Saxophonist, composer, and bandleader Ralph Bowen has remained on an even keel in the precarious world of traditional jazz by always combining his performing and recording activities with university-level teaching positions.
Based in New Jersey, Bowen is on the faculty at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, where he teaches jazz theory and saxophone and conducts the Rutgers Jazz Ensemble. He was raised on a cattle ranch and his father worked as a real estate broker in Acton, a city an hour west of Toronto, Canada. Bowen's family worked the ranch to supplement their income, and his father worked at the ranch part-time, given his love for farming. Bowen, the youngest of five children, grew up shoveling manure and baling hay, but began taking piano lessons as a five-year-old. He began playing clarinet at age ten and got into the saxophone shortly after that, inspired by the example of his oldest brother. His parents took him and his siblings to see the big bands of Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Buddy Rich. He began playing in dancehalls around Acton and Toronto as a 13-year-old, working with a ten-piece band, but the turning point for him came when he got his driver's license at 16, so he could shuttle himself back and forth between Acton and clubs in Toronto. He also graduated from high school at 16, and then attended summer school for saxophone at the Banff School of Fine Arts, where he met Pat LaBarbera, an influential saxophone teacher. At Banff, he also met pianist Renee Rosnes, who later settled in West Orange, New Jersey. Bowen left home for the club scene in Toronto as a 21-year-old. He also began making weekly trips to the University of Indiana. He moved to Indiana and began college at 23, stayed there for two years until he heard about an audition for a new group being formed in New York City, Out of the Blue. Michael Phillip Mossman was the leader of this group, and he suggested Bowen come to Rutgers University to finish his college education. Bowen arrived on the New Brunswick campus of Rutgers University in 1986, earning his undergraduate and graduate degrees. He began teaching there in 1990.
In 2009 Bowen began his long association with Posi-Tone Records with the acclaimed Dedicated, fronting a quintet that included trumpeter Sean Jones, guitarist Adam Rogers, bassist John Patitucci, and drummer Antonio Sanchez. His live gigs increased, as did his ability to tour internationally given the recording's high profile, resonating with critics and audiences. Due Reverence followed a year later with the same band. Bowen showcased a new quartet for 2011's Power Play that included pianist Orrin Evans, bassist Kenny Davis, and drummer Donald Edwards. This band gave way to a new quartet on the acclaimed Total Eclipse, which melded modal, post-bop, and soul-inflected jazz via a band that included Jared Gold on organ, Mike Moreno on guitar, and the versatile Rudy Royston in the drummer's chair. He stepped back inside for 2014's collection of American Songbook nuggets entitled Standard Deviation with yet another quartet, which included pianist Bill O'Connell. In the aftermath of its release, Bowen undertook a long period of touring and teaching, spending his spare time composing and arranging. In August of 2017 he emerged with the eponymously titled Ralph Bowen. While there were readings of McCoy Tyner's "Search for Peace," David Liebman's "Piccadilly Lilly," and his bassist Kenny Davis' "Aye," the set's centerpiece was a self-composed six-part suite (each section with its own title) under an umbrella called "The Phylogeny Suite." Bowen's other sidemen on the date included drummer Cliff Almond and pianist Jim Ridl. ~ Richard Skelly, Rovi