Eyes to the Sky
To say Jonathan Rowden is a visionary would be to discount the extent to which the saxophonist/composer/bandleader/community organizer actually sees.
His music is expansive and ambitious in its embrace of vast sonic landscapes that serve as metaphors for images which exist solely in the infinite depths of the composer’s imagination. Rowden certainly knows where he wants to go with his music, and he wants to take as many willing participants along for the ride, which is part of the reason why he has also invested many hours curating jazz shows in Los Angeles and Orange County. He has a current residency in Newport Beach at EnVy Lounge, and his newest album by his band, the Jonathan Rowden Group, entitled Skyward Eye, will be released on February 17 on iTunes, Bandcamp and other streaming sites. The album features compelling illustrations from graphic novelist Kazu Kibuishi, author of the very popular and successful comics Flight and Amulet.
On February 23, the Jonathan Rowden Group will perform at The Last Bookstore in Downtown Los Angeles. For someone who has only been a professional musician for about four years, Rowden has proven himself to be an increasingly important figure in the Southland, someone with a great deal insight and purpose as a jazz artist.
I had a chance to discuss with Rowden the new album, his multifaceted career, and the state of jazz in Southern California. What follows is a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity.
Gary Fukushima: Your music is highly thematic, and dare I say, epic in scope and imagery. Where does that come from, in terms of your own personal history and musical influences?
L.A. Jazz: Can you take us though the general process of how you created the music for the album, from its earliest conception to actually composing the notes?
Rowden: Some of the music on Skyward Eye was actually developed immediately following the release of Becoming. (Rowden’s debut album on Orenda Records). Ryan (Pryor, who plays piano and keys in Rowden’s band) and I both have a tendency to move on to the next thing immediately after accomplishing a goal, so we decided to write some new songs for tour. What we didn't realize is that writing these songs, and performing them on tour would start new conversations about shifting the direction of the band, resulting in 2 years of conceptual and musical development before the release of Skyward Eye. Becoming felt like this visceral, raw expression and was very tumultuous and often freewheeling in spirit. We created Becoming in one long day in Sunset Sound studio in Hollywood, and essentially captured what would be considered a live performance.
We knew that the next time we made an album, the sound palate would need to change drastically to accommodate the constant tendency to drift into epic free improvisations and soundscapes when playing live, and that we would need at least two if not three or four days in the studio to complete the next step. Ryan and I split the composing load 50/50, which I was very pleased with. He and I share many of the same roots and aesthetics and I feel like the interplay between our composing styles allowed us to tell a similar story from two perspectives. What ended up happening was really quite magical - he would write a song, and I would hear an interval or some little shape that I liked in the sketch, which would turn into my own song, and suddenly we have all this continuity between our music while still inhabiting totally different spaces. We wrote the album essentially in two chapters, and the track order was "mostly" decided even while writing. Once we came to the studio to record, all bets were off and we released ourselves to reimagine all of the music with the help of my friend Alex Chaloff, who produced the album with me. The goal of the studio sessions were not to simply record the music, but to collectively discover the greater meaning and narrative and find the deeper character of each song and the album as a whole.
L.A. Jazz: This particular album is inspired in part by the artwork and stories of graphic artists Kazu Kibuishi. He even designed your album cover! What is your history with his works, and how did the two of you come to this collaboration?
Rowden: I discovered Kazu's works at a Q&A live speed-painting talk he was giving at a Barnes and Noble, around the time I released Becoming. I watched as he casually discussed creating NY Times best-selling graphic novels and the trials and struggles of working his way up through that industry, while flawlessly painting some incredibly beautiful paintings digitally, using only a single layer in photoshop and very limited color palate. I was entranced and waited in line to speak with him and approached him about performing live with us sometime during our Becoming album release tour in Seattle, where had recently moved (we shared a connection on this). Luckily and be some great fate, he was interested and as it were he had NEVER done that before, so we made plans. The Jonathan Rowden Group traveled to Seattle in the summer of 2014 and performed live with him at the Royal Room, where he painted a massively wide mural during a live performance of Becoming from start to finish. The art was gorgeous, and literally mirrored the narrative of the album: raw, primal creation moving into sleek modernism. He had initially told me that he would never be able to collaborate on an actual album artwork project, as the conversation inevitably happened in Seattle, but somehow down the line, he was able to find time and surprised me! I asked him to simply do some speed paintings while listening to the music, and he went above and beyond, though the imagery is still rooted in his technique for speed paintings. Kazu wanted the art to tell the story of a small, intrepid airship making its way through some treacherous and exhilarating adventures, and that it was his way of "sending the guys off" on our adventure. I feel truly lucky and fortunate to have him as a friend; he is an extraordinary person and has become something of a mentor for me.
L.A. Jazz: As a kid, you were seriously into drawing, writing stories, and fantasy. What took you away from those things and into music as the medium for your creative outlet? What parallels can you draw (pun semi-intended) between your first love and your current one?
Rowden: You're right, but it didn't stop as an adult. I spent the majority of my life drawing and writing, clear up until even my sophomore year in college. I can remember back to elementary school when we were assigned a short little story, and I created a lengthy pop-up book out of construction paper and drawings detailing the exploits of a mischievous young boy defeating a bully at school. Until I finished high school, there was not a single assignment (other than math) that I didn't somehow use drawing and creative writing as to at the very least bolster and improve whatever it was I was working on. In middle school I wrote a short "novel" which was essentially my own attempt at creating a world in step with J.R.R Tolkien's lead, or later Robert Jordan (author of the Wheel of Time series). Music was always a part of my life. I would spends hours listening to music, and found it nearly impossible to draw or write without it. Somewhere in summer before my senior year of high school, I had a spiritual experience that created an impassioned drive to get serious about music and pursue it as a career. Giving up drawing was the hardest thing I've ever done, but it had to be done. I was very behind on my playing. Thankfully, I'm forming an internal plan to pick it back up moving forward, sooner than later. I think Skyward Eye is huge for me, because it's the first time I've literally been thinking about the same things I thought of when I'd draw and write.
L.A. Jazz: You are not only a composer and artist, but also your own publicist and agent, and you continue to do things to create a culture of creative community in Orange County. How are you able to do all these things? Can you take us through your daily task list?
Rowden: I have always been a fairly self-motivated individual but being a self-starter was not something that came totally naturally. I think I had some entrepreneurial instincts that came from growing up in a family of an established, professional singer-songwriter/public speaker/pastor for a father. I don't really know how I can do these things, and I certainly would rather hire someone to do many of them much of the time, but through necessity I've taught myself about them, and watched and learned from some great examples. I think one the best things a motivated musician can do is find a handful of mentors - people that will share their process, in detail with them. Musicians tend to guard the processes like some hidden secret, but after having met so many people over the years and watched many of them behind the scenes, I believe we are all essentially approaching the same subjects from slightly different angles. I use Evernote to keep track of lists of ideas, venues, tours, potential collaborators, and literally everyone I meet in music. I use Reminders on my iPhone and computer to keep track of calls and emails, and set alarms so that I will take care of various tasks in a timely fashion. I typically book all of my shows a minimum of 3 months in advance, and keep an updated press list, frequent photos and press kits. Its not easy, but its doable with an hour or two of spare time per day (of course, I spend much more than this typically). As far as creating community, I think it stems back from my early experience in church camps and youth groups. I was always a bit of a loner and a wallflower when it came to group things, and I still find myself realizing after a long night of talking and hanging with others that I am an introvert at heart, but sharing some great summers with other people with similar life experiences as myself opened my eyes to the need for a strong community.
I can't really explain why I've spent the last three years advocating for community experiences, starting jam sessions, producing concerts and series' without featuring my own music hardly at all, but I can say that it feels right, and that if it weren't for others giving me some opportunities and allowing me to take the stage as the central focus, I never would have appreciated the value of just that. I've been producing and putting on residencies at many venues in Orange County and Los Angeles, the most recent which is at EnVy Lounge in Newport Beach. I felt a particular need in this community as the only dedicated jazz club in OC closed down a few years ago. So far it's been going well for about 6 months, and it looks increasingly positive but you never know what the future may bring.
L.A. Jazz: Can you comment on the current state of jazz and creative music in Southern California?
Rowden: I think in many ways it is a rich, beautiful time to be a part of the Southern California "scene" at large. Although there are in fact many scenes. Bill Cunliffe used to tell me the reason he loves LA in particular is because no matter how weird or off-the-wall something is (he may have said something along the lines of "if you wanted to go make fart sounds") there is a space for that! What I find attractive about it is the lack of a centralizing force that is aesthetically binding or unifying, and I think that’s perfect in it's own way. There is still so much freedom to reimagine and reshape music into something personal, something that speaks to our own experiences as individuals, which can bring together a community as much or even more than the "stylistic vortexes" we hear about in various creative music communities across the world. On the other side of that, I think there is a somewhat dark reality to the formation of community in Southern California, and how that affects the so-called artistic community. I believe there has never been more loneliness in my generation and in one or two removed. This is changing for the better with younger communities as people—I suppose you'd call them millennials—seem to have a need for "authentic" relationships and experiences, but the cutthroat nature of the music industry gets in the way of enacting any real change in this regard.
L.A. Jazz: What do you hope to convey to listeners of Skyward Eye?
Rowden: If you listen to this album, you are piloting the airship with us into dark caverns and soaring skies. The limited art books have blank pages for you to write and draw it, and we are considering live performance models to include audience participation in creative ways. I want people to see that the power of sharing an experience with another person can transform your life. People are at each other's throats politically, socially, and then at the end of the night they are logging into multiplayer video games and communing with faceless people - I like to think of an imaginary story where two men get into a road rage incident on the 101, ending with broken noses, traffic for all, and possibly battery charges being thrown out, and at the end of the night, they end up of the same team playing Battlefield or Call of Duty or something. Is it really that far-fetched to imagine this? We are already sharing so many experiences together, even just hearing the same songs on the "playlist" in the shopping mall, etc. When the creative music community steps up to the challenge of inviting people into the fold instead of this protectionist, defensive and superficial posturing, I think we'd see the greatest musical renaissance you've ever heard of in the history of the world.
L.A. Jazz: What sorts of things do you have planned on the horizon?
Rowden: A number of things. Always plotting. We rehearse weekly to reimagine how we will perform this music live. We have productions working into 2018 with huge ensemble expansions of the music of Skyward Eye. We are working on an experimental film project using volunteers and listeners of Skyward Eye. Ryan and I have a duo electronic music project that has me reeling in new information and technical/conceptual challenges. And finally, we are currently composing the next JRG album, slowly but surely. Some of it even came about before we recorded Skyward Eye.
As a composer, both myself and Ryan don't really take the typical approach of sorting through tens to hundreds of composed songs and producing an album from the outside in, like that. It has to start with a larger, global concept. If you just take a look at the inside cover of the original paintings by Kazu, where the airship has discovered this vast wilderness, I think it's pretty clear where we are going.