Ellen Rowe Quartet

Denali Pass

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In the summer of 2004 I was incredibly fortunate to be part of a successful expedition to the summit of Mt. McKinley, or Denali, as it is known to native Alaskans and the climbing community at large. As I write these notes I am still processing the experience. I know that much of what occurred on the mountain has a direct correlation with music-making: the team is everything and the whole is more than the sum of the individual parts. This is never more evident than in a small jazz group, where the members interact to produce a musical whole that is so much greater than what they could have imagined possible when they played the fi rst notes. I am constantly in awe ofthe forces that allow this serendipity to occur and am always grateful for the opportunities I have to be a part of this kind of experience, whether it be on the side of a mountain or sitting behind a piano.

As it turns out, all of the original music on this album, with the exception of Charlie’s Tune, was written in a mountain setting. The melody and chords of the Journey section of Denali Pass were composed in my tent at the 14,000 ft. camp and written down on a piece of manuscript paper that I had tucked in an outer pocket of my pack. Puja, the introduction, is the prayer ceremony that the Sherpas take part in before Himalayan climbs. The celebrants ask the gods to allow them safe passage up the mountain and to help them open their hearts and minds to receive the wisdom of the gods. This practice is also designed to activate the levels of concentration and awareness that are necessary for a successful trip. I love the humility and respect for nature that the Buddhist Sherpa culture embraces; no matter how physically prepared you may be for such a trip, the outcome may be out of your hands, decided instead by the vagaries of weather or team dynamics. The celebratory final section of Denali Pass reflects the feelings of joy and relief at arriving safely back at base camp after the climb.

Although the majority of music that the quartet plays is original material of mine, we all love the standards of the repertoire and are always trying to find creative ways to present them. I brought Time After Time to rehearsal with the Afro-Cuban groove and substitute harmonies in place but other elements of the form were arrived at by group consensus. Lullaby was written during a recent residency at the Banff Centre for the Arts in the Canadian Rockies. I had previously composed Charlie’s Tune to celebrate the birth of Pete and Stephanie Siers’ first child and didn’t want to slight subsequent band member progeny, so dedicated Lullaby to Andrew’s to Andrew’s new children, Oliver and Linden and Pete’s latest arrival, Neva. Although lullabies are traditionally sweet and pretty throughout, I wanted this one to reflect the more complex range of emotions that children experience at night and the sense of comfort and security that their parents provide. 12 Ton Blues is a quirky blues based on a twelve tone row that comes from the pen of one of my favorite people—bassist, vibraphonist and pianist Don Thompson. Don composed this during a Banff Centre Summer Jazz Workshop and it is a testament to both his musical genius and his wonderful sense of humor. We use it as a vehicle for more free form improvisation and try to retain a certain element of quirkiness each time we perform it. This version was recorded for “Jazz Set” at the San Jose Jazz Festival by National Public Radio and we thank them for allowing us to use it here.

Charlie’s Tune gave us the chance to collaborate
with another marvelous friend and musician, vocalist Sunny Wilkinson. In addition to her gifts as a singer, she is a fine lyricist and honored me by providing the perfect words for the piece. We are thrilled to have her performing with us and look forward to future collaborations.

Summer Solstice is another paean to nature
and was also written at Banff. It has had several
incarnations, the most recent being a lovely
arrangement for jazz choir by Larry Lapin at the
University of Miami. Andrew and I also composed
some charming lyrics of our own for it that we are
happy to provide for the asking. Home, another
Banff-inspired composition, is a tune that pays
tribute to some of my earliest musical influences,
James Taylor and Carole King. I love the fact that the quartet enjoys playing music of disparate genres as my inspiration continues to come from a wide variety of sources.

Another tune composed during my residency at The Banff Centre is Third Dimension. While attempting to parse the harmonic vocabulary of a Michael Brecker solo, I became enamored of the intervals of the minor and major third and decided to compose a tune that would allow me to play around with them a bit. It also allows us to indulge in what is commonly referred to in pedagogical circles as “crashing and bashing.”

The final track, Benediction, is a reincarnation
of the Puja melody from track 2. It reflects the
reality that although my Denali team received its
“safe passage” up and down, other climbers on the mountain were not so fortunate. A member of a team that passed us on their way down was tragically killed by rockfall 1,000 feet below us and I dedicate this piece to his memory.

-Ellen Rowe

Also check out the Ellen Rowe CD "Sylvan Way".