The art of the quartet
by Piotr Michalowski
Jazz is now ubiquitous in universities, but it has not always been. For the first half of its history, jazz and academia were divided by race, lifestyle, and conceptual frameworks. The acceptance of improvised music in music schools has not always been an easy process, necessitating accommodation on all sides. Some musicians have been inspired by teaching and the relative comfort of a steady university gig, while others have stagnated. But there is a new generation of jazz musician/teachers who grew up in academia rather than in the world of nightclubs and dance halls. U-M music professor Ellen Rowe, a pianist, composer, arranger, and bandleader with a degree from the Eastman School of Music, belongs to this group.
As soon as Rowe joined the U-M faculty, she found her way into the local performance scene. Although a committed member of the university, with a full teaching and administrative load, she needed to perform as often as possible, both to perfect her craft and to show her students what life in jazz is all about. Sometimes this means traveling to other places--to New York, for example, to play with the all-woman big band Diva--or writing commissioned pieces for other bands. But above all, she plays wherever and whenever she can in Ann Arbor and its vicinity. For many years she was a regular in our jazz clubs; as these disappeared, she has had to find other venues, and she can often be heard as a leader or sidewoman in restaurants and bars, including, most recently, Vinology and the Ravens Club. She has also found a regular home at the Kerrytown Concert House, where she has presented a long-running series on the Art of the Trio, which combines two of the many aspects of her life: playing piano and academic lecturing. Each concert focuses on a classic jazz figure or style, with Rowe providing an easygoing yet serious set of explanations with demonstrations by her trio and guests.
Rowe returns to the Concert House with a different project: her quartet. The change in instrumentation is small--the addition of saxophonist and clarinetist Andrew Bishop--but conceptually the disparity between the trio and quartet is significant. While her lecture/performance series is dedicated to the music of others, the quartet is primarily a vehicle for her own compositions.
Rowe's music is harmonically and rhythmically modern, with a lyrical grace that permeates, without undue sentimentality, the compositions and improvisations through which she explores the challenges of scoring for a simple quartet, sometimes adding the voice of a trumpet. Those who only know her other work will discover another, quite distinctive, aspect of Rowe's musical personality. She brings the quartet, with guest trumpeter Paul Finkbeiner, to the Kerrytown Concert House on January 4.
[Originally published in January, 2012.]