ends and the next one begins because the flow is natural. With all these features, is it even jazz anymore? The answer, frankly, is not important.
“The Wait,” which kicks off ‘Chapter 2’ is a case in point. Richards plays an electric bass in a rock fashion. Yoshizawa is thrashing his kit with fast breakbeats and Pryor chooses a 70s synth sound for his solo. But none of those are what makes the performance special. Rather, it’s meticulous way Rowden and Pryor put together a modern rhapsody that pushes forward and unfolds like a play, including a dramatic apex where it reaches an emotional high point.
You think they’d take a breather after that? Not a chance: “Floating Isle” builds up to its own explosive peak following an almost ritualistic progression that grafts in elements of classical music. They’ve shown no hesitation to expand the sonic palette in any way that enhances the song, even adding their own voices like for the Scottish jig choir part that closes out “Carried By The Song.”
The ‘Chapter 1’ quartet of songs don’t lack in dramatics and textures, either; “The Dawn of Reclamation” features the heavily reverberating tenor of Rowden and the delicate piano of Pryor as Richards’ acoustic bass and acoustic guitar dances around with the piano. It already feels way larger than a four-man band, thanks to the magic of overdubbing.
The ethereal “Song of Hiraeth,” where Rowden doubles on soprano sax, will appeal to fans of ECM-produced Scandinavian folk-jazz. Only forty-nine seconds long, it’s astonishing how much was put into such a short piece, and it continues right into “Ruins.” The second section of this longer track feels most like a mainline fusion jazz tune, and Pryor’s ace electric piano coursing through this segment is a big reason why. Following the climax, the Group downshifts and settles into an easy groove off a new, piano-based riff.
If you’re old school like me and still relish physical media, it should be noted that the cover art is graced by the hand of Kazu Kibuishi, a New York Times bestselling graphic artist. The “Lord of the Rings” styled imagery calls to mind some of those vivid alternate world scenes imagined by Roger Dean for many a Yes album. Ultimately though, it’s the music inside that matters, and Jonathan Rowden and his Group made it count big.
Click here for a five-episode mini-documentary on the making of Skyward Eye.
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