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“It’s a chord we’re trying to strike,” says bassist Michael Bowie of Siné Qua Non. Indeed, the Washington, D.C.-based quintet doesn’t so much overstep labels as draw connections through them. These connections are not forced, but are illuminated by virtue of their always having been there. It’s more about blending than transcending.
Bowie—also the group’s bandleader and main composer—grew up embedded in music. His parents were both classically trained musicians and started him on piano at an early age. Subsequent flirtations with clarinet and trumpet left a void that could only be filled by something “deeper.” His first real schooling in this regard came not through instruction but through listening. After growing up on a steady diet of Stanley Clark, Chick Corea, and Al Jarreau, it was George Benson who gave him a truer sense of things. “George taught me many lessons before I even got into music,” recalls Bowie, who cites the guitarist for cluing him in on the importance of phrasing and of the need for development of a voice as it pertains to pitch. While in college, he received the National Endowment for the Arts Award in Jazz Study, under the auspices of which he trained with greats Keter Betts and Calvin Jones, both of whom got the music under the fingers...and in the soul. Thus prepared, Bowie hopped onto the Merry-Go-Round that is the New York City jazz scene and auditioned for Betty Carter. With this his career began, and before long he found himself on stage and in the studio with Carter, Sarah Vaughan, Abdullah Ibrahim, The Harper Brothers, and Michel Camilo, among many others.
Somewhere in this formative swirl, Bowie encountered the playing of bassist Larry Graham. His feet were already taking him through the door before he hardly knew it was open: “It’s the frequency, what the bass is able to communicate, and what’s demanded from the player in that particular chair, it fit my personality.” Of that chair, Bowie makes no qualms. It’s a commanding position to inhabit. Yet he makes it egalitarian, allowing every musician’s voice and curiosity to shine. The end effect is really a beginning, a building of community that is central to Siné Qua Non’s message. On this point, Bowie notes, “That’s what started this whole thing for me. This group, and my position within it, has so little to do with simply playing music. In a community people have certain roles, and each of those roles matters. As a composer-bandleader I could be dictatorial, but that’s not the way it happens in a thriving community. I’m a humanist at heart. What compels me is to utilize the gift I’ve been given to tell a larger story. That’s what I want to convey to the world through the music, through my pen, through the band’s action and involvement in bringing a sense of hope and unity. That’s the only reason I began doing this.”
Ultimately, then, the band’s sonic activities reflect not a genre, but a way of life—a music of the world, for the world, by the world.