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Band Bio: Following a string of self-produced albums through the '90s, virtuoso violinist and Columbus, Ohio native Christian Howes stepped into a larger arena by moving to New York, where he soon became an in-demand figure on the scene. A classically-trained player, Howes quickly earned a reputation in jazz circles by playing with the likes of trumpeter Randy Brecker, trombonist Steve Turre, guitarist Joel Harrison, pianist D.D. Jackson, saxophonist Greg Osby, drummer Dafnis Prieto, Dave Samuels' Caribbean Jazz Project, Bill Evans' Soulgrass, crossover pioneers Spyro Gyra and the legendary guitarist-inventor Les Paul. He made further strides in the jazz world with his 2003 recording Jazz on Sale, then revealed a more romantic side on his 2008 Resonance Records debut, Heartfelt, a lush, orchestral ballads project with jazz veterans Roger Kellaway and Bob Magnusson. Now Howes takes it up a few notches on his fiery followup for Resonance, Out of the Blue.
An inspired pairing of the technically dazzling violinist and world-class blues guitarist Robben Ford, Out of the Blue finds Howes wailing with typical authority on a program that explores the blues in all of its manifestations. From the exhilarating opener -- a cover of Chick Corea's swinging post-bop romp "Fingerprints" (his take on Wayne Shorter's classic minor key composition "Footprints") -- to a shuffle blues rendition of Fats Domino's "I'm Walking," along with blues-tinged interpretations of Carla Bley's "Sing Me Softly of the Blues," Horace Silver's "Cape Verdean Blues," Ornette Coleman's "When Will the Blues Leave" and Howes' own highly expressive title track, the real deal blues is at the heart of this ambitious concept album. Augmenting these inventive covers are Howes originals like the infectious second line groover "Gumbo Klomp," the funky "Bobby's Bad" (named for Howes' Ohio mentor and one-time Ray Charles organist, Bobby Floyd), the affecting country-flavored title track and the gospel flavored "Seek and Ye Shall Find" (featuring soulful vocals by Sharon Hendrix). The collection closes with an intimate duet between Howes and Floyd on a jaunty piano-violin rendition of "Sweet Lorraine."
For Howes, his affinity for the blues came after serving four years in prison paying some serious dues of his own. While spending time in jail during the '90s on a drug conviction, the violinist began playing in gospel church services. "That's when I really got introduced to the whole African-American cultural experience," he recalls. "That was the first time that I was really exposed to a kind of energy, soul ,swing and blues that I hadn't felt before. That music made such a deep impression on me that I decided to explore this more on the violin, which led me to violinists like Stuff Smith and John Blake Jr., and also to players like John Coltrane, Joe Henderson, Herbie Hancock, John Scofield...all of whom have that authentic blues feeling in their playing."
Howes emerged from jail in 1996 with a new lease on life and a newfound commitment to the music. "I made a commitment a long time ago, when I was 24, right after I was released into the free world, that I was going to do whatever it took and I wasn't going to wait on anybody else. I promised myself that at least I'd make one record every year, and if nothing else it would be a way of getting better at making records, so I could be good at that and eventually show people what I could do. Because I had a real strong desire to get out there and do it, and I believed that I had something to say. So I put one out just about every year, whether it was on my own or in collaboration with a group."
Howes pursued that thread of the blues and swing for years as a developing player in Columbus. In recent years he has been embracing more modern influences, including rock, funk and fusion, elements which are readily apparent on original pieces like "Bobby's Bad," the second line-fueled "Gumbo Klomp" and the sonorous title track (which slyly incorporates a funk section in the middle that is borrowed from the Rufus & Chaka Khan hit from the '70s, "Tell Me Something Good"). As Howes explains of his original compositions on the collection, "You can hear on those tunes how I'm fusing those elements of blues with my own sound that incorporates rock and more modern ethereal things."
And all throughout, Robben Ford's stinging, toe-curling guitar licks are prominent in the mix. Says Howes of his six-string partner on Out of the Blue: "As far as blues guitar player, Robben's always been on the jazzy side of that spectrum. He's the guy who always had those extra grace notes and bebop licks, whether it was his playing with Jimmy Witherspoon, with Miles Davis or as a leader of his own bands. I knew that this record was going to be too complex to use a traditional blues guitarist, so Robben was a great choice. His sensibility is very deep. He just nailed everything, whether it was being the glue that held a particular piece together or just stepping out at any time with a killer guitar solo. And he is such a cool guy. I really could relate to his West Coast kind of vibe and I'm really appreciative of his openness and his support and his warmth throughout the process. So it definitely was a great experience for me to work with a true artist like Robben."
While Howes and Ford may indeed be the focal point of Out of the Blue with their fiery, blues-tinged soloing, the secret weapon on this project is Floyd, who provides the kind of soulful accompaniment and intuitive choices on organ and piano that you just can't teach. "To me, Bobby embodies that quintessential blues-infused church school of playing, which is a big part of how I got into playing jazz," says Howes. "He's been a model for me, especially in trying to understand what is the blues, what is swing. They're such intangible things. Bobby was the guy that I could look to for answers those questions in constantly striving to get more finely tuned into sounding authentic. Because being primarily a classical player coming up, I didn't grow up in that blues and jazz tradition. So it was really important to me that Bobby be a part of the album, because a lot of what I've learned about the blues after my prison years came from working and talking with him, playing gigs and recording with him over the past 14 years. So in a way this record is like trying to capture all that study and work I've done to just learn and understand the blues."
His most inspired and dynamic offering to date, Out of the Blue is the next step in the ongoing musical odyssey of Christian Howes, an extraordinarily gifted violinist and a talent deserving of wider recognition.
By: DL Media July 2010
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