March 31 2010 12:00 AM

Visiting guitarist a quiet treasure


What does Philip Roth read? What doctor does your doctor see? Where does your mechanic leave his Saab when he really wants it to hum?

Whoever they are, John Stowell belongs in their company. All but unknown to most jazz fans, Stowell has honed his trade for decades and established a worldwide reputation as a guitarist’s guitarist.

“I have a following of tens,” Stowell joked in a phone interview last week.

On Thursday, April 8, he’ll lead a master class, perform and jam with his local connection, organissimo guitarist and Michigan State University guitar instructor Joe Gloss.

Stowell is striking before he plays a note. He holds the guitar at a loving 75-degree angle, like a baby, or a dance partner. It makes the listener feel a bit like a voyeur, but that’s how he gets his fingers around the dense, piano-like harmonies he loves.

“He plays chords you won’t find in very many guitar books,” Gloss said.

“Maybe it was just laziness on my part, from not having the discipline to transcribe and memorize other people’s parts,” Stowell said with a laugh. “I felt early on I wanted to find my own vocabulary.”

Nobody will confuse Stowell with your average head-banger — or toe-tapper or neck-bobber, for that matter. His crystalline tone, preternatural stillness and complex harmonies seem to come from a private well of inspiration.

Stowell tells his students to study piano players like Herbie Hancock or Chick Corea to find harmonies and figures that people don’t expect out of a guitar, But it’s not a simple search.

“It takes a lot of work to try to find those things on the guitar, the way the neck is laid out,” Gloss said.

Stowell said he started “dinking around with rock and roll” at 10, then moved into electric jazz-rock fusion a la Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew.”

Growing up in Connecticut, he drifted toward jazz after hooking up with New York bebop masters Linc Chamberland and John Mehegan, but stuck to a self-imposed rule: “Listen and deal with the tradition, but don’t copy anybody.”

“He can play driving rhythms, but he tends toward the poetic side, almost impressionistic,” Gloss said. “He creates this soundscape that sort of washes over you. There’s a lot of exploration behind it.”

Stowell has lived in Portland for 30 years, but spends eight months of the year doing small and large gigs, workshops and master classes around the world. He’s played with everyone from Lionel Hampton to Lionel Ritchie and Billy Hart to Billy Higgins, but he hasn’t been in Michigan since the early 1980s, when he toured with frequent collaborator David Friesen on bass.

When Gloss learned Stowell was coming to Oakland University this month, he snagged Stowell quickly for the MSU gig. Stowell, in turn, invited Gloss to sit in on guitar, for both the master class and the concert to follow.

“I’ll see if I’m brave enough,” Gloss said.

John Stowell

Master class/concert 5:30
p.m.-10:30 p.m.

Thursday, April 8 Studio 1210 1210 Turner St., Lansing Suggested
donation $5-$20