Now Playing:
NW Life | Music | Entertainment | Arts

Notations from … John Stowell


Though he grew up in New York, guitarist, composer, author, and lecturer John Stowell has called Portland his home for many years.  His music takes him around the world and his love for jazz takes him to challenging, and yet familiar territories. And he likes it that way.

 What’s in your background that everyone should know but probably doesn’t know about you?

 No one’s asked that question before. If you look at my resume, it looks pretty good. I’ve played about 20 countries now and have been on the road for about 40 years. What I say to students or people who look at my resume, it may look like I have help with management, but really I’ve had friends scattered around the world who not only help me with being employed by finding work for me to do with them, but also a combination. I tell everybody you can have experiences as a traveling musician if you cultivate a network of friends who are in a position to help you play with them or also help you find work because they like you. So you look at my resume and see me playing in Russia or Jakarta or Argentina, India… so I stay on the road basically 6-8 months a year, for years.

 You’re taking a walk and come upon five men ahead:  Grant Green, Wes Montgomery, Charlie Christian, Carlos Jobim and Lenny Breau. You can talk to only one; which one?

 That’s a tough one. The one I know the least about is certainly Charlie Christian, but he’s essentially considered the father of the modern jazz guitar, even though he only lived to be 24 years old. If I had to pick one, I’d say Jobim only because he’s the one whose compositions I play the most. I’d say thank you for writing beautiful melodies and thank you for doing enough homework that we have jazz and classical sensibilities mixed together with these beautiful melodies of yours. I promise I will learn more of your songs because American and European musicians all say we love your music. Most of my friends play four of your songs over and over; I do about a dozen. So I promise to learn more and do my best to let the world outside of Brazil know what beautiful work you have.

 What tune would you play for someone that’s not familiar with jazz?

 Maybe someone who’s an important jazz composer, so they—the listener—would have a sense of the history of the music. I like an obscure tune by a composer. One I’ve been playing recently that I like a lot, that most people don’t know, is Duke Ellington. People obviously know who he is—they know maybe “Satin Doll”—but they maybe don’t know one of the more obscure songs he wrote. I found the soundtrack of “Anatomy of a Murder” with “Low Key Lightly” that I love and nobody plays.

 I’m a big fan of challenging an audience in a good way, in that they’d hear unfamiliar material that I think is beautiful. It’s really OK to give a more familiar song, too. I’m a big fan of a repertoire that most people haven’t heard, so I might set up the tune and explain that this is something that they’re not familiar with and it comes from a soundtrack. I think they’ll agree it’s well worth hearing.

 Please fill in the blanks:  The other day I heard _______and I thought, “I’m going to add this to my repertoire because____________.”

 My friend (saxophonist) David Valdez lives about 10 minutes from me and we do some jazz sessions at his house when I’m home. We don’t do many gigs but we play on a regular basis when I’m home. He’ll print out maybe 10 songs we can play. I tell students the best way to learn a new song is in a jam session. He’s pulled up some tunes over the last year that I’ve never heard from (pianist) Kenny Barron, who’s now 70 and still playing beautifully. I think of him as an accomplished journeyman bebop player and composer. There’s one tune of his called “Voyage,” and David pulled up this tune called “Ambrosia” from Kenny, a waltz, this moody, dark beautiful piece with kind of like a bluesy melody but the harmony has some beautiful details and some unusual modulations that I love.

 Are you a different guitarist in 2015 than 1985?

 Yeah, pretty different! I started recording in the late ‘80s and if you heard some of the early records and heard me now, you’d hear a difference in the sound. Probably the thing that changed the most, I started playing solo guitar in the late ‘70s. I was playing in the back of a restaurant to try to develop some kind of approach to playing alone… and I had no aspirations to be a solo player, but that developed ad hoc with the opportunities that came up, so I just kept doing it. I’ve done it enough that I have sold DVDs and CDs and I do occasional solo concerts and house concerts. So the harmonic detail and the vocabulary is more evolved 30 years later than in the ‘80s.

 Were you born with jazz in your soul or did you acquire it?

 I acquired it because when I started I had no idea what jazz was. It wasn’t played around the house. I started out playing in a rock band and I knew I loved music, but I didn’t think I had any particular aptitude for it. Any jazz musician would always say they work hard to develop whatever skill they have, so when I first heard jazz I was probably in my late teens. I didn’t get around to actually studying it until I was probably 21. I did my homework with theory and such, but I never really copied anyone. So for someone who had professional aspirations, I had a late start and I wouldn’t call myself a natural guitarist at all because I really had to practice a lot.

 Do you ever look at a young musician and think, “Yeah, I remember that?”

I do clinics fairly often and my hope for these folks, what you need to do is to design or create a way to make a living by pulling a variety of strings from various sources so you’ll be playing or producing some other styles of music or somehow getting involved with the recording end of music, something related to internet promotion, you’ll find a way to make a living if you’re called to it. You can tell right away when you hear somebody play—I’ve encountered a few people on this trip last month in their 20s or in some cases they’re still in school—that have that fire and that talent that indicates they love it. Everybody I know who’s been playing a long time will tell you that there was not a moment when they were young when they said I’m not sure if I want to be a musician or an IT guy or go into medicine or law, but the music calls to you in such an obvious way that you clearly have no choice. You can recognize this drive in any young player. You can tell in three minutes if someone has that desire.

By Deborah DeMoss Smith, host of “The Second Line,” Sun, 11am-1pm

Read More