Ralph Bowen looks pissed on the cover of Power Play. He looks like a burly dude, and he’s glaring at the camera, holding his saxophone like a weapon, like he’s going to come over there and belt you across the head with it if you don’t stop talking to his woman. He doesn’t even look like a jazz player; he looks like the saxophonist from a bar band in a Walter Hill movie, or a straight-to-DVD Road House sequel. This is a man you don’t want to shout requests at when he’s on a gig.
Bowen is nothing if not a traditionalist; his thick, muscular tone on the tenor saxophone marks him as a John Coltrane devotee, but he’s indebted to 1950s and very early 1960s Coltrane, before the formation of the so-called “Classic Quartet.” The third track on Power Play, “Two-Line Pass,” is a near-rewrite of “Giant Steps,” with his band—pianist Orrin Evans, bassist Kenny Davis, and drummer Donald Edwards—swinging hard behind him. When he picks up the alto, he plays even longer, more convoluted lines, recalling Branford Marsalis. He can handle a ballad (the sole standard, “My One and Only Love,” is performed in a surprisingly delicate manner, as though you walked into a room and were confronted with a grizzly bear juggling light bulbs), but clearly prefers full-on, “Chasin’ the Trane”-esque charging. When he rises to a shrieking pitch on “The Good Shepherd,” you’ll feel yourself retreating into your chair; in a club, you might well start inching backward toward the door, keeping one eye on Bowen at all times, lest he lunge.
There’s no conflict between Bowen and the rest of the band; they, too, clearly drank deeply of whatever meth-laced potion was left lying around the studio the day this disc was recorded. “Bella Firenze” provides an excellent showcase for them all, as Bowen disappears early on and they become a lithe, agile piano trio that could easily hold a listener’s attention on its own. When he reappears, of course, they bring the hammer down again, pianist Evans in particular shifting from McCoy Tyner-esque delicacy to a much more forceful attack, as though he’s put on gloves with lead dust in the fingers. Drummer Edwards is also capable of a light touch, but on this track and the album as a whole, clearly prefers to drop bombs as though he’s battling the ghost of Max Roach in his head. Astonishingly, “Bella Firenze” runs nearly eight and a half minutes and ends with a fade—the full version would be something to hear.
The album’s low point is definitely the ballad “Jessica.” It features Bowen on the soprano saxophone, an instrument that should be banned on general principle, and/but one that definitely has no place in the arsenal of such a forceful, blustery player. And (after a merciful reprieve, in the form of the swinging “Walleye Jigging”) he does it again on the album’s final cut, “A Solar Romance.” There’s a lot of really good music on Power Play, but those two songs distract from the retro-minded, hard-swinging mood set on the rest of the disc, and should probably have been omitted. Without them, you’ve got a terrific seven-track, 42-minute album that could easily have been released on Blue Note in 1960. Buy it from Amazon and see if you don’t agree.