It's not where you come from, it's whether or not you play your ass off.
It was in the fall of 2011 when I saw Christian Howes performing in the Joel Harrison 7. Perhaps it was because Harrison was treating it as a homecoming show for the violinist (Howes and I share the same hometown), but Christian Howes looked like he held an unwavering command over his part of the stage. Granted, the only other bowed musician there was cellist Dana Leong. But the combination of Howes's performance and showman vinegar could convince one to think that there was a healthy, friendly competition for leadership of the Joel Harrison 7. In other words, Christian Howes is no middling, fiddling hired-hand. He's got two of them (hands, that is) and they will transport you, dagnabbit.
But as confident as Howes appeared to be in someone else's band, he oddly seems willing to step out of his comfort box when it comes to albums under his own name with Southern Exposure being the latest example. Howes admits that the Latin style is something that doesn't come that easily to him, a confession designed to undersell the album because he certainly doesn't sound too challenged here. But underselling is always better than overselling and Southern Exposure feels like it was built for an easy glide.
As natural as the album feels, there's something just the slightest bit weird about having a French accordionist accompany Christian Howes for Latin music. But this quirk is a technicality, a problem in name only. And what's in a name? I suppose that if your name is Richard Galliano, you got squeeze box skills to pay the bills – enough to record with Jan Garbarek and Wynton Marsalis, just to name two. Pretty much everyone here comes armed with a jazz background – drummer Lewis Nash has appeared on more than 400 albums – but they are tasked to recreate downtown São Paulo (I'm just picking a city at random here). And it's convincing alright. Despite Nash being such a jazzhead, Josh Nelson logging in time with Natalie Cole and Peter Erskine, Scott Colley's resume reading like a who's who in modern big league jazz and a French accordionist of Italian heritage, it's all so convincing. I've never been anywhere south of Juarez, but we're all familiar with the seductiveness of the Latin groove. Southern Exposure, while not wildly inventive, rightly has it in the pocket.
Southern Exposure has brisk, peppy tension to go with soft ballads illuminated by the light of a full moon. "Sanfona (Concertina)" and the Paco de Lucía tune "Cancion de Amor (Love Song)" are the mellow counterparts to the jumpy bits like "Ta Boa,Santa? (Are You Ok, My Dear?)", a frisky piece of teamwork that has Howes and Galliano zipping through the melody like Speedy Gonzalez. And is "Heavy Tango" just that? I vote yes, given then the bed of chords on which the song lies are mighty dissonant in harmony and frantic in pace. And when you throw in all those rubatos to round out the album, you get a nice, creamy middle.
If there were ever a place to inject the old adage of "It's not where you come from ... ", it's here. Blood Latin origins or not, Southern Exposure suits all of your fiesta and siesta needs.