Stowell and Zilber in the San Jose Mercury News

Thanks to San Jose Mercury News for nice story on John Stowell and yours truly. Check it out:

John Stowell and Michael Zilber: Opposites attract

By Andrew Gilbert

In music as in romance, opposites often attract.

East Bay saxophonist Michael Zilber is an extroverted burner who has forged a bracing post-Coltrane vocabulary. Guitarist John Stowell, long based in Portland, Ore., possesses a cool, crystalline tone and a knack for quietly astonishing harmonic flights.

Over the past few years, they’ve honed a fire and ice partnership with the South Bay’s rhythm section tandem of bassist John Shifflett and drummer Jason Lewis. The quartet, which released last year’s aptly named CD “Shot Through With Beauty” (Origin), plays a series of gigs around the region over the next two weeks, including a Sunday afternoon house concert at Chez Hanny in San Francisco, the Hilton San Jose’s Affinity Restaurant as part of San Jose Jazz’s free Wednesday concert series, March 3 at the Jazzschool in Berkeley, and March 4 at Studio Pink House in Saratoga.

“I think we kind of meet in the middle, and push each other gently,” says Stowell, who used to perform regularly at Garden City. “It’s an interesting challenge playing with Mike, in the best sense. He brings out something a little different in me. Maybe I’m playing with more energy, and he’s playing with more introspection.”

Long aware of each other’s work, Zilber and Stowell first met and heard each other play at the 2005 San Jose Jazz Festival, where the guitarist’s duo with bassist David Friesen preceded a set by a quartet Zilber co-led with pianist Susan Muscarella.

Struck by Stowell’s singular sound, Zilber immediately decided to arrange some private playing time with Stowell.


“I was drawn by his sound and serenity,” Zilber says. “I’d been hearing about him for a while. People raved about John, and I could see why. He’s got this unique approach, at once very beautiful and lyrical, almost astringent.”

Part of what gives the quartet such a distinctive identity is a consistently enthralling repertoire. All four musicians contribute original pieces, but they also draw widely from gifted but little covered composers like trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, guitarist John Scofield, pianist Keith Jarrett and guitarist John Abercrombie.

Even when they tackle a standard, such as Dizzy Gillespie’s “Con Alma,” it’s reharmonized so as to take on a new identity.

Stowell gets most of the credit for bringing in the rarely played gems. After years of tackling the same standards at jam sessions, he started collecting interesting pieces. He’s gleaned hundreds of tunes over the years, and makes a point of pushing players and audiences to think beyond the usual suspects.

“Everyone knows ‘Stella By Starlight,’ and we’ve heard classic versions,” Stowell says. “But look at what else is out there. There are hundreds of tunes by Duke Ellington and Jobim and Billy Strayhorn that people don’t play. Bill Evans wrote a hundred tunes. Steve Swallow and Toninho Horta have written dozens. You don’t have to look that hard to find great music that nobody’s playing, and it’s OK to challenge your audience with things that are beautiful.”

Musical temperament isn’t the only thing that makes Stowell and Zilber a study in contrasts. The Connecticut-raised guitarist moved to Portland in 1976 to pursue a musical partnership with Friesen, a bassist already established as a creative force. When they started going their separate ways after seven years touring and recording together, Stowell relied on an international web of friends, and he’s become the quintessential itinerant musician who augments gigs with workshops and master classes.

It’s not that Zilber never gets out on the road, but he’s pursued an alternative career strategy, making himself an essential component of the Bay Area scene.

Born and raised in Vancouver, B.C., he moved to Boston to study at New England Conservatory and Tufts and went on to earn a doctorate in composition from New York University. After almost a decade in New York City, he and his wife (the late theater artist Carla Zilbersmith) decided to relocate to the Bay Area in the early ’90s when Los Medanos College in the East Bay offered him a job.

As the head of the school’s jazz studies program, he’s mentored some of the region’s finest young improvisers, such as guitarist Terrence Brewer. Zilber leads a regular jam session at the Jazzschool, where he also teaches an advanced workshop for high school students. Despite his academic responsibilities, he manages to keep evolving as an artist.

Though he’s always chosen to work with pianists rather than guitarists, he’s found an ideal foil in Stowell.

“He’s so full and lush harmonically,” Zilber says. “There are a lot of great guitarists, but the music I write is pretty rich and detailed harmonically, and he can really get that. I tend to be pretty heart on my sleeve. John’s more serene, more Nordic. We balance each other out.”

john stowell-
Michael zilber quartet

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Hilton San Jose’s Affinity Restaurant, 300 Almaden Blvd., San Jose
Admission: Free
Also: 8 p.m. March 3, Jazzschool, 2087 Addison St., Berkeley, $12-$15, 4 p.m. March 4, Studio Pink House, 14577 Big Basin Way, Saratoga; suggested donation $10-$20;