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Nobu Stowe is nothing short of a polymath: jazz pianist, psychologist who studies drug addiction at National Institute of Health (USA), and journalist. Last year he released Hommage An Klaus Kinski (Soul Note), an album where he elaborates the concept of improvisations on a sonic canvas. By Pachi Tapiz

© 2008 Eisuke Koya


PACHI TAPIZ - What are your childhood musical memories?

NOBU STOWE - My parents made me take piano lessons at 3 years old.  I remember not liking the practice in the beginning… then I gradually got to love the piano.  But I was never destined to become a concert pianist… because I would never manage to practice 8-12 hours a day!

    My parents did not listen to jazz… but they listened to classical music, movie soundtracks and 'ethnic' music… from EuropeSpain, Italy (Canzone), and especially France (Chanson) as well as… from South America (folklore), Brazil and AsiaIndia, China and of course, Japan. 

    My first music heroes were J S Bach, Chopin and Beethoven.  I played some of their compositions.  I started to compose when I was around 6 years old… some short classical inspired pieces… and some vocal songs.  Quality is not high… but listening back some of my earliest compositions… I can see melody has always been the biggest element in my music. 

    My first band was Do-jins (which means "Natives" in Japanese) that I formed with my friends in the Boy Scouts.  This was when I was 8-10 years old.  It was kind of a joke band: there were older kids in Boy Scouts who wanted to form a band.  We did not perform much except in Boyscout activities (camping, etc).  I played the piano, percussion and sang (along with other guys).  I have one tape of Do-jins… and it somehow sounds interesting… kind of primitive ethnic music… but of course, quality is not high.

    Around when I was 10-11 years old… I really got into The Beatles.  The Beatles remained to be my music heros till I started getting into progressive rock in high school (15 years old or so).  I collected all of the Beatles albums plus solo albums of the members… and also got into the music of other beat groups… Stones, Who, Kinks etc etc… mostly British… but also Bob Dylan and some other Americans (Byrds, Doors, Beach Boys etc).  But I was not into Japanese pop/rock musicians. 

    I formed a band called "The Moons" with the fellow Do-jins, Eisin Hirata.  Eisin was a good lyricist… and with him I started to compose songs in the style of The Beatles.  I played the guitar/piano/vocal, Eishin played guitar… and we were joined by my class mate in the junior high school… Honyo Ohte, who decided to play the drums.

    Then we entered high school… Ohte and I went to the same high school, but Eisin went to a different school.  Around this time, Eisin's and my musical tastes started to go apart… I started getting heavily into progressive rock… first with British (e.g., YES, King Crimson, Pink Floyd etc)… then discovered great Europeans… Italians (PFM, Banco, AREA, New Trolls etc), Germans (Tangerine Dream, Popol Vuh, Kraftwerk), French (Ange, Atoll etc), Spanish (CAI, Triana, Granada, Los Canarios etc) and many others… Scandinavians, Russians etc. etc… also Latin Americans.  Ohte liked progressive rock as well… but Eisin wanted to play in more vocal-oriented British rock style.  So we disbanded The Moons.

    In my school, there was this excellent classical guitarist, Takashi Kanai, who also happened to like progressive rock.  So with Ohte and Kanai, I formed a progressive rock trio, Pale Ghosts.  I played key/g/b/vo, Kanai played g/b and Ohte played the drums. I took the word "Pale" from the Procol Harum Song "A Whiter Shade of Pale" and put it with something illusionary… "Ghosts"… hence Pale Ghosts. Pale Ghosts was mostly a studio band… but managed to play a few gigs… and those were all well received… (we were the only progressive rock band around my hometown… by the way… !...this was in late 80's).

    After the high school, I came to the US to go to college… University of California, at Berkeley.  But I kept Pale Ghosts alive… and often went back to Japan (at least twice year). I studied both music (composition) and psychology. I also started to play with American musicians in college… but my tastes were heavily influenced by Europeans… and was not so big on the American style of the music… including jazz… at that time.  Based on the strength of demo, Pale Ghosts, was offered several contracts… but I foolishly rejected all offers! Because I expected SONY will call me any day… ! (of course that never happened… !!!)

    Around the time I was graduating from college… my interests gradually shifted from progressive rock to more fusion/jazz. This shift occured gradually. Even though I listened to some jazz albums in high school… Kind Of Blue, A Love Supreme etc… I never really appreciated these music in the beggining. In college, I discovered Chick Corea's playing in the original version of "Spain" with Airto Moreira/Flora Purim/Joe Farrell/Stanley Clarke… I was shocked!...and felt… well... I needed to practice the piano much harder!

    So I started listening to fusion first… along the way, I discovered Köln Concert by Keith Jarrett… but it did NOT speak to me immediately… then I discovered My Song… especially the song "Country"… by the European Quartet… Jarrett/Garbarek/Danielson/Christensen… and I was very very shocked !!! So I credit Keith and his song "Country" for really getting me into jazz… Then, I started to collect all of Jarrett and related albums… and gradually I understood what Jazz is about… Because of Keith, I also started to practice total improvisation… or fully improvised music… but with definite melodies/harmonic/rhythm structures all spontaneously 'composed'… as opposed to 'sound-exploration' à la free-improv. Obviously, Keith Jarrett has been the main influence on my style… But I have some practice tape from my teenage years where I tried to compose on the piano… which somehow turned into improvisation.  From these early tapes, I can already hear the elements of total improvisation… and my musical carácter. So I think at least part of the reasons why Keith's music resonated with me so much was that I already had something similar in me… and in the music of Keith Jarrett, I was able to hear the 'something' already realized… i.e., melody/harmony/rhythm in spontaneous compostion or total improvisation.    

© 2008 Eisuke Koya

PACHI TAPIZ - You were born in Japan, but you currently live  in the USA. What took you there?

NOBU STOWE - Please see above… but there is this funny store.  I decided to go to the US when I was still in junior high (13-15).  Well… I wanted to be a rock star… ! My parents are rather conservative… although they are open to music.  If I told them that I would go to the US to be a rock star, they would have never allowed me…   I also liked psychology… So I told my parents that I wanted to go to the US to study both music and psychology. Because of Dr. Timothy Leary (the LSD guru)… I knew of UC Berkeley (where Dr. Leary received his Ph.D). And I had also heard of Berklee School of music… and at least initially… I confused UC Berkeley with Berklee School of Music… and thought… well… if I go to "Berkeley", I can study both psychology and music! (and Berkeley is a famous academic school… and so I bet my parents would go for the idea… !) Of course, I knew Berkeley is different from Berklee… before I came here… but I went on to study both psychology and music at UC Berkeley! 

PACHI TAPIZ - You're also a psychologist. Does it influence in the way you approach to play jazz?

NOBU STOWE - I think it does… but it's hard to express.  The way I conceptualize music is very psychological… also especially in my writings about JAZZ.

PACHI TAPIZ - You seem very interested in music all over the World. Who are your favourite european jazz players…

NOBU STOWE - Django Reinhardt, Michel Petrucciani, Joachim Kühn, Aldo Romano, Enrico Rava, Jan Garbarek, Jon Christensen, Pierre Favre, Jean François Jenny-Clark, Daniel Humair, Jacques Loussier, René Thomas, Eddie Louiss, John Surman, Tete Montoliu and many others!  

PACHI TAPIZ - You said you know some Spanish prog-rock bands, but do you know any Spanish jazz players?

NOBU STOWE - Alter discovering "jazz" through the music of Keith Jarrett, I started to buy many jazz albums around the globe… not only from the US, but also from other countries… especially from Europe.  As I was already familiar with European 'pop' music through progressive rock, it was only natural for me to get into European players.  Also, my background as a classical pianist was (is) surely playing a BIG role in this.  Before Keith Jarrett, I already knew Paco de Lucia through his collaborations with John McLaughlin/Al di Meola. 

    Then, I discovered Tete Montoliu first… through introductory jazz books in Japanese.  So I tried several of his albums… mostly 70's stuff… on Steeplechase or Enja.  I like his music very much.  My favorite track by Tete would be… his rendition of the Blossom Dearie song "Sweet Georgie Fame" from the album Catalonian Fire.  At the same time, I also bought the duo album Spain by Tomatito and Michel Camilo… and liked it too.  I also bought some albums by Chano Domínguez and also saw him live when he came to Chicago Jazz Festival.   

    Recently, I discovered the wonderful drumming of Ramón López.  I chose the album Kalimbawith Joachim Kuhn and Majid Bekkas… as my best international album of 2007 for Jazz Tokyo.  

    But compared to other European scenes in Germany, France and Italy… my knowledge of Spanish Jazz is still limited… unfortunately.

Nobu Stowe - Lee Pembleton Project Hommage An Klaus Kinski (Soul Note, 2007)
Cover painting by Honyo Ohte

PACHI TAPIZ - One of your last recordings is the totally improvised recording Hommage An Klaus Kinski with Lee Pembleton. How would you describe your creative approach to this particular duo. What are your references (groups, music, musicians… ) when you develop it?

NOBU STOWE - I started to play total-improvisation… at least consciously… while I was in Chicago.  So I have been doing it for about 10 years.  Of course, I was inspired by Keith Jarrett's solo improvisations.  But as I wrote… I was already doing somehting similar even when I was very young.  Also, I feel total-improvisation is really an extension of composition… and fitting into my compositional style: my compositions, usually just 'come' almost in a complete form.  I hardly compose a song parts-by-parts… rather I tend to compose the entire composition at once. 

    In public, I started to practice total-improvisation with a drummer.  This is because… I know I am not at the level of Keith Jarrett and so I need a help… to me, a drummer (or percussionist) can give this help without sacrificing my harmonic/melodic freedom… and often enhance my rhythmic sense too.  I have practiced this "group" total-improvisation with reed players and guitarists… and it works rather easily… given the players know "how to listen". 

    To me bassists are the most difficult partners to practice total-improvisations.  Because total-improvisation sometimes/often requires tonal (as opposed atonal) harmonic progression… and it is very hard to catch each other's chord progression with a bassist.  There is only one bassist (Vytis Nivinskas) with whom I can do total-improvisation rather easily… but only when we are on. 

    I met Lee while in Chicago… Lee specializes in 'Sound'… without any musical notes… he is coming from the "musique concrète" tradition. And importantly, he can also improvise on the spot using wide arrays/combinations of sounds.  The total-improv with Lee works thus well… because his sound does not impose any restriction on melody/harmony/rhythm… so I can go pretty much anywhere. 

     Total-Improvisation on Sonic Canvas is a variant of Total-Improvisation.  It was my idea to draw the 'painting' of Total-Improvisation on the canvas provided by Lee's sound.  So in a way… the improvisation (for me) is reactive… rather than initiative… but of course, this is not always the case. 

PACHI TAPIZ - In this recording all pieces are spontaneously composed or improvised, but the last one… Why did you decide to play a version of such a classic as "''Round Midnight"?

NOBU STOWE - I am inclined to cover many styles as long as some consistency is maintained for the entire album.  This inclination explains the varied style within Hommage an Klaus Kinski.  But "'Round Midnight" was totally unplanned.  I was not planning to play this song when I started to playing.  I heard the sound which Lee Pembleton started to play… and somehow chose D-sharp minor chords to go with the sound… then the atmosphere  somehow reminded me of "'Round Midnight" (it is in the key of D-sharp minor).  So I started to play the standard… but Lee Pembleton and Ross Bonadonna had no idea what I was going to play.  

    Having been a professional musician for his life… Ross Bonadonna soon caught what I was playing.  So Ross started to play along with me.  But Lee… who is less experienced in 'jazz'… did not know what song we were playing till I told him (after the performance) that we just played "'Round Midnight"!… So it was very spontaneous thing (which I value the most… especially in this kind of freely improvised music).  I admit there are some rough spots (for example, some perhaps noticed that I missed a chord for the 2nd theme).  But I thought the overall sound/mood is fitting to the rest of the album.  So I decided to include it in the album. 

    I think it worked rather well… and my intention is to include at least one pre-composed song (either standard or original) in each of my fully improvised album.  For example, in my next Soul Note album, An Die Musik, which is another fully improvised album, there is a version of my original "Pochi" (dedicated to my cat Pochi!)   

© 2008 Eisuke Koya

PACHI TAPIZ - You were talking about bassists… who are your favourite bass players? Which bassists you'll like to play total improvisation with?

NOBU STOWE - My favourite bassists are Gary Peacock and Jean-François Jenny-Clark… and of course, Scott LaFaro. I also dig Arild Andersen, Miroslav Vitous, Dave Holland, Glen Moore et al… I tend to like bassists who cannot only provide strong rhythmic pulse/groove/swing… but who can also act as the secondary voice to the piano and upper instruments.  But I also like people like Percy Heath, Pierre Michelot, Sam Jones, Doug Watkins, Paul Chambers… who can provide a very good  groove/swing feeling. 

    It is always tricky to play total-improvisation with a bassist.  This is so even if the bassist is the giant like Gary Peacock… if you compare Keith Jarrett's solo vs. trio total-improvisations, you can tell Keith is more 'free' in solo setting. 

    It is not easy to create spontaneous tonal-chordal progression… and expect the bassist will catch you on the spot (or you catch with your left hand, what the bassist is playing). 

    One of my favorite Jarrett/Peacock/DeJohnette tracks is "On Green Dolphin Street" from the complete Blue Note Live boxed set.  I love this track for the special "extension"… spontaneous melodic and tonal improvisation of the trio managed to carry… Keith is not playing so many chords here… but still… Gary was so quick to get the tonal chordal progression and Jack provides very nice fitting groove.  But… this is very hard even for the masters like Jarrett/Peacock/DeJohnette. 

    I would like to try total-improvisation, of course, with Gary Peacock… but also with Vytis Nivinskas.  Vytis is a superlative bassist from Lithuania who is a protégé of Vladimir Chekasin of Ganelin Trio.  I met Vytis in Chicago… he came there to get Master degree in Music.  He and I had a trio called Outside In… which is basically precursor to my current trio Trio Ricochet.  Now he teaches at Vilnius Conservatory. His idols are Miroslav Vitous and Arild Andersen et al.  Vytis has one album Saga on the Lithuanian label, Semplice. This album was recorded by the group of the same name… "Saga"… consting of 3 other marvellous players from Lithuania: Andre Pabarčiūtė — voice, piano; Liudas Mockūnas — reeds; Vytis Nivinskas — double-bass: Marius Aleksa — drums.   

    Vytis and I have already tried total-improvisation together… and since we played it for a while, we managed to learn some tricks… though it is still rather hard (i.e., we are more restrained to play chordal progression compared to without the piano/bass).I have some plans with Vytis for the future… so hopefully, that will happen soon.   

PACHI TAPIZ - You have a piano jazz trio called Trio Ricochet. Why did you choose that name?

NOBU STOWE - In fact Trio Ricochet is my main project… and currently, the only composition-oriented project of mine.  Before moving to Baltimore, I had a similar trio in Chicago called Outside-In Trio  with Vytis Nivinskas (b) and Dan Bales (Drs).  This trio was disbanded because I moved to Baltimore, Vytis went to NYC (now back to Lithuania) and Dan joined Fire-dancers performing in Las Vegas. 

    After relocating to Baltimore, I placed an add in local newspaper looking for a bassist and a drummer.  The drummer Alan Munshower responded… and said he has a roommate Tyler Goodwin who is a good bassist.  Alan and Tyler are originally from Connecticut and friends since elementary school.  Alan came to Baltimore to go to college, while Tyler joined Alan later… to attend Peabody Institute (Conservatory) in Baltimore.  Tyler wanted to study classical double-bass.   

    I went down to their house… and did an audition and found out they are in fact good musicians.  So I decided to form the trio… but I am always bad at naming my bands.  I did not want to use Nobu Stowe Trio… because I wanted to make it more democratic.  So I asked Alan to come up a good name… Alan suggested Ricochet Trio… because 'richochet' in his mind had a good connotation.  I though that sounded a bit dull… so I suggested to change the order… to Trio Ricochet… and sounded better.  But there is no serious meaning behind this name!

© 2008 Eisuke Koya

PACHI TAPIZ - Why did you decide to base your work on compositions?

NOBU STOWE - Composition is in fact my main project… ever since I started playing in a band in elementary school.  Of course, we did some compulsory cover songs… I have been always the primary composer to all of my projects… till just a few years ago… when I 'discovered' that it is much easier to record/release with fully improvised projects. 

    For composition projects, it usually takes a while even for a good musician to 'master' my compositions.  This is partially because my songs are not necessarily simple and also partially because I do not want to write down every arrangement… for jazz, I always prefer 'spontaneity' over 'tight/sophisticated arrangements' (besides I am terrible at transcribing music…!)

    For fully improvised music, all I do is to 'set the basic frame work' or the "topic"… for example, the topic for Hommage An Klaus Kinski was… Jarrett-type melodic improv meets chamber-free a la Giuffre/Bley/Konitz on sonic canvas… for my upcoming album An Die Musik (Soul Note, due June 2008) with Alan Mushower (drs) and Badal Roy (tabla), the topic was simpler… Jarrett-type melodic improv with helps from drums/tabla.

    Other than these topics… I tried to everything to the 'moments' and the interplay between each musicians involved.  So I guess… my improvisation is not totally-free per se… it is free within a frame work.  I am not fond of very loose free-improvisation lacking 'focus'… so I use the 'frame work' or topic to set the focus… but I still try to leave the frame work/topic somewhat open to invite spontaneity.

PACHI TAPIZ - Are you planning to record with the Ricochet Trio?

NOBU STOWE - I hope so.  In fact, several labels have interested in this project.  But since this project is dearest to my heart (and also the "preparation" has already taken much more time than fully improvised projects), I am most 'picky' about the deal… and consequently, I have not yet sealed a deal with any label…!

PACHI TAPIZ - What are your next projects?

NOBU STOWE - My next release will be An Die Musik from Soul Note (due June 2008).  The album was recorded at An die Musik in Baltimore with the drummer Alan Munshower and the tabla master Badal Roy who participated in Miles Davis's On The Corner among other projects.  The music is basically my 'Jarrett-inspired' solo piano improvisation (total-improvisation) with drums and tablas.  It is very melodic and tonal… and perhaps closest to my 'natural' tendency as 'inside' player.  I think the album would appeal to not only to Jarrett fans… but also to fans of ethnic-tinged jazz/improv of Oregon and Pat Metheny et al.          

    I have 2 more recordings ready to be released.  The first is Confusion Bleue recorded at Wombat Studio (Brooklyn) in July 2007.  I recorded this with Lee Pembleton (sound), Ross Bonadonna (g/as), Tyler Goodwin (b) and Ray Sage.  It is an extension of my 2 albums on Konnex (Brooklyn Moments and New York Moments)… with extroverted inside/outside approach (e.g., Keith Jarrett + Cecil Taylor)… but perhaps more 'mature'. I am very happy with the results and am convinced that Ross Bonadonna is the best kept secret in the NY scene.  Ross is in his early has been a professional musicians since age 16 and is the owner/engineer of Wombat Studio where I have recorded most of my works.  Ross has albums on Clean Feed (Tangled Tango with Ethan Winograd) and is in the trio of Erik "Charles' Son" Mingus.  Ross co-produced Erik's new album on Intuition. 

    The other recording ready to be released in still untitled… but it was recorded in January 2008 with Lee Pembleton (sound), Ross Bonadonna (bs/as/syn/g) and Jason Bivins (g).  Jason is an active critic who contributes to Cadence, Signal to Noise and Dusted Magazine.  He also happens to be an excellent guitarist in the tradition of Keith Rowe/Derek Bailey/Bill Frisell and also a professor of Comparative Religious Studies at North Carolina State University. The concept of this album was "AMM + Keith Jarrett".   

    Finally, I really would like to record/release officially the music of my piano trio (Trio Ricochet).  Several labels have shown interests in this project.  However, since this is my 'baby' project and most successful… at least bookings-wise (the trio managed to play at Blue Note NY, Knitting Factory and the Smithsonian Institute all in a short period)… I am most picky about the deal.  Consequently, I have not yet reached an agreement with any label. 

Nobu Stowe & Alan Munshower with Badal Roy An die Music (Soul Note, 2008)
Cover painting by Honyo Ohte

PACHI TAPIZ - Any plans to play live in Europe and/or Spain?

NOBU STOWE - No definite plans yet, unfortunately.  But my label, Soul Note, is looking for a promoter… so hopefully, I will have a proper agent in Europe soon!  I may be able to go to Italy this summer to attend some festivals there.  This will be through my trio with Andrea Centazzo and Perry Robinson, which released The Soul In The Mist (Ictus) last summer. I am not so sure about my playing on this album… however, I believe it is perhaps the best album to appreciate the sadly under-appreciated clarinet mastery of Perry Robinson and the compositional skills of Andrea Centazzo who is know more through his high level improvisation works with Steve Lacy, Derek Bailey, John Zorn, Pierre Favre, Albert Mangelsdorff et al.   

PACHI TAPIZ - You recently interviewed Keith Jarrett. Was it very difficult to get that interview and having it done? Mr. Jarrett seems to be very special... What is the most intense interview you've done?

NOBU STOWE - I have had the pleasure to interview my music heroes for Jazz Tokyo.  I have already interviewed Gary Peacock, Bill Frisell and Keith Jarrett and am schedule to interview Michel Legrand and Gato Barbieri.  But it was only last Summer (2007) when I started writing about jazz.  This is all thanks to the encouragements and opportunities given by the editor-in-chief of Jazz Tokyo.  Inaoka-san (this is how I call him: "san" is Mr/Ms/Miss/Mrs in Japanese) is a famous producer and book author in Japan with very extensive connections.  Without Inaoka-san's support, all of my interviews probably never happened/happens… especially that with Keith Jarrett… !

    Inaoka-san was the original ECM Japan Manager with Kenwood (the Japanese audio maker) which distributed the German label to Japan throughout the 70's to the early 80s.  Thus, he has also been a personal friend of Manfred Eicher and Steve Lake for a long time… and importantly knows Keith well too. In fact, Inaoka-san even produced one video project involving Keith in the 80's.  It was a video picture of Japan shot from the sky.  Keith and his son Gabriel (per) added the fully improvised soundtrack to the picture under Inaoka-san's production.  This video (DVD) is still available in Japan. 

    Keith Jarrett is my 'god' at the piano… so to speak… and of course, I was a bit nervous.  But I guess that I proved myself to be a well-studied pupil of Keith… ! In the interview, we covered a lot of subjects and I was glad to know that Keith and I share many similar views about the music.  Consequently, the interview went very well and much longer than we originally planned.  The interview is now published at Jazz Tokyo… but unfortunately, they are in Japanese only. 

    I had expected my interview with Keith Jarrett to be the most intense… but as I said, it went pretty smoothly.  So far I just had a lot of fan interviewing my heroes… and do not recall any 'intense' moment… yet… !

PACHI TAPIZ - Can you make a list of Jarrett favourites? 

NOBU STOWE - I will choose 5 best albums and 10 best songs.

ALBUMS (order irrelevant):

  • My Song – This is my most favorite jazz album!
  • Survivor's Suite – One of the best in inside/outside approach. Especially, 'Conclusion'.  
  • Vienna Concert – Perhaps, the most accomplished total-improvisation ever.
  • Still Live – For the thrilling interplay. 
  • Up for It – For the joyous interplay.

SONGS (order irrelevant, except "Country"):

  • "Country" (from My Song) – The song "started" my jazz carrier. 
  • "Lucky Southern" (from Free by Airto Moreira) – One of the best 'pop' songs by Keith Jarrett.  
  • "Part IIc" (from Köln Concert) – Perfect example of Jarrett's "Song-oriented" Total-Improvisation.
  • "Conclusion" (from Survivor's Suite) – Masterpiece of inside/outside playing.
  • "Sunshine Song" (from Nude Ants) – One of the best small combo performance. 
  • "God Bless the Child" (from Standards Vol. 1 – The Album)  - Unusual, yet totally spontaneous arrangement which shined a new light into this Billie Holiday standard.
  • "Prism" (from Standards Vol. 1 – The Video)  - For the beauty of the song and the performance.
  • "I Remember Clifford" (from Still Live) – Minimum notes, but deepest emotional expression. 
  • "On Green Dolphin Street" (from Keith Jarrett at the Blue Note: The Complete Recordings) – The best spontaneous trio improvisation ever captured… listen to the incredible "extension."
  • "The Wind" (from Paris Concert) – For the sheer beauty of the performance… especially the Grass-like intro.

Más información sobre Nobu Stowe


@ 2008 José Francisco “Pachi” Tapiz, Tomajazz