Wonderful review of Originals by Andrew Gilbert

Michael Zilber, an original saxophonist salutes originals

Andrew Gilbert, February 9/2017


Over the past 15 years or so the Albany saxophonist Michael Zilber has recorded a series of critically hailed collaborations, joining forces with an imposing array of master improvers like drum maestro Steve Smith, saxophone legend Dave Liebman, and the painterly guitar explorer John Stowell.

But Zilber’s latest album Originals for the Originals (Origin) is the kind of project that doesn’t accommodate a co-leader. A highly personal tribute to his saxophone heroes, the album summons the spirits of transcendent talents like John Coltrane, Michael Brecker, Wayne Shorter, Sonny Rollins and Paul Desmond. Rather than trying to evoke the unmistakable sounds of these storied players, he bases each piece on a melodic phrase or harmonic passage drawn from their music.

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Michael Zilber, an original saxophonist salutes originals

Mike Joyce says in Jazz Times: “truly an inspired musical alliance”



Following this West Coast ensemble’s two widely acclaimed recordings, Shot Through With Beauty and Live Beauty, Basement Blues may seem like a departure, in tone and tack. But as “Stowell in Heart” and other highlights here warmly illustrate, Basement Blues is similarly riddled with charms, to say nothing of its soulful allure and conversational postbop gambits.  Read the whole review here:
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Wonderful review of Basement Blues by All About Jazz

Dan McClenaghan from All About Jazz wrote a wonderful review of Basement Blues. Here’s an excerpt; read the whole thing at

Guitarist Stowell’s approach is distinctive—silvery chords and pinprick single notes that reverberate from the rafters. Saxophonist Zilber is a flawless, soulful technician on soprano and tenor saxophones. Bassist John Shifflett and drummer Jason Lewis are perfection in the supportive rhythm rolls. It all comes together in a cohesive set that is probing and cerebral and laid-back approachable.

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Some reviews of Live Beauty

I have been so heartened and grateful by the response to the new release, Live Beauty. The # and positivity of the reviews has been overwhelming, including from all major jazz publications, including a wonderful 4 star review in downbeat from Bill Milkowski.

John Stowell/Michael Zilber Quartet
Live Beauty
ORIGIN 82684

The potent partnership of guitarist John Stowell and saxophonist Michael
Zilber plays out on this highly inter-active and adventurous set recordedbefore a live audience at the California
Jazz Conservatory in Berkeley. Fueled by the remarkably empathetic Bay Area rhythm tandem of bassist John Shifflet and drummer Jason Lewis, Stowell and Zilber take their time and follow their muse quite freely throughout this intimate concert.

Zilber, a Vancouver native who spent his 20s playing and recording in New York before moving to San Francisco, reveals a decidedly Michael Brecker influence in his bold tenor lines on the spirited opener, “In The Park,” which has him nonchalantly double-timing and reaching into the uppermost register of his horn. He switches to soprano for an exhilarating romp through Shifflett’s uptempo burner “Quantum Theory,” which also turns Lewis loose on an extended drum solo. Zilber’s “Stowell What” is a quirky, pointillistic nod to his Portland-based partner, who may be less well-known but is no less accomplished than his East Coast counterparts like Vic Juris, Ben Monder and Jonathan Kreisberg. Zilber and Stowell turn in a provocative duo read- ing of “My Funny Valentine,” which features Stowell probing the microton- al zone on fretless guitar. And they close on a dynamic note, recalling the chemistry between Joe Lovano and John Scofield on a second-line flavored take on Sco’s “Wabash III.” —Bill Milkowski

Here is a link to some of the reviews on the Origin Records page and deep gratitude for all the kind words about this CD. we have recorded a very nice studio one, so hopefully it will be out sometime in the next year…

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;

Very nice review from The Jazz Times

Thanks to Jazz Times and Mike Joyce for the kind review of Shot Through With Beauty. Much appreciated…

John Stowell/Michael Zilber Quartet
Shot Through with Beauty
Origin Records

Fans of John Scofield’s ’90s recordings should find much to enjoy on Shot Through With Beauty, and not merely because the album features a new quartet led by guitarist John Stowell and saxophonist Michael Zilber personalizing two sharply contrasting Scofield compositions, “Wabash III” and “The Beatles.” The former tune boasts an arrangement with twisting harmonized lines, guitar and sax solos that shrewdly bridge R&B swagger and postbop dissonance, as well as a rhythmically lopsided funk spin—courtesy of bassist John Shifflett and drummer Jason Lewis—that won’t quit. “The Beatles,” on the other hand, is comparatively subdued: sleek, insinuating and atmospheric, at least until Zilber’s impassioned soprano turns up the heat.

When the band tackles tunes by Kenny Wheeler (“Kayak,” with Zilber on tenor sax) or Dizzy Gillepsie (“Con Alma,” as spacious as it is soulful), it’s not hard to imagine Scofield himself admiring the fresh perspectives and intuitive interplay that develop. Stowell’s bandmates also keep a series of worthy compositions coming. In addition to penning the album’s title track, a ballad that lives up to its billing, Zilber contributes three tunes that are always enjoyable and quite often intriguing. (“Tender,” the album’s unaccompanied tenor coda, is one such track.) Shifflett’s coiled “Quantum Theory” and Lewis’ resonating portrait “In the Park” inspire similarly colorful interludes.

Stowell doesn’t add to the playlist, but there’s no mistaking his remarkable prowess and sensitivity on electric and acoustic guitars—or the fun he’s having in this highly interactive setting.

The Morning After The Night Before (well, the afternoon after, to be accurate)

Right up front, sorry to disappoint those expecting a steamy and seamy accounting of a tawdry one-night stand, virtual or real…this is about a GREAT one-night stand of a different variety, the show we just played at Yoshi’s. I could write a lot on it, and will write about the wonderful students who came to play and to listen another time, but for this one, suffice to say I was profoundly moved and grateful that so many friends made the effort to come out. That is the first and foremost thing that struck me. An amazingly high % of friends I reached out to personally (I.E. one on one, not through mass mails or facebooks) came, and I am moved and humbled by that. I’d say that of the 150 or so people there, at least 100 were friends of mine, and that is wonderful. As moving was the fact that many many more wanted to come, but had conflicts, sometimes as serious as emergency surgery, and still took the time to let me know they were thinking of us. Amazing…

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