By Michael Katz
The list of violinists who have made a visible imprint on the jazz scene is a short but impressive one: Joe Venuti, Stephane Grappelli, Jean-Luc Ponty, Regina Carter come to mind. The briefness of the list is a measure of the virtuosity required to gain a foothold in the public consciousness. Christian Howes is making a bid to join that elite group.
The 38 year-old Ohioan, with new releases on Resonance Records to his credit, put on an impressive and entertaining display Saturday at Pierre’s Fine Pianos in West LA. Working with a quartet brought together for the date of Donald Vega on piano, Lyman Medeiros on bass and Bob Leatherbarrow on drums, Howes led off with a lets-get-acquainted romp through Gigi Gryce’s “Minority,” giving the audience a taste of his bright bow work and allowing USC alum Donald Vega to wow the faithful with some sprightly work on the keyboard.
Christian Howes took the lead on Sergio Mihanovich’s lovely “Some Time Ago,” flirting with the melody made familiar by Bill Evans, letting Vega and bassist Madeiros dance lightly through the intervals, and returning gently to the theme. He next moved to Charlie Haden’s “Our Spanish Lovesong,” a Latin-tinged ballad. Howes’ violin gives a different perspective to the program’s change of pace. By nature more of an elegiac sound, its uniqueness is riveting to jazz audiences used to the wind-induced tones of horns.
Given that the concert was at a piano store, it was fitting that the highlights of the night came in Howes’ interaction with two talented but different pianists. Vega, who comes from Nicaragua and now resides in NYC, has a sparkling and crisp sound that flows through his sambas as well as his classical interpretations. Midway through the set, he stepped aside for a guest appearance by veteran Mike Garson.
Garson has a deeper timbre on the keys, more deliberate yet fully swinging. Howes reacted with a beautiful accompaniment to a Garson ballad, which featured stellar bass work by Madeiros. Garson then began “Interaction,” based on Miles Davis’ “Solar,” one of the highlights of the night. After Garson established the theme, Howes waded in with some improv pizzacato, then he and Garson danced around the familiar “Solar” line, with great support by Medeiros and drummer Leatherbarrow. It was an extended journey, mixing the familiar with fresh improvisations and a rhythm section that by this time was finding its way together.
Vega returned for the final two numbers, beginning with a newly composed samba. Howes made the transition effortlessly, with deft bow work and impressive runs through Vega’s harmonic leaps. The quartet concluded the set, which ran a healthy ninety minutes, with a jazz-classical-fusion nod toward Paganini’s Caprice No. 24. You don’t have to be a Paganini maven to appreciate what is going on here. Howes’ classical chops are evident, even if you aren’t conversant with the source. What shines through is a joi de vivre and an improvisational flair that is the hallmark of any great jazz musician. Howes is a fresh voice on a classical instrument. Let’s hope he finds a wide audience.
To read other reviews and posts by Michael Katz click HERE.