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Phil Bowler & Pocket Jungle

Bulgaria meets New York

Phil Bowler and Pocket Jungle
Phil Bowler and Pocket Jungle. L. to r.: "Beaver" Bausch, Phil Bowler, Paul Carlon, Scott Latzky, Pete Smith

Two magnificent albums—Bulgaria Meets New York (Volume I) (Deep Tone) and Phil Bowler & Pocket Jungle (Zoho)—boast superlative composition and fiery improvisation. Both albums also feature the tenor saxophone of one Paul Carlon (no relation to this writer). Another essential album is Carlon’s La Rumba Is a Lovesome Thing (Zoho), in which his arranging skills are often on a par with classic Gil Evans. This album, which imagines Strayhorn tunes as if Sweepea had been born and raised in Havana, is stunning in its complexity, its deep swing, its beauty. It was one of my absolute favorite albums of 2013 and begs to be played at least once a week.

Bulgaria Meets New York was recorded by an extraordinary band: bassist Trifon Dimitrov, drummer Dimitar Dimitrov (no relation to the bassist), trumpeter Dave Smith, saxophonist Carlon and guest guitarist Paul Bollenback on three tunes. With the tunefulness of a mid-’60s Blue Note session combined with the exploratory spirit of a 1970s loft jam, this album is a gem. Of the 10 tunes, Carlon wrote six, Trifon Dimitrov three and Dave Smith one. All 10 are memorable.

When asked what he was trying to achieve with this album, Trifon Dimitrov replies, “We simply wanted to document the music we had the passion to play. It feels so good to play music with this band.”

How did this band come together? Says Dimitrov, “Dimitar Dimitrov, the drummer, is one of the musicians who took me under his wing back home in Bulgaria when I started playing jazz in the late ’90s. We worked together a great deal until I left Bulgaria and moved to Germany, then later to New York. Meanwhile we kept in touch and played festivals and clubs occasionally. One of the gigs was with Randy Brecker in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, in 2009.

“Meanwhile,” Dimitrov continues, “Dimitar Dimitrov and his wife Blaga were working on a project called Without Borders. They traveled throughout Europe and the U.S.A. interviewing and filming Bulgarian musicians and artists living out of Bulgaria. In 2011 Blaga and Dimitar contacted the U.S. embassy in Sofia, Bulgaria and the embassy was kind enough to sponsor an American jazz musician to tour in Bulgaria. I was asked to suggest someone and I thought Paul Carlon would be the perfect guy. We knew each other already and had played together on different occasions. I liked his original music and I knew he was well informed about and interested in Eastern European history.

“So we toured in Bulgaria for a week in September 2011. The band was me on bass, Paul on saxophone, Venzi Blagoev (who had set up the Brecker gig) on trumpet and Dimitar on drums. We used no harmonic instrument, which I loved. The tour went well. The band was burning by the end; it felt so good. We played all original music.

“In the summer of 2012 Blaga and Dimitar visited New York. So we thought, ‘Why not record the music we played and document the band since it felt so good?’ Unfortunately we couldn’t have Venzi Blagoev join us for the recording, so Paul suggested that Dave Smith play trumpet. I knew Dave and agreed immediately. We also decided to have a special guest, Paul Bollenback, on guitar. I loved the original idea of having a band without a harmonic instrument but some of the tunes sounded so great with Paul’s guitar playing (and taste), so I agreed immediately.”

On Bulgaria Meets New York, one hears these musicians playing their original compositions with deep soul and flair. One of Trifon’s tunes, “Kenny K,” is a haunting tribute to the late pianist Kenny Kirkland. “It was such a pleasure making music with these guys,” says Trifon, “reconnecting with old and new friends to make music we like in styles we love.”

Speaking of Kirkland, bassist Phil Bowler played with him on Wynton Marsalis’ Grammy-winning album, Think of One, back in 1983. Phil Bowler & Pocket Jungle comprises Bowler, a beloved musician who has also played with Jackie McLean, Horace Silver, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Branford Marsalis, Terence Blanchard and Donald Harrison, Sal Salvador, Max Roach and Jon Faddis; Pete Smith on guitars; Paul Carlon on tenor saxophone; William “Beaver” Bausch on drums; and Scott Latzky on drums and tabla. Along with contagious original tunes, this smokin’ band plays songs by Bobby Hutcherson, Steve Coleman, Harvie S, and a bit of that Old Devil Moon.

In his evocative liner notes, Ron Blomgren writes: “Back in the ’90s, when I was first introduced to Phil Bowler, without having heard him play, I thought I’d met just another journeyman bassist. What I found instead was a hyper-articulate spokesman for the music that I was so deeply immersed in at the time … Not long after, I began to hear Phil talk about starting his own group, with me as its manager … He soon gathered around him the original line-up of Pocket Jungle, young musicians all—trumpeter Bill Dowling, guitarist Pete Smith and (Beaver) Bausch on drums … After the band’s initial run, Dowling left to take a touring gig, and was replaced by saxophonist Paul Carlon in the second line-up of Pocket Jungle.”

Flash forward to the summer of 2013, when Beaver Bausch came up with the idea of recording a new Pocket Jungle album. Says Bausch, “I had some downtime and wanted a) give myself something fun to do; and b) pay Phil back a little for the incredibly generous tutelage he had offered us throughout the ’90s. The plan was to 1) get his old band together (which is three-quarters of my/our current band Grupo los Santos) plus my favorite drummer Scott Latzky; 2) Get everybody to write one or two new tunes especially for Phil (admittedly, this took a bit of cat herding on my part); and 3) hire Phil to play on ‘my’ project, pay him a nice fee, and at the end of the recording session, basically hand him the keys to the car: ‘It’s yours, baby. Drive carefully!'”

The album, to these ears, is instantly welcoming, but reveals even more of its beauty with repeated listens. Why? “First, the (engineers at) Carriage House Studio (in Stamford, Conn.) set up a great vibe, got great sounds and were very supportive,” says Bausch. “They were the site of our first recording way back in 1991 or ’92, so it was the perfect spot.

“And the good vibes continued between the five of us. We had only one ‘rehearsal,’ which was actually reading the music down on a gig the week before. I should have clarified that the tunes I commissioned were supposed to be simple, as I knew we’d have no rehearsal time. Sadly, we didn’t always stick to that guideline—some became quite complex, such as the crazy shifting rhythm during the intro to ‘Wights Waits for Weights,’ which Scott (Latzky) threw at me from his tabla studies. But I knew we had great tunes and great players (and my best friends) in a great room together. What else do you need? So we got it all done in one marathon session, presented it to Philly (Bowler) at the very end, and it was a truly beautiful moment-one of the very best in my life, certainly. The only downside was we had to spend several hours to convince Phil to accept his fee!”

Colleagues speak very highly of Beaver Bausch. “Do they? Well, I met [guitarist] Pete Smith my freshman year at Oberlin almost 30 years ago, and we’ve been in bands ever since. We met Paul [Carlon] in Boston after college—I was studying with Alan Dawson, then reconnected a year or two later in NYC.

“Following Donald Byrd’s advice (he taught at Oberlin for a few years and was an incredibly influential presence in my life) I began teaching in the New York City public schools. While trying to figure out how to teach and play, I met Phil Bowler, and asked him for some lessons. I figured if he had played with (Jeff) ‘Tain’ (Watts), Ralph Peterson, Carl Allen, he could probably teach me how to lock in with a bass player. Those lessons quickly evolved into Pocket Jungle, of course including Pete (Smith) on guitar and a great trumpet player named Billy Dowling. (By the way, I tried to include Billy on this recording but sadly he was away on tour).”

Bausch continues: “Phil was so open musically. He would accommodate our tastes (to a point) and encourage our writing and arranging; he wanted drama, he wanted dynamics. He wanted to rehearse! He taught us to listen more, to explore, to trust each other.

“A few years later when Billy left, we got Paul in. Eventually, with Phil being in Connecticut and we in New York, with my growing obsession with Cuban music and Afro-Cuban folklore in particular, and with fewer and fewer Pocket Jungle gigs, we evolved into Grupo los Santos—still very much based in the lessons we learned from Phil about democratic band practice, but digging into Caribbean and South American musical roots.”

Taking a deep breath, Bausch thinks of another reason why Phil Bowler & Pocket Jungle is so wonderful: “The inclusion of Scott Latzky. I was very competitive (and stupid) when I came to New York, and Scott was the first drummer I met who was so open, generous and supportive that I had to reconsider my approach. Plus, he is a badass player whose study of tabla really amazes me. Anyway, it’s intimidating to record in general, but more so if there’s another drummer sitting right next to you! Yet, I felt nothing but relaxed and inspired by Scott. He would play something on one tune and I would go in a completely different direction on the next tune because of the way he played. And his playing on ‘West 22nd Street Theme’ makes that my favorite cut on the album. Those trades at the end! So deep and beautiful, all four of these guys.”

Deep and beautiful: Three words that can sum every tune on this album.

Says Bowler, “The first thing that comes to mind is the great amount of love and creativity that these fine musicians put into this surprise project. The prequel to the history of Pocket Jungle was that I was between bands and began taking private students, one of whom was William ‘Beaver’ Bausch, whom I coached in ensemble performance. After some time, I realized that I had to put him in a working ensemble so my efforts were directed toward this goal. I found a place to gather and rehearse at the University of Bridgeport (Conn.) and from about a dozen participants, there were four who remained. One of these musicians, Pete Smith, came once a week all the way from Boston. Next, I met Ron Blomgren (who beautifully composed the liner notes to this album) and asked him if he would be our manager. Ron had great ideas that complemented my own about the musical direction I wanted to head toward. We continued to rehearse, now at Ron’s apartment in New Canaan, where we started getting our music together. Thus, a band was formed.”

From whence sprung the name Pocket Jungle? Bowler explains: “We went about realizing a name for ourselves that described my philosophy in the formation of this band and thus, the unique spirit of adventure I wanted to mine, resulting in the music we produced. I believe that this release captures that spirit beautifully. It is my hope that listeners will enjoy the adventure with us.”

Adds guitarist Pete Smith, whose varied and tasty playing drives the album, “This CD is very special for me because it happened spontaneously … just one day in the studio … no rehearsals, but two gigs before to get to know the material. The music is like a tennis match when some unseeded player gets into the final rounds…and has nothing to lose and everything to gain. Reuniting with Phil, after thousands of hours playing with him in another lifetime, was like coming home again after a long absence.

“I don’t think any of us were surprised that the music came out really great. Pocket Jungle of old always had tons of fire … but there was a very special looseness at this session that rarely happens. I can’t explain it—call it harmonic convergence.”

Smith says he also loves playing with a “bifurcated” rhythm section: “Scott and Beaver are two of my favorite drummers, and each of them has spent real quality time with Phil developing his own unique concept as a section. And as masterful as both of them are, they are very, very different players, and they know each other’s strengths well and where and when to harness them. And Phil is the thread between them. I can’t tell you what a treat that is to be around. Paul and I sound like giddy schoolboys with all that churning and burning going on.”

So there you have it: Two modern jazz albums—Bulgaria Meets New York and Phil Bowler & Pocket Jungle—created and played with love and fire, churning and burning. Originally Published