40 Years Later, Guitarist John Stowell in Westport

The group was together only for the one gig, but they found unity in standards: “Alone Together,” “Without a Song,” “Someday My Prince Will Come,” “Ask Me Now.” Also essayed was the Ellington piece “Rain Check,” a feature for Duke’s trombone player, Lawrence Brown.

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The band in full cry, from left, drummer Rogerio Boccato, bassist Jay Anderson, saxophonist Greg Wall and guitarist John Stowell. (Jim Motavalli photo)

My friend Richard Epstein, who is on WPKN with me and is a fine bassoonist, started the series at the Pearl restaurant in Westport, Connecticut’s Longshore. The musical director is Greg Wall, the tenor and soprano saxophonist that night.

On drums was Rogerio Boccato, a Brazilian who’s played with Maria Schneider, John Patitucci, Fred Hersch, Brian Blade, Moacir Santos, Vinicius Cantuária, Danilo Perez and Jimmy Greene and many others.

On bass was Jay Anderson, veteran of more than 400 recording sessions, with people like Paul Bley, Harold Land, Phil Woods, Terumasa Hino, Joe Lovano, Bob Berg, John Scofield, Adam Nussbaum (from Norwalk!) Jamie Baum (from Bridgeport!) and John Abercrombie. The two Johns there are two of our best jazz guitarists, and there was another one on the stand in Westport—John Stowell.

Wall introduced Stowell by pointing out not only that he is from Westport (Staples High, 1968), but that he hadn’t played in the town for 40 years. But Fairfield County, Connecticut is where he was formed. In the early 70s, he studied with guitarist Linc Chamberland and the pianist John Mehegan (who also taught Baum).

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John Stowell, at his day job. (courtesy of johnstowell.com)

“My earliest jazz experiences were in Westport,” Stowell told me. He came out of rock, of course, and played in high school rock bands The Fun Band and Goodhill, both of which I remember. The Fun Band included fellow Westporter Charlie Karp, who became something of a local legend when the band released a single on ABC, “Welcome to the Circus.” Right after that, Karp left school to go on the road with drummer Buddy Miles. They met in the high school auditorium, when Buddy needed a guitarist for his gig there.

Stowell was there when Cream played the Staples auditorium in 1968. He says that trumpet player Ricky Alfonso, who was in Goodhill (and later played with Joe Cocker and the saxophonist Bill Barron), helped steer him toward jazz. But Chamberland was a major catalyst.

Just as I did, Stowell went to a club called Rapson’s in Stamford (in Portchester before that) and listened to Chamberland play. He was a master musician, influenced by the take-you-higher John Coltrane playing style of the 1960s, and the club dates had a rapturous following among musicians. Convinced that Chamberland needed to make a record, I brought a Nagra tape recorder down to Rapson’s and captured him live.

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Linc Chamberland’s first album.

With the somewhat laid-back artist’s consent, I took those tapes down to Muse Records in New York, where producer Joe Fields (from Bridgeport!) received them kindly. He recorded and released two albums with Linc, A Place Within (1976) and Yet to Come (1981), both of which are near to Stowell’s heart.

I wrote the liner notes to the first one, and my twin brother John the notes to the second one. Chamberland, who always preferred fishing to playing music (especially the on-the-road variety) died of leukemia in 1987. But I digress.

Stowell met the bassist David Friesen in New York, and they formed a much-traveled duo that stayed together for seven years. It was, in fact, Stowell who connected Chamberland with Friesen and drummer Gary Hobbs for that second album, Yet to Come.

After that, Stowell teamed up with the flute player Paul Horn—famous for recording an album in the Taj Mahal—and they toured the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. I visited the country around the same time, and there was still a lot of residual ill-will from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (in 1979). But I digress again!

Stowell is a bop guitarist, with a nods to Kenny Burrell and Jim Hall perhaps but he has his own way of approaching the instrument. Wall is a very up-front player, with a lovely tone on both instruments he played in Westport. Stowell is more introspective, but compelling. Here’s a sample from Youtube:

Stowell is leader or player on 20 albums for the Origin label. He told me he’s on the road eight or nine months out of the year, including frequent trips to Europe. When he’s not playing, he’s teaching—he gives lessons, and has produced both guitar instruction books and CD-ROMs. It seems he turned out pretty well.

Stop by the Thursday night shows at The Pearl of Westport for Greg Wall and a whole host of jazz talent—you don’t know who will show up.

Thanks to Dan Woog, whose O6880 column on Stowell’s appearance led to this one.