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Christian Howes: Blues for the Blues Violin


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It's not difficult to think of great blues artists—there's a roll call of honor as long as that of great jazz artists—and every sizeable town in the world has a blues band or two. So where is the violin? Great blues guitarists and vocalists have never been in short supply, but the great blues violinist, once such an important part of the blues group, has all but disappeared.

Eighty or so years ago, dozens of blues recordings featured fiddle players. It may be that the emergence of the guitar played a role in subverting and nearly banishing the fiddle from blues groups in later years, though right up to the '60s, players like Papa John Creach, Clarence Gatemouth Brown and Don "Sugar Cane" Harris kept the legacy of fiddle forbearers Lonnie Johnson, Henry "Son" Sims and Eddie Anthony alive to some extent.

However, today most people would struggle to name a single blues fiddler, and the instrument is not exactly commonplace in jazz either. This is a sorry state of affairs, and it has to be said, a rather peculiar fact, given that this dramatic, soulful instrument which evolved from the West African one-stringed fiddle has such tremendous range, as well as enormous harmonic and melodic possibilities.

Plus, in the right hands, it is an instrument of powerful improvisational persuasion.

Christian Howes—a classically trained violinist who has turned his hand to all kinds of music from orchestral to Latin, and jazz to fusion—is doing his bit to revive the violin as an authentic voice of the blues. His just released second album for Resonance Records, Out of the Blue, is an exploration of the intangible essence of the blues and a passionate calling card from one of the most talented violinists of any genre of music.

For Howes, the disappearance of the violin from the blues is a matter of education; if a person is trained from infancy to associate the violin exclusively with the European classical tradition, then it will be extremely difficult to persuade this same person that the instrument can be used in an entirely different idiom. Four years in the penitentiary in Ohio on drugs charges, playing with black musicians in the yard and attending church gospel services may have been just about as authentic a blues education as Howes could have wished for. Although Howes considers his quest for the blues something of an ongoing process, few who listen to Out of the Blue would doubt that he hasn't already nailed it.

All About Jazz: First up, congratulations on a great album. Was a blues album something you wanted to do for a long time?

Christian Howes: Thanks. I've always been conscious of trying to express the blues in everything I play, especially because this is really what's been missing from a lot of the jazz violin tradition—with some notable exceptions such as John Blake and Stuff Smith. I had wanted to do an album of spirituals, actually, for some time. It was George Klabin's idea to do a project using the blues as a theme, and this resonated with me.

AAJ: For an album of what is, broadly speaking, blues music, I'm interested in your choice of material. You haven't chosen the obvious blues figures to reinterpret: Robert Johnson, Elmore James, Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, James Cotton, etc., nor have you covered blues violinists like Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown or Don "Sugar Cane" Harris. What was behind your choice of interpretations?

CH: Good point. The term "blues" can be taken in many connotations, i.e., as a radio format, a song form, a historic tradition, or an intangible element of many styles of music such as gospel, jazz, rock, etc. I wanted to capture the element of blues as it occurs within jazz.

AAJ: Your choices perhaps underline the inseparable nature of jazz and blues music; fair comment?

CH: Actually, this is a very controversial premise, and one which is extremely important for musicians to examine. Some people say that, in order for music to qualify as "jazz," it must contain blues. Others say that jazz can be any music which includes interactive improvisation. I believe there are virtues and limitations within either side of this argument. Jazz was born out of blues, and this is a part of its African-American heritage. But how can someone on the other side of the world understand such a cultural thing without witnessing or somehow participating in it? Should Stephane Grappelli, for example, a French violinist who arguably had very little contact with blues or the culture from which it came, be denied the title of "jazz violinist"?

It's a complex issue which inevitably gets into issues of cultural propriety. For example, "Can a white person play the blues? " And of course, the question then follows whether a white person can play jazz, depending on whether we divorce jazz from blues or not. These questions prompted me to want to learn the blues and play jazz during my four- year incarceration in Ohio prisons. I was playing with black street musicians on the yard and in church services, all the time trying to understand the elusive quality which they expressed in all styles, including hip hop, R&B, gospel and different styles of jazz. For that matter, I could have asked any of them to sing a classical melody and they would have added blues. It really is something cultural, and anyone that wants to understand the blues who doesn't come from the culture should try to study the culture.

Having said all that, after years of trying to authentically represent the blues in everything I do, I also realize now that firstly, I'll always be limited in as much as I can achieve this and secondly, I can also be effective by exploring other elements of my musical and cultural background, and using these as material for expression in my music.

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 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, Aretha Franklin, Prince, James Taylor Quartet, John Coltrane, Kenny Garrett, John Scofield, Herbie Hancock, Dexter Gordon, 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, 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.

AAJ: I see what you mean. The spirit of New Orleans colors some of the music, obviously the Fats Domino 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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