John Stowell's album Solitary Tales is all about exploration. On most of the album Stowell plays a nylon string acoustic/electric guitar that has a classical sound. In fact when Stowell isn't playing swung or bebop lines, he almost sounds as if he's improvising in a classical guitar fashion. In this way, Stowell makes full use of the idiomatic possibilities of the guitar. This is even the case when playing his electric, such as on Ornette's "Blues Connotation," which is tuned lower and has a much darker sound in the low register than the nylon string guitar.
Solitary Tales is at its best when Stowell presents each tune's head clearly and when he develops motives from the tune throughout his solo. Stowell most effectively demonstrates this on a highly embellished and altered version of Cole Porter's "Everything I Love," in which he uses a five note motive from his version of the melody and reworks and transposes it, and uses its shape as a point of departure for his improvisation. Stowell's "Friendly Giant" and "Fun with Fruit" are also highlights. "Friendly Giant's" melody is strong enough that the listener can hear its presence and contour even when Stowell is not directly stating it "Fun with Fruit's" strong riff-like call and response melody is engaging and provides much for Stowell to consider during his solo.
The album slows down on Steve Swallow's "Outfits" and "Willow" and on Bill Evans' "Funny Man," when the musical seeds for the solos are at times unclear. Stowell's numerous runs fit the arpeggiated nature of his treatment of "Outfits'" head, but for a short time he seems to lose his footing.. "Funny Man" is also highly modified from the original and I have trouble following Stowell's train of thought throughout. "Willow" is fairly nebulous for two and a half minutes before jumping into a steady tempo and engaging the listener with briskly swung lines.
Solitary Tales demands the listener's undivided attention, giving it any less, such as listening to it in the car or having it on while washing dishes, runs the risk of having it blur together into one long song, as some tunes share nearly the exact characteristics and approach. Not giving it your full attention will also cause you to miss many of Stowell's subtle, inventive and rewarding ideas. This record is at times a tough listen, and it reveals the risks of solo improvisation if the listener can't identify with, follow, or understand an improviser's musical choices and ideas: he or she is pulled on a journey that's path is at times unclear. At its most effective, Solitary Tales showcases Stowell's ability to create or embellish a melody, dig into it, pull out the nuggets, and forge them into something new and exciting. There are few musicians whom I'm aware of that experiment with harmony, form and melody as much as John Stowell, and Solitary Tales is for those who are ready to explore uncharted territory. It is a journey I'm not always up for taking, but sometimes I'm more than happy to dive into the unknown.