In his all-too-brief professional music career, jazz-rock keyboardist and composer Alan Gowen garnered respect from his peers and a small cult audience but little more than that, although he arguably deserved much more. He made his initial mark within what is now referred to as the Canterbury scene of British prog rock, which received a fair amount of critical acclaim but usually only moderately sized audiences, and he also arrived on the scene after the late-'60s and early-'70s Canterbury heyday, thus never achieving the levels of attention enjoyed by such fellow keyboardists as Soft Machine's Mike Ratledge, Caravan's Dave Sinclair, or Dave Stewart of Hatfield and the North and National Health. Yet, his relatively small body of work reveals a searching and explorative sensibility that might have brought him wider artistic acclaim and even an acknowledgement of his impact on latter-day musicians extending into the 21st century -- had he not died of leukemia on May 17, 1981. As is the case with so many musicians who have died prematurely, this is something that can only be surmised.
Although Gowen had been involved in early-'70s bands Assagai and Sunship, he first achieved relative prominence as the driving force behind Gilgamesh, an instrumental prog and jazz-rock band formed in late 1972 and including drummer Mike Travis, saxophonist Alan Wakeman, bassist Jeff Clyne, and guitarist Rick Morcombe. The Gilgamesh lineup had already gone through a number of changes before settling into the quartet configuration (with Gowen, Travis, Clyne, and guitarist Phil Lee) heard on the group's first, self-titled album. Recorded at the Manor with a co-production credit by Dave Stewart, Gilgamesh was issued by the Virgin Records budget-line imprint Caroline in August 1975, and this is where most listeners first became aware of Gowen.
Most of the album's compositions were penned by the keyboardist, and display some hallmarks of the latter-day Canterbury style, particularly a combination of lightness, complexity, and melodicism along with a somewhat cerebral rather than visceral attitude -- not a recipe for mass popularity during an age of ascendency for punk and disco. In addition, there were some elements -- particularly the closing three-part suite including such whimsically named titles as "Someone Else's Food" and "Jamo and Other Boating Disasters" -- that seemed to echo Hatfield and the North's Rotters' Club LP issued around the same time, perhaps not surprising given Stewart's role as co-producer.
Another factor that, in retrospect, might be seen as having both a positive and negative effect on Gowen's musical career is his relation to the more well-known Stewart (who himself might have issues with that other David Stewart guy in Eurythmics). As an important member of Hatfield and the North (which Virgin likely viewed as a sort of Canterbury supergroup), Stewart might have helped enhance Gowen's public profile, but when Gowen and Stewart co-founded the post-Hatfields band National Health, some listeners likely viewed Gowen as the group's "other keyboardist," with Stewart in a more dominant role. This perception was reinforced by the cover of the first, eponymously named National Health album released in 1977, with a photo of Stewart, guitarist Phil Miller, drummer Pip Pyle, and bassist Neil Murray but no other members of the band featured. But Gowen was far from an also-ran in the group, as can be gleaned by his penning of "Brujo" on National Health, and his presence on Moog and electric piano throughout the album. Gowen's crucial involvement in the first version of National Health was also made evident by the subsequent release of Missing Pieces (East Side Digital, 1996), a recording by an expanded version of the band -- including drummer Bill Bruford -- that predated the group heard on National Health.
Rock-attuned ears might also have found Gowen's fluid synthesizer lines, with their round clarinet and flute-like tones, to be less assertive than the sometimes more prog rockish keyboard attacks of Stewart, at least during the time when both keyboardists were recording, either in the same band or separately. Stewart was certainly capable of subtlety and nuance, but Gowen seemed even milder -- which could also be perceived as more introspective, trippier, and even more psychedelic, the product of an imagination bred not only on the rippling overdubbed keyboard ostinatos of Ratledge on "Out-Bloody-Rageous" on Soft Machine's Third but also Brian Eno's early ambient experiments, not to mention such spacier jazz fusion efforts as Miles Davis' In a Silent Way and other Rhodes-heavy efforts of the '70s electric jazz era.
These various influences can be heard in such LPs as the second Gilgamesh LP (Another Fine Tune You've Got Me Into), 1978's Rogue Element by the Soft Head quartet, Soft Heap (released in 1979 by the quartet of the same name), Two Rainbows Daily by the Hopper/Gowen duo, and Gowen's final recording, the composed/improvised outing Before a Word Is Said by the quartet of Gowen, Miller, bassist Richard Sinclair, and drummer Trevor Tomkins. (Gowen was reportedly very ill during the latter portion of the Before a Word Is Said session although he apparently remained in high spirits throughout the recording; he died before hearing the completed album.) One of Gowen's most important collaborators during this period was bassist Hugh Hopper who, like reedman Elton Dean, was exploring a British variant on post-fusion that eschewed the pyrotechnics of American fusion stars in favor of Miles and Trane-influenced modalism and free jazz mixed with a certain post-Soft Machine spaciness.
As is sometimes the case with musicians and other artists who leave us too soon, some surprises were in store for listeners after Gowen had died -- in Gowen's case related to both Gilgamesh and National Health. As for the first group, the Cuneiform label released the archival compilation Arriving Twice in 2000, featuring previously unreleased tracks from three separate Gilgamesh incarnations between 1973 and 1975. Although a disclaimer that "none of these tapes were originally intended for release" is included in the CD booklet, at times the recordings and performances actually seem more gutsy than the previous "legitimate" Gilgamesh albums had been. The band as a whole, and Gowen in particular, nicely balance the ethereal, spacy, and complex with punch and drive -- and the rough spots in the recording (some of which is in mono) actually lend a certain immediacy to the proceedings.
And as for an alternate view of Gowen through the prism of National Health, one must return to 1982, when that band's D.S. al Coda album was released as a memorial to Gowen. The LP was entirely comprised of his compositions performed by an extended National Health ensemble, with Dave Stewart handling the keyboards and in many cases jamming out with a noisy attack that, to ears accustomed to the more low-key approaches of most of the issued recordings actually featuring Gowen, seemed rather un-Gowen-like.
But in fact, Gowen could muster his fiery side on the keys, pushing himself and his bandmates in National Health, while also demonstrating an ever-evolving composition acumen. It was just that the last version of the group with these facets of Gowen's musical personality fully on display, a quartet with Gowen, John Greaves on bass, Miller on guitar, and Pyle on drums, had never been heard on LP before. Thanks to Playtime, a recording culled from two live National Health dates in 1979 and also released by Cuneiform (in 2001), listeners could now hear a side of the keyboardist they had missed. D.S. al Coda's context was now clearly understood. And Alan Gowen's loss was perhaps even more keenly felt. ~ Dave Lynch