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Music Review: Ellen Rowe Quartet – Wishing Well

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A lovely, lyrical flourish of Ellen Rowe’s piano introduces “For That Which Was Living, Lost” on Wishing Well. This, the sophomore release from her quartet, takes flight with numerous flourishes just like the aforementioned and climbs comfortable to accessible, tender musical heights.

The record has a warm sophistication that proves at times heartbreaking and charming, but always beautiful.

Rowe’s quartet features saxophonist Andrew Bishop, bassist Kurt Krahnke and drummer Pete Siers. The always wonderful Ingrid Jensen lends her flugelhorn to the release, too, and Andy Haefner is there with his tenor saxophone.

The performances are, at least on their surfaces, effortless. Rowe plays piano with such ease and comfort that it almost feels like a violation of some sort of privacy to be listening in. Her band, too, follows along like affectionate accomplices in on some grand criminal activity of which ours is the reward. The gentleness and playfulness is stunning, but the real gift of the Ellen Rowe Quartet lies in how the players listen to one another.

“For That Which Was Living, Lost” opens with the previously mentioned flourish of elegance, yes, and it evolves sincerely into a place for Jensen to illustrate broad colours with her flugelhorn. Krahnke’s understated solo fleshes it out.

Rowe was born in Connecticut and began playing the piano by ear by the age of four. She studied with John Mehengan when she was still in high school and, in 1976, her quintet won the Kansas City Women’s Jazz Festival Combo Competition when she was in the Eastman School of Music.

Wishing Well takes the elements she learned early on from her great teachers and companions and plants them safely in small group soil. Her quartet, which made its debut on 2005’s Denali Pass, has grown together into a concise unit with an appreciation for solidarity and tidy playing.

Rowe arranged all but one of the ten tracks on Wishing Well. Her loving, comforting, bright arrangements give plenty of room for all of her bandmates to breathe deeply.

“Tick Tock” is a quick and funky ditty that moves surprisingly hard with an insistent bass line and plenty of soulful melody. It packs a sense of joy.

Then there’s the clever “Sanity Clause” with its bouncing, bopping one-liners. Siers knocks a stiff snare around while Rowe and Krahnke lay a thick stew of a groove. Bishop’s saxophone is lean and mean, cutting a swath of earthiness through the cut that will have toes tapping.

Wishing Well is one of those records that feels like the perfect précis of a group. Rowe’s quartet is graceful, aware and balanced. They listen as they play and we are treated to a better experience for it.

You can, and should, purchase Wishing Well from Rowe's website. Denali Pass is available on Amazon.

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