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Christian Howes: Jazz on Sale

Robert R. Calder

Christian Howes

Jazz on Sale

Label: Khaeon
US Release Date: 2003-01-21
UK Release Date: Available as import

This prodigious fiddler's first acoustic recording date at once raises an enthusiasm subsequently but only slightly moderated. After something better than a cod old-style avant-garde start to the opening "Blue Monk", this oldest tune on the CD becomes a vehicle for resources of jazz violin playing stored up for humankind on recordings by Stuff Smith, Joe Venuti, Claude Williams, Christian H . . . with a faint whiff that maybe this stuff isn't to be taken more than 99% seriously, a miniature embarrassment which doesn't really harm anything. After the virtuoso jazz violin solo, once the trio is into the chord sequence (more fun can come out of this music than out of anyone who thinks it needs putting in), I swear the pianist finds something new to do in the Monk idiom. It's amazing! I can't believe it and he himself seems to have some doubts, nearly unnerved by the pure fun and joy of it. On a few titles the Argentinean pianist Federico Lechner does perform relatively standard passage work like most much more than good enough pianists who've come up since the 1950s, but there are times when he's entirely fresh and new.

The rest of this exceptional CD seems to underline a tad too assiduously the sleevenote-writer's question, "is this really . . . the Jimi Hendrix of the violin?", though only by persistence in declining to emulate the opening track's extravert elements -- and some of what follows is astonishing enough by any high standard. One cavil might be with the fifth of the 10 titles, in a contemporary cosmopolitan manner, with an accent which might be Celtic but lacking stylistic distinctiveness. Brief disappointment is wiped out by the next track's use of a "baritone violin" (which seems not quite so big as the viola the historic virtuoso Lionel Tertis long ago had made for himself) and its drier sound. It seems an ideal instrument in the spirit of jazz fiddle, and strengthens my anyway strong faith in that wonderful music: Howes's composition "Jazz on Sale" is reminiscent of the late Jaroslav Seifert's Polish exercises in Coltrane. The baritone violin shares the amplified instrument's ability to avoid harmonics too redolent of the European concert room, but on either fiddle used here Christian Howes can breathe influences of European concert music into his American repertoire without losing the latter's idiom.

The trio is not tight so much as together in Lechner's "Amor Casi Imposible". In the accompaniment to Pablo Martin's solo bass, the violin is an upper extension of the piano, and the ensemble develops into something like a French/ Spanish piano quintet of the 1920s (when Ravel did attend Chicago after hours sessions with Louis Armstrong; now and then, this trio attains textures which might have surprised that master of colour). It's enchantment to hear the near segue from that Paris Hispanism into Thad Jones's "A Child Is Born", a solo performance with passages of tender lyrical collective improvisation any Grappelli fan would adore (though Howes is a more rhythmic player like Eddie South or Ray Nance).

Miles Davis's "Blue in Green" has an incredible delicacy, also Bill Evans's "Very Early" with Howes's pizzicato contributions within the opening ensemble. The gentleness of that performance is continued through Steve Swallow's "Falling Grace", even the (as it used to be called) "free-form" playing-around which reprises the opening title -- though only briefly resuming the theme of "Blue Monk", concerned more with developing fragments into floating melodic lines which resist resolution. Could some idea of a contrast with the Hendrix reputation maybe have disinclined the nominal leader from extending himself here in directions indicated by the opening "Blue Monk"?

According to the notes, though, the session just proceeded according to a ruling mood or groove. It was a very relaxed and quiet jam, but not as these notes suggest an advance beyond jazz into the unexplored (the identical rhetoric turns up on the flyer for a very different recording I have for later review). This is a re-exploration of territory, none of it unvisited, demonstrating very plainly, however, that fresh discoveries are still to be made, and that in coming back to these musicians the listener can pretty well guarantee further rewards. Perhaps I'd have liked a less private or chamber affair, a little more of the extraversion I'm certainly looking forward to in another acoustic performance. As one listener referred to in the notes who hadn't as yet come across Christian Howes, I shall also bear in mind the other performers on this CD issued under that towering instrumentalist's name.

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