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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1367

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Terry Bowness: Stick Figures
by George Graham

(Aardvark Records 72005 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 6/9/2004)

Mixed Bag recently celebrated our thirtieth anniversary as a daily program on WVIA, and we have been doing these album reviews ever since the very beginning. As we looked back to the early days for the anniversary, we noted that one of the musical genres that was very active creatively when we started in 1974, was jazz-rock fusion. At that time, the scene was dominated by alumni of Miles Davis' bands, including John McLaughlin, Weather Report, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, and others who took the electric instrumentation of rock, cranked up the volume, and played music with the compositional complexity and high level of musicianship that marks jazz.

Since then, jazz-rock fusion has had its ups and downs, never quite returning to the popularity and wealth of album releases of its heyday three decades ago. Many of the fusion pioneers have gone back to acoustic instrumentation, tiring of the volume and lack of subtlety that the early electric instruments provided, while others, like the Pat Metheny Group have defined a whole new direction for fusion, making it broader with more subtle, complex instrumental colors, and wider-ranging influences including World Music. And on the other hand, fusion has also devolved into so-called the "smooth jazz," that has graced many an elevator, and generally earned the scorn of jazz purists.

This week we have an example of yet another school of fusion -- combining elements of jazz with funk and even some techno. The keyboard trio Medesky, Martin & Wood have popularized the form, but this week's album is somewhat more expansive in scope. It's the second release by Texas-based keyboard man Terry Bowness, called Stick Figures.

Terry Bowness was born into a musical family, with a mother who sang in a church choir, and a father reached the level of recording in Nashville. Terry took up the piano at age 8, encouraged by his older brother's wide-ranging music collection which ran from classical to Pink Floyd, and started composing and recording while in his teens.

After high school, Bowness enrolled at the University of Missouri at Rolla, where he graduated with a degree in electrical engineering. While at college, he spent a lot of time at the campus station playing eclectic music on the air, exploring the record library, especially the jazz, and experimenting in the station's production studio.

After graduation, Bowness moved to Dallas, Texas, to work for Texas Instruments, working on designing integrated circuits. There, he started playing in bands ranging from jazz groups to a Grateful Dead cover band. By 1995, he began to lead his own trio. At the same time, he was working on his electrical engineering master's degree, and achieved that in 1996.

That year, he and his wife moved to Austin, Texas, which proved to be a fertile ground for both of his careers -- the high-tech world, where he earns his living in computer chip design, and the city's active music scene, where Bowness has performed with such people as guitarist Mitch Watkins and vocalist Suzi Stern. Since 1998, he has been a member of a Latin jazz group in Austin called Los Jazz Vatos. In 1999, Bowness released his eponymous debut CD, which attracted accolades in his home area.

Terry Bowness' second CD Stick Figures was actually first released regionally a year ago, in May of 2003, but now he and his small independent label are going for national distribution, and it's a good thing. The CD is a worthy and eclectic blend of material ranging from hip-hop and techno-oriented to more or less straight acoustic jazz, to spacey music somewhere between fusion and New Age.

Joining Bowness on the CD are other members of the Austin music scene, including guitarist Mitch Watkins, bassist Roscoe Beck, who has been a part of the groups led by guitar phenom Eric Johnson. Also on guitar is David Grissom, who often plays backup to singer-songwriters, and drummers Brannen Temple and Mike Koenning. Bowness eschews the currently popular Hammond organ, opting instead for a retro-sounding Rhodes electric piano, plus a fair amount of acoustic piano, some vintage synthesizers, as well as creating the looped percussion tracks that were used on some of pieces where they interact well with the live percussion. His debut album consisted of mostly original material but did contain a cover of a John Coltrane tune. This CD follows the pattern, though this time, the cover is of a Beatles song.

But starting the CD is Might as Well, which encapsulates many of the influences on the CD with the funky rhythm leading to some hip-hop influence complete with a turntable spinner who calls himself "NickNack." But the piece itself unfolds in an absorbing way with its various subsections that emphasize different parts of the stylistic mix. David Grissom is the featured guitarist, who throws in an occasional Hendrix quote. <<>>

Much more atmospheric, and approaching mainstream acoustic jazz is Mother and Child, which features Mitch Watkins in the guitar position, while Bowness concentrates on acoustic piano.

The CD's lengthiest piece, called Cranberry Sauce is also in the funky-techno mode. There are sections that sound like high-energy jams <<>> while others get decidedly more laid back, at times resembling early Pink Floyd. <<>>

The CD features three solo pieces, again in different styles. The short Falling Freely has the feel of some of Chick Corea's solo piano work. <<>> While Dark Matter is a kind of experimental collection of sounds from Bowness' vintage Prophet 5 synthesizer and playing the inside of the piano. It's about as self-indulgent as this generally well-constructed CD gets. <<>>

Also in the spacey category, though among the CD's highlights, is a track called Asteroids, that embodies some wonderfully retro keyboard sounds, while keeping things interesting with a convoluted rhythm formed with a combination of looped sequences and real drums. <<>>

Following that, by way of contrast, is the earthy New Orleans groove of Sweet Pea, which shows that 21st century fusion music can also be catchy. <<>>

Stick Figures ends with its Beatles cover, Across the Universe, done as a duet with guitarist Mitch Watkins. The duo give the piece almost a chamber music quality with Bowness' formal-sounding piano work and Watkins' atmospheric playing. <<>>

There seems to be something of a revival of interest in the jazz-rock fusion of the 1970s, both in terms of numerous reissues of recordings from that period, as well as contemporary musicians drawing on those influences, especially in terms of the instrumentation. Terry Bowness, on his sophomore CD Stick Figures draws on both the retro and on the more contemporary such as hip-hop and techno-influenced rhythms for an engaging, varied and generally appealing mix. The CD has a more improvised quality than some, and indeed many of the tracks are first-takes, so some pieces are better performances than others. But the musicianship is first rate, and rather less self-indulgent than some of the fusion of 30 years ago. The sonic textures give the album additional interest.

Our sound quality grade is close to an "A." According to the CD's booklet notes, this was largely a home recording, mixed at a studio in Austin. There's decent sonic clarity, given the rather electric instrumentation, and the presence of the fairly well-recorded acoustic bass makes for a nice rich texture. Electronic effects were not allowed to get out of hand, and the dynamic range is not bad.

Singer-songwriter Mecca Austin, Texas, is not normally thought of a hotbed for jazz-rock fusion. But guitarists Eric Johnson and Mitch Watkins have been playing the music there for years. On Stick Figures Keyboard man Terry Bowness is not only helping to keep the style going, but exploring some interesting new territory.

(c) Copyright 2004 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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