Two years ago, I had the privilege of seeing Japanese pianist Satoko Fujii perform a mesmerizing set in the basement of George Washington University’s Phillips Hall. That show was one of the most exhilarating concerts I saw all year. I had a similar feeling last night, once again in room B120 in Phillips Hall, watching Baltimore-based pianist Nobu Stowe play an improvised set with two D.C. musicians, Daniel Barbiero on double bass and Ted Zook on electric bass-cello. This comparison doesn’t really go anywhere—-Stowe’s melodicism and improvisational style is completely different from Fujii’s, and he prefers to fill spaces that Fujii would leave empty—-except for the fact that I had a certain feeling of watching brilliance at work.
These three musicians had never played together before, which was fairly evident in the first piece, as Stowe spent the entire piece watching the other two performers and giving the occasional visual cue. Even after this initial feeling out, Barbiero and Zook were happy to merely accompany Stowe on his dense melodic excursions for most of the concert. The second and third pieces the trio played almost could have been Stowe solo pieces—-his sense of melody shone through brilliantly, as he found compelling tunes off of which to base exploratory improvisations. A percussive duet with Barbiero did lead off the third piece, but soon enough Stowe was in his own world again, playing over the other two musicians—-dominant, but not aggressively so.
A fourth, more fragmented piece allowed Barbiero and Zook some room to maneuver, but to my ears this came at the cost of Stowe’s lyrical sense of melody. The fifth and final piece was in a similar vein but came off better, with Stowe providing a bouncy accompaniment to Barbiero and Zook’s swirling arcos. All in all, while it was fairly clear that these three musicians had never played together before, the result was deeply satisfying thanks to Stowe’s impressive abilities at what he calls “total improvisation”—-a concept he derives from Keith Jarrett and describes thusly: “definite melodies/harmonic/rhythm structures all spontaneously ‘composed’… as opposed to ‘sound-exploration’ à la free-improv.”
A rapt audience of about 25 seemed a pretty good showing—-actually one of the bigger crowds I’ve been part of in this performance space—-but Stowe’s accessible style should hardly preclude him from eventually playing to much, much larger audiences.