That Stowell has never stopped growing is amply apparent on this latest release.
John Stowell is an Oregon-based jazz guitarist who has been on the scene since the mid 1970s. I first encountered his music while he was touring the west coast back in the 70s in a duo with bassist Dave Friesen. Freisen's visceral, earthy approach to the bass was the perfect counterpoint to Stowell's heady jazz conceptions, which together produced a wonderfully balanced mix of sky and earth. That fruitful collaboration produced one of the finest duo recordings of the 70s: "Through the Listening Glass" which is incidentally now available on CD.
That Stowell has never stopped growing is amply apparent on this latest release, "Solitary Tales" which was recorded in front of a live audience at the home of his guitar maker and engineer, Mike Doolin. "Tales" is an intimate affair, comprised of a mix of originals and a few jazz standards performed primarily on nylon string guitar with the occasional use of the electric guitar, which makes for a nice contrast to this largely acoustic set.
The general mood of this collection is comfortable and laid back. Much of the opening material is played rubato. Indeed, by the fourth tune I was beginning to hunger for a change of pace, my ears fatiguing in search of a more solid groove.
On top of this tendency to play rubato, Stowell's melodic and harmonic concepts are very sophisticated and may prove to be too demanding for casual listeners. That being said, on my second go round, I began to hear more of his ideas as my ears acclimated to his advanced approach. Stowell has Very Big Ears; there is an innate logic to the way he develops his ideas. He is fond of deploying controlled dissonance and seems to enjoy playing with melodic ideas that develop out of unusual intervallic relationships. This penchant for abstraction demands much from the listener but for those who persevere, there is plenty of musical enjoyment to be found.
Of particular note is his tender reading of Bill Evans "Funny Man" and his adventurous exploration on "House of Doolin," a contemporary original played to great effect on electric guitar. However, it is not until "Willow," a Steve Swallow tune that the album really starts to swing. The CD picks up steam on the following track, "Fun With Fruit", an intriguing Stowell composition that squarely lifts the proceedings off the ground. The groove intensifies with "Behind the Scenes," another Stowell chart that brings to mind some of Ralph Towner's thornier compositions. Indeed it almost inevitable to draw comparisons between these two artists as they both play the classical guitar in a jazz setting, drawing from a similar harmonic well for inspiration.
Nonetheless I don't find Stowell's playing to be the least bit derivative. Indeed, if this latest offering were any indication, Stowell would appear to be a jazz artist worthy of far more consideration and attention than he has received thus far.
The recording is itself is detailed and in focus. Engineer Doolin opts here for a tight upfront sound, revealing the intimate details of Stowell's considerable technique. All the squeaks and string noises are in sharp relief as well, but they are not a distraction and in this reviewer's opinion worth the tradeoff of choosing to close-mike the guitar over a more diffuse room sound.