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Interviews

Christian Howes: Blues for the Blues Violin

By Published: September 27, 2010
AAJ: The violin seems like the perfect blues instrument, being able to imitate the human voice, or emotions let's say, as well as it does; does it surprise you at all the violin has all but disappeared from the blues groups playing today? How do you account for the fact that so few people play blues violin in blues groups?

From left: Bill Evans, Christian Howes

CH: That's a good question. It's about culture, or specifically, the "culture of education." Most people trained on the violin are trained according to a "white" music educational system, i.e., a western European, analytical, discursive tradition. This tradition only pays attention to classical music, and therefore students never learn the blues. They never learn to improvise either. Even black string players that I've met, folks that can sing in church every week with lots of soul, when they put a violin in their hand, they sound like a classical musician because that's how they were taught to play the violin. Clearly, they were taught the violin in a very narrow context. Imagine if they were playing the violin in church since they were four years-old? We'd have a whole lot of soulful violin playing going on.

This is a reflection of the cultural segregation in our society. If our music educators recognized the need to teach the blues to string players, we'd have tons of bluesy string players.

Our (classical) music education system is carrying on this segregation and ignorance in our society, even if they do it with good intentions. Us white folks need to spend more effort exposing ourselves to the contributions of other cultures which are a part of our society. The full notion and experience of "the blues" is to us, as Ralph Ellison put it, "invisible." The only way to make something like this visible to the cultural majority is to teach it and explore it from as young an age as possible, and then we have the ability to be enriched by it, and to some extent, to express it or represent it more authentically.

It's a shock to the system when we hear a violin play the blues because of the disconnect between a violin, i.e., an archetypal symbol of the western European canon, and blues, a symbol of "blackness." That's part of what motivates me. I want to make a social statement that argues strongly with the unacceptable status quo.

AAJ: How did Robben Ford
Robben Ford
Robben Ford
b.1951
guitar
come to be involved in this project? Had you played with him before? What do you like about his playing that made you think he'd be compatible with the music you had in mind?

CH:I used to listen to Robben before I got into jazz when I listened to straight-up blues music. He was always the guy that played the jazzy notes. He's someone who quintessentially represents the blues, just like Bobby Floyd. Everything either of them plays is dripping with bluesy intention.

AAJ: Although you are classically trained, none of this filters through to the ear on Out of the Blue, by which I mean you sound like you've been playing the blues all your life. Which blues artists have had most influence on you, or appeal most to you?

CH: Artists in R&B, gospel, jazz, rock and other styles who incorporate a soulful, bluesy style, including Stevie Wonder
Stevie Wonder
Stevie Wonder
b.1950
keyboard
, Aretha Franklin
Aretha Franklin
Aretha Franklin

vocalist
, Prince, James Taylor Quartet
James Taylor Quartet
James Taylor Quartet

organ, Hammond B3
, John Coltrane
John Coltrane
John Coltrane
1926 - 1967
saxophone
, Kenny Garrett
Kenny Garrett
Kenny Garrett
b.1960
sax, alto
, John Scofield
John Scofield
John Scofield
b.1951
guitar
, Herbie Hancock
Herbie Hancock
Herbie Hancock
b.1940
piano
, Dexter Gordon
Dexter Gordon
Dexter Gordon
1923 - 1990
sax, tenor
, the list goes on...

AAJ:AAJ: There seems to be a folk/gypsy spirit in your playing. Is that a fair comment?

CH: Well, honestly, and not to sound defensive or anything, but I think what you're actually doing is just subconsciously relating what I do to other violin music you've heard because people naturally do that. If you get beyond the sonic quality of the violin, I think you would realize that I have a lot more in common with jazz guitarists, pianists and saxophonists than gypsy violin players. Although it's true that I am also a classical player and can evoke gypsy vibes, but it's the last thing I tried to do on this album.

AAJ:I see your point entirely, and you're not being defensive at all. What I'm referring to is not exclusively gypsy violin tradition, but gypsy and other folk music in a broader sense—Django Reinhardt
Django Reinhardt
Django Reinhardt
1910 - 1953
guitar
, flamenco, the soul and blues that also exist in these musics and in Irish or Scottish fiddle music, for example. I wondered whether folk music other than blues or jazz has colored your playing.

CH: I would still have to stick to my original response to this, more or less. I mean, sure, as a classically-trained violinist, these sorts of colors will show up a lot in my playing, especially when I'm playing music which is appropriate and calls for it. But in the context of playing jazz and/or blues, I think what you're hearing is mostly your association with the instrument itself. There are bound to be these sorts of associations, but they're colored more by the instrument than the kinds of music you mentioned.

Now, if you go to my website and watch videos of me performing a classical concerto with orchestra, you'll hear what you're talking about and I think if you check this out you'll see what I mean. I try to play totally differently when it's classical music or folk music. Now listen to other violinists like Stephane Grappelli playing jazz and I think you're right on to identify the Gypsy thing. But I think I play jazz from a different perspective, and that's not intended as any kind of judgment.


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