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Interviews

Christian Howes: Blues for the Blues Violin

By Published: September 27, 2010
AAJ: I see what you mean. The spirit of New Orleans colors some of the music, obviously the Fats Domino
Fats Domino
Fats Domino
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piano
tune is a reference but also your own tune "Gumbo Klomp." Were you looking from the outset for a New Orleans vibe?

CH: We were looking to incorporate this as one of many elements on the album which naturally embody the blues.

AAJ: Bobby Floyd plays quite a significant role on this album—he plays beautifully and he's been an important figure in your career. Tell us a little about your relationship with him and what he brings to the music on Out of the Blue in your opinion.

CH: He anchors and grounds the whole thing. Bobby has been the most significant mentor to me in my life as a jazz musician, and while I've deviated somewhat from the path of what he does, I also keep it in my mind at all times. Again, Bobby was playing organ in church since he was three, so when he plays jazz, it's always with an utmost focus on playing the blues. We needed to have that authentic quality present in this album. No one is more authentic than him on this album. He can turn any room inside out. I will spend the rest of my life trying to reach the level he attains every time he plays. Bobby is a beautiful person and I stay grounded in part because of my respect for and gratitude to him. He's a very generous person, teaching so many young musicians in Columbus by allowing them to jam at his jam session which has been going for 20-years plus. He keeps the tradition of the music alive in a dignified and proper way.

AAJ: There's a gospel flavor to "Seek and Ye Shall Find"—is gospel music something close to you?

CH: From all those Sunday church services in prison, which was one of the only outlets I had to make music, I saw how, during a gospel church service, something called "the spirit" emerges in the room, in the music, the musicians and the audience. This spirit is what guides every note Bobby Floyd plays, for example. Many times after a gig, I would ask Bobby an analytical question such as, "Were you thinking about rhythmic displacement and using the Mixolydian scale during that solo?," and he might say: "Well, no, not really. I just listen, and wait, until I feel the spirit."

AAJ: Is an album of traditional gospel tunes something that would appeal to you?

CH: Definitely. I would like to work with Bobby Floyd and some other church musicians on a project like this.

AAJ: Who's in your touring band? Will you be gigging with Robben Ford, and if not, would you use another guitarist?

CH: I actually play guitar, bass and violin with my touring band, which includes Cedric Easton on drums, and Hamilton Hardin on keyboards— instead of organ, he uses a Moog or Rhodes bass sound. These guys are also both coming out of the church tradition and they bring that sensibility into their work as modern jazz players. I love this combination. These guys are both incredible young talents.

AAJ: Your playing sounds like you are singing. I can't imagine you did take after take after take on Out of the Blue; is that the case?

CH: If you're asking if it always flows naturally, again I would say I always wish I could live up to this; it's something I see in Bobby's playing, but honestly I'm not as consistent as I'd like to be. Still working on it!

AAJ: How are promoters—I'm thinking of ones who don't know you— when they learn that a violinist is the front man? Do you ever feel that it would be easier to get gigs if you played, say, saxophone or guitar?

CH: More people would hire me to play in their band! But on the other hand, I have something unique to offer.

AAJ: Not everybody can get into jazz or rock or classical, but it seems that the whole world loves the blues; would you say it is the most universal of musical languages?

CH: I hesitate to make a statement like that. There is soul in lots of music and the soul of different cultures shows up in many ways. People respond to soulfulness. To the degree that true blues musicians are "feeling the spirit" when they play, as opposed to counting or applying mathematical formulas to make music, yes, I think people respond to that. Is it universal? I think people respond to things they have been exposed to and can therefore digest. The most "universal" music in the world today is whatever has been marketed and promoted the best because then people hear it, become comfortable with it, and buy it. McDonald's food is the most universal for the same reason.

In other words, I think all music is universal, and people respond to music which they have been educated enough to appreciate, just like food, wine, literature, art, etc. If more people were educated, they would appreciate more "rare" or "complex" music.

AAJ: Your playing on this album reminds in spirit of the great Stuff Smith, kind of raw but highly melodious, adventurous and swinging. Is Smith someone you listened to much?

CH: I have listened to him a little, and I really respect him, but honestly my studies were not really of violin players. I've tried to go closer to "the source." By the time I learned about who Stuff was, I had already given up listening to other violinists who all seemed to be leaving the blues out. I respect what they do, but I wanted to hear this other thing, find out about it and find a way to express it on the violin. Like I said, I've only come so far with it, and I'm not even sure how far I can go realistically in terms of authentically representing the blues on the violin.

But this has been my quest in a big way, and it will continue to be a theme in my music even as I explore other things as well.

Selected Discography

Christian Howes, Out of the Blue (Resonance Records, 2010)

Joel Harrison, Urban Myths (HighNote Records, 2009)

Christian Howes, Heartfelt (Resonance Records, 2008)

Mike Garson, Conversations with My Family (Resonance Records, 2008)

Spyro Gyra, Good to Go-Go (Heads Up International, 2007)

Dafnis Prieto, Absolute Quintet (Zoho Music, 2006)

Caribbean Jazz Project, Mosaic (Concorde Picante, 2006)

Christian Howes & Billy Contreras, Jazz Fiddle Revolution (BRC, 2004)

D.D. Jackson, Suite for New York (Justin Time, 2003)

Christian Howes, Jazz on Sale (Khaeon Records, 2002)

D.D. Jackson, Anthem (RCA, 2000)



Photo credits

Page 1: John R. Fowler

All Other Photos: Courtesy of All About Jazz Photo Gallery


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