LAJC Picks: Jonathan Rowden Group, Thursday June 5, Blue Whale

Saxophonist Jonathan Rowden is a relatve newcomer to the Los Angeles jazz scene. He’s debuting a new album, Becoming (Orenda Records), at Blue Whale on Thursday. -GF

A motivating factor for many artists is the desire for self-expression, a need to represent either explicitly or through abstraction the philosophy and/or biography of one’s life.  With the release of Southern California-based tenor saxophonist Jonathan Rowden’s debut album, Becoming, he manages to do so in one concise, dramatic, heartfelt gesture.

The Jonathan Rowden Group represents a growing trend in Los Angeles towards music which draws upon elements of modernism fused with an aesthetic edge prevalent in much of today’s music regardless of genre, following the lead of signature groups like the piano trio The Bad Plus and proto-jazz band Kneebody, which came to notoriety in LA.  Becoming runs without pause through its entirety as a through-composed piece with an intentional flight path through extreme hard-hitting highs and sublime lows, undergirded with meticulous attention to texture and color, resulting in a satisfying emotional catharsis at its conclusion.

When asked to define his sound, Rowden, like many artists, remains elusive.  “I kind of view it as making music in 3-D, viewing history in 3-D.  We’re surrounded by all this (music), and we need to pick and choose…we’re just trying to write and play music that feels right and sounds good, and sometimes that leads to more surprising moments.”  Indeed, in Rowden’s own saxophone playing there are hints of an expansive tableau of influences, from late Coltrane and Eric Dolphy, to Michael Brecker and Joshua Redman.  Yet it would be difficult to pigeonhole his playing or his new album, maybe because they are pointing towards unexplored territory.

Two titles from the album appear to encapsulate the current state of mind of Rowden, who will celebrate his 30th birthday in the fall yet is a relative newcomer to the increasingly revitalized Los Angeles creative jazz community; the title track Becoming and the three-part suite The Long Road Home, with both titles serving (perhaps inadvertently) to summarize his circuitous route to finding his calling as a jazz musician.

Rowden had his first saxophone lessons at age seven, but he stopped within a year when his family relocated from Seattle to California.  It wouldn’t be until college when he would rediscover jazz and the saxophone and resume lessons, abandoning his prior intention to become a comic book artist.  Despite the late restart, Rowden is now negotiating a strong foothold within the music scene, beginning to explore collaborations with many of the best jazz musicians in Los Angeles, and was offered the opportunity to release his debut on the new Los Angeles based creative music label, Orenda Records.  It’s a good fit for Rowden, as Orenda is positioning itself to be the leading advocate for some of the more exploratory forms of jazz in Los Angeles.  Rowden is promoting his new album with a West Coast tour from May 26 to June 5, with stops at newly popular jazz venues like Duende in Oakland and The Royal Room in Seattle.

Becoming was recorded at the historic Sunset Sound Recording Studio in Hollywood, where artists ranging from Walt Disney to the Doors to Van Halen once recorded.  The players on the album are all current members of the Jonathan Rowden Group, which has been together for the past year.  The individuals in the group are now integral to the sound of the group, with the four of them nearly inseparable from the music.  As Rowden says, “There are no subs in this band.”  Pianist/keyboardist Ryan Pryor was a classmate of Rowden’s in college and a gifted pianist and excellent jazz and electronic music composer.  Of Pryor, Rowden reminisces about the time they first played, “I secretly hoped he would have me in his quartet because I liked his music so much…but I just got a quartet together and had him come in, and asked him if we could play some of his music too.”  In their live shows the band devotes a significant amount of time to Pryor’s compositions, one of which (the sprightly tune Autonation) appears on this record.  Bassist Chris Hon at age 21 is the youngest member of the group but has become Rowden’s go-to player, as he says Hon is “probably the most creative bass player I’ve gotten to play with on a regular basis.”  Drummer James Yoshizawa is the son of Masukazu Yoshizawa, one of the foremost Japanese-American scholars of ancient and modern Japanese traditional music.  The younger Yoshizawa has his father’s exemplary musical instincts, yet he is forging his own way through his mastery of jazz and orchestral percussion.  “James tries to play things that are not the established way of playing…he’s really in connection with the timbre of all the instruments he plays.”

Rowden’s opinion of his drummer is high enough that he wrote for and features Yoshizawa on the three-part suite The Long Road Home, about an especially difficult year the saxophonist had, the centerpiece of his travails being the miscarriage of his first child.  (Rowden’s wife, Rachyl, recently gave birth to their new baby girl, Avery.)  Yet the title could also describe the extensive sojourn back home to his initial love of jazz and the saxophone, finally becoming the artist he was destined to be.  His journey became literal this summer when Rowden took his band up the long road of I-5 to his hometown of Seattle, where he got a chance to perform with the very same saxophone teacher who gave him his first lesson.  In Rowden’s case, the road was indeed long but true, proof that one really can go home again.

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