It looks like we have our first classic of the year. On the cover of his new album Power Play, saxophonist Ralph Bowen stands in an alley, holding his sax more like a goalie than a winger. But the title is absolutely spot-on. This is one of those albums that musicians will hear and will immediately want to play along to. Yet ironically, non-musicians will probably enjoy this the most because they can just relax and enjoy it for what it is rather than having to figure out what Bowen is doing. Which actually isn’t all that difficult, most of the time, other than the most rapidfire passages (which will take lots of practice if you want to do them with the same kind of soul and style), because melody is simple. It lingers. As does this album.
If you play, this is a clinic in the kind of things you could be doing, and maybe should be doing. Bowen’s sense of melody is stunning, and yet completely unpredictable. He alternates effortlessly between scales and modes, shows off some wickedly blistering speed in places yet only when he really has to drive a point home. The closest comparison is probably Joshua Redman, but Bowen’s attack is lighter and more crystalline, and that contrasts, sometimes mightily, with the intensity of the tunes. He plays both tenor and alto here and is equally compelling either way. It’s hard-hitting, purposeful and tuneful beyond belief, and it elevates the crew behind him. Donald Edwards’ no-nonsense drums team up withKenny Davis’ crisp, propulsive bass, along with Orrin Evans’ piano. About Evans, what else is there to say – everything he touches lately turns into magic (have you heard his Tarbaby album from last year? Get the damn thing!), and this is yet another example.
They don’t waste time getting started with an aggressive, matter-of-fact swing blues, which sets up an immediate contrast with the gorgeous, richly countermelodic Drumheller Valley, its intro with echoes of Brubeck, Evans kicking in a majestically chordal solo followed by an artfully divergent passage into Bowen’s lusciously ominous spirals. Two-Line Pass – a highway reference, maybe? – is relentless, Evans again matching the understated overdrive of Bowen’s restless bustle. Evans goes into rippling Americana-via-Brubeck on The Good Shepherd, a wickedly catchy modal number; Bowen’s long, bumpy descent out of the clouds on the warmly thoughtful swing tune Bella Firenze is arguably the high point of the whole album. Although on second thought that could be his big crescendo out, on alto, on the almost deviously nonchalant blues ballad Jessica, which follows it.
Walleye Jigging is a tongue-in-cheek lazy afternoon tableau complete with an expansive cocktail piano solo and an extended interlude in three before reverting to relaxed, syncopated swing. The album ends with A Solar Romance, a gently optimistic ballad that turns dark in seconds and gives Bowen the chance to work the suspense for all it’s worth, all the way to a very uneasy resolution. The lone cover here is My One and Only Love, where the bass and piano give Bowen plenty of room for what’s basically an expansive (ok, eight-minute) solo that somehow manages not to be boring. It’s only February, but you’ll see this on our best albums of 2011 list. It’s out now on Posi-Tone.