Michael Zilber and John Stowell might be making their best music yet
The ice and fire front line of the John Stowell/Mike Zilber Quartet gives the band a sound that's quietly dramatic and consistently alluring. Stowell, a guitarist based in Portland, Oregon, possesses a less-is-more aesthetic, rarefied harmonic palette and pleasingly cool tone. Zilber, a longtime resident of Albany, is a muscular tenor and soprano saxophonist working in the rough-and-tumble territory opened up by John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. Their connection sounds deeper than ever on the band's third release, "Basement Blues" (Origin Records), with every piece unfurling like a free-flowing dialogue between two effective but contrasting raconteurs.
While it's easy to focus on the push and pull between Zilber and Stowell, what's just as striking is the supple and supremely sensitive rhythm section tandem of bassist John Shifflett and drummer Jason Lewis. Over the past 25 years or so, many a Bay Area bandleader has seen fit to hire them as a team, knowing that they've honed an exceptionally tight connection.
"I think there is something special when you play together for so long," says Lewis, who like Shifflett lives in San Jose and teaches at San Jose State. "Not that John's predictable, but I can anticipate where he might go. I can be ready to interact, or leave things steady. We're like-minded musically and listen to a lot of the same things."
They first started playing together regularly with South Bay guitarist Tim Volpicella (who has since relocated to Seattle). Lewis was just starting to establish himself and credits the late pianist Smith Dobson with instilling a go-for-broke commitment to music. "Smith intended to make the best music he could every time he sat down to play," Lewis says. "Zilber, Stowell and Shifflett definitely have the same attitude."
His rhythm section partnership with Shifflett really took shape in the '90s with vocalist Ann Dyer and The No Good Time Fairies, a project that culminated with the revelatory reimagination of a classic Beatles album, "Revolver: A New Spin" (Dyer has turned her attention to teaching yoga and isn't performing much anymore).
"That was formative," Lewis says. "There was an experimental quality to Ann's music that really allowed you to explore some different areas. Even on recordings, where it's hard to capture that lightning in a bottle, she really had a group sound."
More recently, Lewis and Shifflett have provided expert support for saxophonist Kris Strom on albums like her 2005 debut, "Intention," and 2012's ravishing "Sojourn," a session punctuated with brief, freely improvised "side trips." Zilber and Stowell like to engage in similarly impromptu musical travels and include a track on "Basement Blues" built on a funky groove in five laid down by Lewis and Shifflett that evolved spontaneously in the studio.
Their wide-ranging experiences all come into play with the quartet, which never settles into one sonic space for long. The album's title track (and its opening number) brings to mind the celestial vamps of Miles Davis' "In a Silent Way," followed by a gorgeous, swinging rendition of "Nobody Else But Me," which, Zilber notes, was the last song Jerome Kern composed. "It's got some beautiful, intricate harmonies, and it might surprise some people that we play it straight ahead."
An unapologetic punster, Zilber provides several tunes riffing on his partner's name, including the bittersweet "Stowell in Heart," which features a particularly lovely bass solo, and the hard-driving "Stowell Mates," a tune that brings out Lewis' inner John Bonham.
Stowell isn't a prolific composer, but his tunes always make a distinct impression, from the off-kilter blues of "Violin Memory" to the spacious, pristine harmonies of "I Wish." They close the album with a Stowell/Zilber duet on Bill Evans' "Still Early," a piece that captures the delicate dance of their musical partnership. In an ensemble that Zilber describes as "egoless, with nobody saying 'look at me,' " the musicians all bend toward each other, particularly the contrasting co-leaders.
"They are very different personalities, on and off the bandstand," Lewis says. "Musically, John is more ethereal and Zilber's writing is more forceful. For this group, they kind of meet each other in the middle."