A personal triumph for a gifted pianist, composer and arranger at a new peak of creativity, Ellen Rowe's Courage Music (February 23rd, PKO Records) is also renewed confirmation that inspired and vital jazz continues to spring from artistic outposts beyond those of a select handful of America's major cities. Based in Ann Arbor, where she is Professor and Chair of the Department of Jazz and Contemporary Improvisation at the University of Michigan's School of Music, Rowe has performed with Kenny Wheeler, John Clayton and Tom Harrell, among others, and has also had her arrangements performed by the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, the Frankfurt Jazz Orchestra and the BBC Jazz Orchestra, as well as by Bob Brookmeyer, Marian McPartland and the Diva big band. The fourth of Rowe's acclaimed recordings as a leader, Courage Music spotlights the dexterity of Rowe's longtime ensemble - augmented here by the trumpeter and flugelhornist Ingrid Jensen - as well as Rowe's skills as an adroit composer and arranger.
The album is expertly balanced by extended compositions that highlight Rowe's mastery of form and textural color with concise performances that reveal the inventiveness and fluidity of the leader's piano work and the invaluable contributions of guest trumpeter Jensen and the top notch local players who make up Rowe's quartet -- the saxophonist and clarinetist Andrew Bishop, the bassist Kurt Krahnke and the drummer Pete Siers. Rowe met Jensen (who also makes a key appearance on Rowe's 2009 Wishing Well album) at a Banff Jazz Workshop in 1990. "There was even less opportunity for woman jazz musicians back then, " Rowe says, "We bonded there as players and friends, and over the years she has come to give classes at the University of Michigan. When it came to recording, I sensed that Ingrid would sound great with Andrew - and she does. Using two horns opened up sonic possibilities for me as a composer. With Courage Music, I've tried to investigate longer forms and to make use of my growing harmonic pallet. I love the sound that the group, with Ingrid, lends to my compositions. I can put the music in their hands and let it go."
Inspired by both personal achievements and the cherished memories of departed loved ones, Rowe's own compositions, including the romping "The Circle of Life," the ambitious two-part "Golindrinas de los Horcones/Summit Dog," the extended "ŠAnd Miles To Go" (featuring the University of Michigan's Chamber Jazz Ensemble), and the touching ballad "Gentle Spirit," (highlighting guest trombonist Paul Ferguson) form the album's core. Rowe also tips her hat to the jazz tradition with a heartfelt (if ingeniously reharmonized) rendition of the Cole Porter standard, "All of You" and "Leaves," an Ingrid Jensen composition that reworks the durable chestnut, "Autumn Leaves." No matter the origin of the compositions, what comes through most clearly in each performance is the selfless role that the leader takes. Never overtly grabbing the spotlight with extended solos, Rowe allows the beauty and effortless swing of her succinct playing to make its own profound statement within the overall context of a work. Her distinctive abilities as a composer, arranger and bandleader remain ever in balance with that of her identity as an outstanding piano stylist.
Born in Connecticut, Rowe studied with famed pianist and pedagogue John Mehegan before entering Eastman School of Music where she continued studies with Bill Dobbins and Rayburn Wright. Rowe is now a Full Professor at the University of Michigan's School of Music, Theatre & Dance and director of the University of Michigan Jazz Ensemble. An avid athlete and sportswoman, Rowe has scaled Aconcagua, the 22,481-foot peak in the Argentine Andes, the highest mountain range in the Americas.