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Christian Howes & Billy Contreras: Jazz Fiddle Revolution

Victor Verney By

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Christian Howes & Billy Contreras: Jazz Fiddle Revolution Christian Howes has often been referred to as the "Jimi Hendrix of jazz violin," notes Los Angeles Times critic Don Heckman. He and others, like AAJ's C. Michael Bailey, have taken exception to this title, pointing to the depth and range of Howes' artistry. While Heckman insists that Howes is a jazz player first and foremost with "an expansive improvisational imagination," Bailey is a bit blunter. "My ass!" he exclaims, in a review of Jazz on Sale (Khaeon World Music, 2003), offering instead a moniker suggested by Lee Brown, who referred to Howes as a "Jazz Paganini."

But even this high praise may not do Howes full justice. He is by no means the only musician to straddle the twin peaks of jazz and classical music and master both; Wynton Marsalis and Dave Liebman are notable among this select group. But as Jazz Fiddle Revolution demonstrates, Howes is not content to follow these two tracks exclusively.

Howes is very active as an educator, and the phrase most frequently directed by him to young musicians at his music clinics, workshops and classes is "I'd like to see you take more chances." As this release shows, he practices what he preaches. A former youthful prodigy himself, Howes has teamed up with the latest wunderkind of the violin, Texan Billy Contreras, who exploded on to the Nashville scene in 1997 at the age of twelve and has since performed with the late Lionel Hampton, among others.

Both violinists epitomize the word "eclectic." At sixteen, Howes performed with the Columbus Symphony and subsequently immersed himself in the full range of African-American music from jazz to gospel; Contreras, currently studying classical music, has explored jazz as well as a full spectrum of country music from bluegrass to Texas swing.

When they met in 2002, the youngster had something to show Howes, who points out that the concept of two violins improvising and comping for each other, while commonplace in country music, is practically unheard of in jazz. Inspired by Contreras, Howes has applied this approach to a broad range of tunes and styles on Jazz Fiddle Revolution.

la Kind of Blue, this dynamic duo (augmented by Dana Leong on cello and trombone) recorded most of the CD's fourteen tunes without arrangements or rehearsal in a single room with little separation. There is a fresh-minted feel and raw sound quality, as well as a sense of revisiting old chestnuts from wildly varying contexts: contemporary jazz (Sonny Rollins' "Doxy" and Dave Holland's "The Oracle"), classical (Bach's "Fugue in G Minor"), pop (Bobby Heeb's "Sunny"), standards (Rogers' and Hart's "It Never Entered My Mind") and folk ("Traditional Fiddle Tune").

Both players have chops to spare, adventurous spirits, wide horizons and youthful (or, in Howes' case, youthful-minded) exuberance. There are a couple of rough spots, but in jazz fortune favors the bold, and Howes, who speaks of his desire to reach beyond his own limits, shows that he has the courage of his convictions.


Track Listing: Doxy; The Way You Look Tonight; Sunny; Maria, Maria; Merchants Groove; untitled blues jam; untitled bebop jam; Fugue in G Minor for solo violin; It Never Entered My Mind; Traditional Fiddle Tune; The Oracle; Dialog Over Two Themes; What a Wonderful World; Doxy - reprise.

Personnel: Christian Howes: violin, baritone violin; Billy Contreras: violin, baritone violin; Dana Leong: cello, trombone.

Year Released: 2004 | Record Label: BRC | Style: Beyond Jazz


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