For more than 20 years, renowned violinist/composer Christian Howes has been powerfully moving audiences all over the world as an artist with a distinctly American voice, forging ground at the intersections of jazz, classical, and world music. But when the U.S. State Department invited him to Montenegro and war-torn Ukraine in the past year, it was Christian’s turn to be profoundly affected.
These and other recent developments in the violinist’s career and personal life have inspired Howes to call for a “reframing of the discussion about what it is to take pride in being American” on the Ohio native’s fourth recording for Resonance Records – American Spirit being released Friday, Oct. 30, 2015.
“Working with the Embassies in the Ukraine and Montenegro after years of international tours, noticing the polarization in America, and feeling an urge to stand for something bigger than myself as my daughter leaves for college – all of these things have inspired me to think about what it means to be American,” Howes asserts. “Growing up in the ’80s, the idea of American pride was taught to me in relation to events specific to that era, but we are in a different time now. This project is my way of inviting people to reflect on, articulate and express what American Spirit means for them today. No one group of people or ideology should be able to claim exclusive ownership of this pride. We should each claim it for ourselves on our own terms. I believe we can grow together through this process.”
“This newest recording finds him breathing fresh air into the tried and true, from spirituals to classic blues to slices of pop culture to familiar Americana and classical expressions, in a program of eight standards leavened with three of his originals,” Willard Jenkins reveals in his liner notes included with the recording.
That breath of fresh air is not to be underestimated, according to Resonance Records President and Founder George Klabin, whose experience in the jazz industry dates back to the mid-’60s. “Christian Howes is in my opinion the finest jazz violinist alive,” Klabin proclaims without hesitation. “He is able to play many styles of music at the highest artistic level. His improvisations are consistently brilliant and inventive, and his technique is truly remarkable.”
In American Spirit, Howes displays versatility, virtuosity and depth, having selected songs that reflect different periods of American history during the past 150 years, re-envisioned to express a diverse range of American voices and perspectives on America, all bound by a common thread.
“Americans are united by a spirit that we all feel, we all share,” Howes believes. “No matter how much we disagree or how different we are, we should strive to define and acknowledge this spirit that connects us.”
To unveil the patriotic theme, Howes opens this recording with “America,” a modern-jazz take on Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story classic. It is one of four arrangements by pianist Tamir Hendelman, along with the Bob James’ “Angela,” (from the ’70s classic TV show “Taxi”) reflecting an R&B feel where Howes arranged and recorded his own “one-man string section” to reinforce and interplay against the bass solo during the soulful outro.
Hendelman also arranges the ballad “Deborah’s Theme” from the turn-of-the-century immigrant motion picture “Once Upon a Time in America.”
Vocalist Polly Gibbons contributes two guest performances, including a beautifully modern and unexpected take on traditional well-known tune “Shenandoah,” arranged by Hamilton Hardin.
In another Hardin arrangement, Howes infuses a groove-based take on the ’60s Joni Mitchell classic “Both Sides Now,” with an ethereal string arrangement and a fuzz-tone guitar-style violin solo showing his ability to rock with the best of them.
On the traditional “Take a Closer Walk,” Howes’ “sense of gospel swings, not only out of the tradition. He and his bandmates swing this chestnut from Second Baptist Church to Birdland.”
“As a violinist in jazz, there’s a constant sense of needing to prove that the violin can really swing, express the blues, and do the things that traditional jazz instruments are more known for,” explains Howes. “The four years in my early twenties that I spent playing in gospel church services were key to developing these elements of tradition, and while it’s no longer the thing that defines me, it’s an inextricable part of who I am.”
“Galop,” a Samuel Barber tune arranged by Nelson, shows the violinist’s unmistakable ability as a former classical prodigy, reconciling classical/jazz crossover via what he says is “a mix of striking classical references, traditional swing, group improv and a dose of humor.”
This project features a trio of original compositions by Howes. “If I’m to say anything about American Spirit,” he admits, “it should be something unique; something personal.”
Howes gets personal with the title track, one of his three originals, and a track that Jenkins notes is “broadened by the dark roasted tone of the Octave Geiger hybrid instrument, pitched an octave lower than violin.” Howes describes it starting as an odd-meter/mixed mode Appalachian-sounding fiddle tune, developing through a sprawling long form to include heady modern jazz, a strident solo section and a bluesy ending,” using the strings he arranged and performed to reinforce improvisations by the soloists.
As a wrap-up, Howes goes it all on his own in “Postlude,” a virtuosic unaccompanied violin piece combining through-composed long form with improvisation. “Postlude” is what he calls a “jazz caprice.” Explains Howes: “It tells my story. It uses jazz progressions and improvisation while clearly incorporating elements of classical tradition. It’s a ‘New World’ commentary on the long tradition built by the standard bearers who still hold true today – Bach and Paganini – and the connection to the classical world is a ‘bridge’ whereby non-jazz listeners can hopefully connect to the rest of the material on the album. While I am deeply informed by the jazz tradition, this is not only about jazz.”
“There is much to appreciate about this date, from its captivating arrangements to Howes and company’s virtuosic playing, to its sense of true Americana,” concludes Jenkins (in his liner notes). “Clearly American Spirit is the work of an artist who has grown exponentially yet remains on an upward arc, as evidenced by his most successful recording to date. As Howes declares, ‘Jazz is quintessentially American, and music has a way of clarifying what words sometimes cannot,’ as you are about to discover in American Spirit.”
Christian Howes, violin and octave geiger
Josh Nelson, piano (tracks 1, 3-7,10)
Hamilton Hardin, organ, piano (tracks 2, 4, 8, 9)
Ben Williams, bass
Gregory Hutchinson, drums
Polly Gibbons, vocals (tracks 7, 9)
1. America (L. Bernstein) (4:30)
2. Both Sides Now (J. Mitchell) (5:45)
3. Once Upon a Time in America (E. Morricone) (4:52)
4. Just a Closer Walk (Public domain) (5:56)
5. Galop (from Souvenirs, Op. 20 VI) (S. Barber) (7:11)
6. American Spirit (C. Howes) (6:23)
7. T’Aint Nobody’s Bizness (F. Waller) (4:50)
8. Amazing (C. Howes) (5:05)
9. Shenandoah (Public domain) (4:18)
10. Angela (Theme from “Taxi”) (B. James) (5:09)
11. Postlude (C. Howes) (4:13)