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Ellen Rowe

Ellen Rowe 2011

Teaching while doing

by Sandor Slomovits

From the April, 2011 issue

"He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches." With all due respect to George Bernard Shaw, that's a sound-bite maxim--sounds good, until you think about it. Then, it's easy to come up with many more exceptions than you need to disprove that rule. As anyone who's heard Ellen Rowe will attest, she is one of those exceptions. Associate professor at the U-M School of Music, and chair of the Department of Jazz and Contemporary Improvisation, Rowe is a nationally and internationally renowned pedagogue and clinician, and an equally acclaimed pianist, composer, and arranger. Her series, "All About the Trio," begun last September and continuing once a month through June at the Kerrytown Concert House, is a marvelous blend of her talents in all those disciplines, and a compelling mix of teaching and doing. Featuring bassist Paul Keller and drummer Pete Siers--performer-teachers who also handily put the lie to the Shaw quote--her March concert and conversation at KCH offered plenty of pedagogy and much marvelous music making.

After starting with a masterfully played and seasonally timely rendition of Freddie Hubbard's Up Jumped Spring, Rowe demonstrated and discussed the tune's constantly shifting harmonic underpinning, later contrasting it with Hubbard's Little Sunflower, which sits on a D minor chord for much of the tune. Siers added an impromptu tutorial, grabbing his high-hat cymbal stand, moving it center stage, and teaching the audience the heel-toe action used on the pedal when "playing in two [beats]," and showing the less symmetrical technique necessary for playing a jazz waltz. Keller then described the various options available to him on the same tune--insistent walking bass, or sparse "playing in one" that gives Rowe more freedom on her solo. Throughout the evening they, as Keller said, "showed how the rabbit is stuffed into the hat." In other words, they took out some of the mystery without losing any of the mastery--or the magic. And all this with no dry, academic dissections. On the contrary, they

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offered fluid, engaging conversations, musical and verbal, displaying perhaps the prime requisite for good jazz--and for good conversation: listening.

Humor, too. After a brief onstage discussion mapping out the mayhem that was to follow, during which Siers asked Rowe, "Do you want us to both stink during your solo?" he played loud enough to drown out a marching band, while Rowe, who'd just returned from a teaching/concert tour in South Africa, pulled a green vuvuzela from under the piano and blew mercifully brief punctuations during Paul's solo. The goal of these hijinks, of course, was to compare and contrast what happens when musicians listen and when they don't.

Kurt Krahnke and Sean Dobbins will back Rowe for her April 3 show, and then Keller and Siers rejoin her for May and June's programs. Get your tickets early. There were very few empty seats at the March concert. Rowe's trio can--by George--teach and do.     (end of article)

[Originally published in April, 2011.]


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