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Heartfelt by Christian Howes

Christian Howes’ story is certainly inspirational and gratifying, for it involves a comeback from severe adversity through natural talent and unstoppable perseverance, even without a plan for re-emergence. I interviewed Howes ten years ago just as he was putting his life back together when D.D. Jackson generously and perceptively recognized Howes’ unique talent during a fortunate collaboration in Howe’s hometown. That’s where Howes enjoyed the support and advice of local musicians like Jeff McCargish, Andy Woodson and Tony McClung as Howes assembled a career in music from the very bottom a bottom that very few of us ever experience in a lifetime. It seems that almost every Howes review or interview rehashes the circumstances of his calamity, and some of them even describe his music too. There is no need for any rehashing here. The point is that Howes transformed not only himself but also his music as a result of misfortune. Now he is more successful than he ever imagined, and his undreamed-of accomplishments of a decade ago include an associate professorship at the Berklee College of Music. In fact, Christian Howes now may be counted as one of the leading jazz violinists of this generation.

Part of Howes’ determined plan was to record an album every year, starting with his Confluence, which he financed and produced himself. Jazz listeners who have recently discovered Howes are encouraged to check out his early albums as well, which show remarkable consistency in melodic emphasis, various means of experimentation and effortless technique. Now, Resonance Records producer George Klabin is to be commended for providing the resources to move Howes’ recording activities up a notch by releasing Heartfelt.

The astuteness of Klabin’s choices makes the new CD especially effective because of pianist Roger Kellaway’s long interest in combining piano with strings, particularly his Cello Quartet in the early 1970’s. But Kellaway is a virtuosic piano player who has played various duo albums with musicians like Red Mitchell, Eddie Daniels and Ruby Braff. So his work on Heartfelt is a natural. And from the results provided on each track, their mutual understanding of the other’s musical instincts was natural, possibly because of their non-categorizable interests in classical music, pop music, free exploration and jazz.

Heartfelt includes a range of music that shows a broad range of interests, starting with Kellaway’s own "Invasion of the Forest" from his 1971 Roger Kellaway Cello Quartet album, thereby representing an opportunity to revitalize interest in Kellaway’s string-related compositions and providing another setting for its presentation. Flowing and singable, "Invasion of the Forest" initially features Howes initially carrying the lead with but harmonic piano accents and quietly crashing chords behind the Octave Geiger, a chin-supported cross between viola and cello. In the second chorus, Howes goes pizzicato as he improvises before Kellaway and he trade roles when the pianist develops a more extroverted and more complicated solo making use of the entire keyboard. Russ Freeman’s "The Wind," the first track on the CD, is in the same vein, lush and swaying with suggestions of nature while providing a platform for their shared lyricism. Left unstated is information about the background orchestra’s. It does add color to tracks like "The Wind" or Eliane Elias’ "That’s All It Was." Were the orchestra's tracks newly recorded along with Howes and Kellaway for Heartfelt or were the violin and piano parts added onto a previously recorded track?

In any case, "Cinema Paradiso" demonstrates Howes’ and Kellaway’s shared fondness of classically influenced music, as well as cinematic compositions, this one being especially appropriate for a violin interpretation which veers between sweetness and swing, though, of course, Kellaway takes command as well toward the end of the track with his rippling treble-clef improvisation and chiming chords before it all fades away. Jimmy Rowles’ "The Peacocks" is equally haunting, particularly with the emotion that Howes invests in the piece even as he departs from melody for trilling and still-poignant sixteenth-note variations. In addition, Kellaway uses his signature harmonically parallel arpeggios sweeping up to the top of the keyboard.

In another mood, Howes and Kellaway have fun with Benny Goodman’s "Opus Half," played as a duo while Howes provides the jubilant melody. However, the impressive aspect of the track is Kellaway’s ability to provide not only the traditionally devised accompaniment but also to supply occasional treble harmony while Howes plays. Then he does the same thing to accompany solely himself when Howes drops out as Kellaway’s fondness of stride piano emerges again. The final trading of fours, Howe’s strumming, the contrapuntal exhilaration and the climactic one-note exclamation point finish off the piece. "Alone Together" begins with Howes’ attention-getting cadenza and his solo chorus before the quartet takes off in a free-spirited hard-swinging version, the highlight of which is Kellaway’s distinctively splashing and charging work that invigorates bassist Bob Magnusson and drummer Nathan Wood. The recording ends on a similarly high note with "Bernie’s Tune," which allows some playfulness, even as Howes plays it in the tenor range of the Octave Geiger joined by guitarist Andreas Öberg. Always experimental, Howes continues to find new means of expression for the violin by combining genres like rock with jazz or by working with instruments like Yamaha’s Silent Electric Concert Select Violin and now the Octave Geiger.

Heartfelt accomplishes the goals of all of the participants, especially Howes’, by presenting him in an appropriately top-shelf recording environment, and Klabin's, whose mission with Resonance Records is to bring attention to deserving but under-recorded talent.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Christian Howes
  • CD Title: Heartfelt
  • Genre: Various Jazz Styles
  • Year Released: 2008
  • Record Label: Resonance Records
  • Tracks: The Wind, Cinema Paradiso, Alone Together, That’s All It Was, Invasion of the Forest, Walkin’ Up, The Peacocks, Opus Half, Early Autumn, Bernie’s Tune
  • Musicians: Christian Howes (violin, Octave Geiger), Roger Kellaway (piano), Andreas Öberg (guitar), Bob Magnusson (bass), Nathan Wood (drums)
  • Rating: Four Stars
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