Too often, when the mainstream
thinks of women in jazz, thoughts immediately go to the singers. Pianist
Ellen Rowe reminds us there are many women in jazz who are also
composers and musicians. Courage Music (PKO Records, 2014), by
the Ellen Rowe Quintet, gives a taste of what the artist can do with
longer forms and two horns in the mix.
Accompanying Rowe are Andrew Bishop, tenor saxophone and clarinet;
Ingrid Jensen, trumpet and flugelhorn; Kurt Krahnke, bass; and Pete
Siers, drums. Trombonist Paul Ferguson sits in on one track.
Bishop and Jensen share the lead, at times overlapping, on
“Circle of Life.”
It’s one of eight tracks
composed by Rowe. It’s a bright, sunny tune, highlighted by Rowe’s
joyful play during the middle. Krahnke and Siers keep busy in the
background. Bishop then puts the tenor through a rigorous pace,
employing a series of high-speed phrases before Jensen rejoins. Things
go quiet briefly as Rowe leads, but then the full band comes back in for
the blazing finish.
“Summit Dog” is a swinging, upbeat piece. Again Bishop and Jensen blend
for the lead. After the primary melody, Jensen takes off, making the
trumpet soar to heights before bringing it down for a head-bopping,
finger-snapping jam. After Rowe stretches out, Bishop comes in, engaging
in a call and response with Siers, the latter really showing off when
it’s his turn. The song then reverts to the primary theme.
After the interlude, “… And Miles to Go (Part 1),” the University of
Michigan Chamber Jazz Ensemble joins for “… And Miles to Go (Part 2).”
The track features ensemble members Alekos Syropoulos on alto sax and
Yuma Uesaka on tenor sax. It’s a playful, open road song, like a breezy
afternoon drive with the top down – or sunroof open. One gets the
impression that Rowe is smiling and waving at friends as she passes by
during group play as well as her own solo.
Music is best when it’s not only enjoyable to the ears but when the band
seems to be having fun making it. Rowe and company can be felt doing
that on most of the tracks. She composed eight of the nine original
songs, and the group covers one Cole Porter tune, “All of You.”
Rowe was born in Connecticut. She studied with pianist John Mehegan
before entering the Eastman School of Music. She is now a professor at
the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance, and she
is director of the University of Michigan Jazz Ensemble. Her career has
involved performances with Kenny Wheeler, John Clayton and Tom Harrell
among others. Her arrangements have been performed by the Vanguard Jazz
Orchestra, the Frankfurt Jazz Orchestra and the BBC Jazz Orchestra, as
well as Marian McPartland and the Diva big band.