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Howard Alden

British jazz writer Digby Fairweather calls guitarist Howard Alden's Duets, with seven-string innovator George Van Eps "flawless". Alden's latest, another duet recording with another seven-string master, Bucky Pizzarelli, also deserves the description. The aptly named In A Mellow Tone (Concord Jazz, CCD-2207-2) has abiding warmth and intimacy, without sacrificing swing and inventiveness.

At first glance, the two guitarists appear to come from separate worlds. Alden is 44 and grew up in Southern California; Pizzarelli, 77, has always made his headquarters in Patterson, New Jersey, where he was born. But a love of the Great American Songbook gives the two much common ground. Alden seems a sincere student of this classic body, and Pizzarelli has a youthful vigor in his playing that no doubt comes from doing what you love most. Both are equally adept at chordal and single-string playing, which allows for endless variations of effects and textures.

In other words, they blend seamlessly on these 13 tracks, which include immortal hits such as "Cherokee," "The Very Thought Of You," "Jitterbug Waltz" (the highlight of the disc, if you forced me to pick one highlight) "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles," "Do Nothing 'Till You Hear From Me" and the title track. Also contained on the disc is an Alden-Pizzarelli original, "Blues For Emmett," a bow to the fictional Emmett Ray of the Woody Allen movie Sweet and Lowdown. (Alden coached the star, Sean Penn, on guitar for the flick.)

Queries about why a young buck like Alden still sticks to the standards and how it's possible to milk anything original from such fare are inevitable. And Alden graciously fields them below, but the real answers lie in the music made on these 14 strings by these two consummate musicians.

JazzReview: Tell me about George Van Eps: Who is he and how did you come to meet him and play with him?

Howard Alden: George Van Eps was a guitarist. He started back in late '20s, and through the '30s was one of the main guitar players on six-string acoustic guitar. He was inspired by Eddie Lang. He came from a very musical family: His father was Fred, a virtuoso banjo player, and his brother played piano, and his other brother played sax. Around 1938 he wanted to extend the range of the guitar, so added a string to the six-string. He was known for his chordal playing. He played in one of Benny Goodman's first big bands and with Ray Nobel, then he settled in Hollywood where he recorded Mellow Guitar in mid-'50s, a classic of chordal guitar playing, and a few others in the late '60s on Capitol. He was the legendary model for several generations of guitar players.

I had known about him, had heard the Mellow Guitar record when I was 12, and listened to it over and over and over. I met him in late '80s. He'd been semi-retired for a couple years and started playing again in Southern California about same time I moved to the East Coast from L.A. In 1986, I met him at jazz festival in Pennsylvania. He did the music for movie called Pete Kelly's Blues in the mid '50s - he was one of the musicians on-screen the whole time and had put together a band that played all that music. I met him, played a few things with him.

A couple years later I made my first recording with Concord [with the Howard Alden Trio] and did a few George Van Eps tunes. The guy who did the liner notes, I mentioned to him that I'd met George Van Eps. Afterwards, the president of Concord [Bob Weil] called me and said, "You should call him up and have him make a record with you." I'd have been happy to carry his amp, but I did, and George hemmed and hawed, said he was having trouble with right hand ... and I let it go.

Six months later I saw some friends and they said, "George Van Eps is excited about the record he's going to make with you." I called him again and the same thing happened, and I let it go. Six months later, another friend said "George is very excited about making a record with you." Finally, about a year and a half later, we went into the studio and it [13 Strings, Concord CCD 4464] went so well, we did another a couple months later [Hand-Crafted Swing Concord CCD 4513]. At this point, George was about 79-years old. He said he didn't want to plan too far ahead. But when he turned 80, he must have realized he'd made some sort of milestone, and we ended up doing a tour and making four CDs in Concord.

He basically was the inspiration for Bucky to start playing the seven-string. George always had a very full sound. When he played it was almost like a string quartet: every voice had a direction and a purpose. He conceived a whole orchestration and made it complete. Bucky and I were inspired by that, though we don't do it exactly the way George did.

JazzReview: Besides the seven-string guitar, he was responsible for a lot of other inventions too, wasn’t he?

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Howard Alden
  • Interview Date: 9/1/2003
  • Subtitle: Flawless
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