If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then saxophonist David Sanborn must be the most flattered person in America. During the late 1980s and 1990s, there were seemingly more Sanborn imitators than grains of sand at Atlantic Beach. With the turn of the century, the imitators have been more of the Dave Koz ilk than any other, but Sanborn’s innovations where so fresh and startling that there are still those who pay him homage.
Add saxophonist Ben Fowler to the list of Sanborn followers. A native of Portland, Fowler studied jazz and composition at Mount Hood Community College under the direction of renowned composer/arranger Dave Barduhn. Fowler has become known in his hometown for his soul-influenced style coming from having spent early childhood years in church singing and listening to old gospel records.
On his self-released debut recording The Pilgrimage, Fowler displays a good sense of rhythm and line. His solos are energy infused and the backing band, especially drummer Ed Pierce, help Fowler get the most out of the material. For example, without Pierce’s continually pushing cymbal splashes, Fowler’s lines would not build as wonderfully as they do. The rest of the backing band is, however, a bit stilted. It’s not that they’re not good, they definitely have ability, they just never rise to the level of excitement as Pierce’s drumming.
Going for the soulful sound is a good move for Fowler. His lines are sincere and his compositions help to place him in his best light. In fact, it’s the compositions that are the real star of this recording. Fowler’s deft use of harmonic underpinning to accent the contours of his melodic turns is simple, yet carefully crafted and set up the improvisations in ways many jazz and R&B instrumental songs don’t. "Farewell," for example, is a great study in how to create the essence of a mood through melody and "Modern Hymn" is uniquely funky in a half-time, let-the-mood-send-you-there manner.
Dave Fleschner’s use of the organ on the soul-cry "So Long, So Far" is tasteful and helps Fowler to create his best playing on the disc. His tight lines against the soloing of guitarist Dan Gildea show that while Fowler may not have totally realized an individual voice yet, he is certainly well on the road. It will be exciting to follow Fowler’s career.
Dr. Thomas R. Erdmann is the author of two books, the editor of two others and has had over 70 articles published in journals and magazines including, but not limited to, "Saxophone Journal," "International Trumpet Guild Journal," "Journal of the Conductors Guild," "Women of Note Quarterly" and "Jazz Player." He directs the symphony orchestra and teaches at Elon University, NC.