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Christian Howes: Blues for the Blues Violin

Ian Patterson By

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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.


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