Photo by Juma Sultan
September 3rd 2010 saw the passing of yet another free jazz great: the alto saxophonist Noah Howard. Howard’s music has always been some of the most straightforwardly enjoyable of the ‘New Thing’, and I thought it would be fitting to put together some sort of tribute. The track descriptions below relate to an MP3 playlist I’ve put together: you can download the whole thing via this link.
Howard was born in 1943 in New Orleans, and it’s not hard to hear the joyous, declamatory nature of his style as having roots in that city. As a young man, he played in his local church, and with Louis Armstrong; his first instrument was, in fact, the trumpet, and it was not until the 1960s that he switched to alto sax. As with so many other ‘New Jazz’ saxophonists, he moved to New York and came under the influence of John Coltrane, paying tribute to him on his second album as a leader (which had been preceded by a piano-less Quartet date for ESP-Disk). That said, ‘At Judson Hall’, the sophomore album, is quite different from Coltrane’s dense, un-stoppable performances of the time, though both tracks clock in at just under twenty minutes each. The quartet from the first ESP date is expanded to include Dave Burrell’s piano and Catherine Norris’ cello, the addition of another stringed instrument providing greater timbral richness and perhaps mitigating against the dense, high-volume assault of the free jazz ‘blowout.’ Thus, there are moments with a Spanish tinge, as well as a sombre, pensive quality, that actually sound closer to some of the more long-form and abstract explorations of Charles Mingus than to what one might associate with much ‘New Thing’ music of this period. ‘This Place Called Earth’ opens with arco strings (Norris and the great Sirone), Howard sounding a little like John Handy on the latter’s ‘Live at the Monterey Jazz Festival’; after five minutes or so, the rest of the band come in, stating the theme, and there are solos by Colbeck and Dave Burrell. Burell’s lengthy improvisation gradually becomes louder and more intense, pedalled clusters mashing up with flickering cymbals – and Howard (soon followed by Colbeck) takes the opportunity to ride the wave, the horns throwing out chattering, shivering sounds that coalesce and resolve themselves into the returning main theme.
1/ ‘This Place Called Earth’
from ‘At Judson Hall’ (1966)
Probably Howard’s best known work is that undertaken in the late 60s and early 70s on three albums recorded in collaboration with a couple of fiery tenor saxophonists, Frank Wright and Arthur Doyle, whose often abrasive approach was balanced out by Howard’s soaring sweet-and-sour alto. The first of these, ‘The Black Ark’, recently re-issued by Bo’ Weavil, marked Doyle’s recording debut, and he powers his way through these tracks like a force of nature, smearing, shrilling, keening, testifying. As with much free jazz, the actual compositional material (before the solos begin) is accessible and appealing – catchy, melodic, swinging, and gorgeously lyrical. Here’s a (slightly revised) extract from a review of the 2007 re-issue which I wrote for the online magazine ‘eartrip’:
There’s a somewhat cosmopolitan feel to the album: from the Latin/film noir-flavoured ‘Ole Negro’, with Few’s jazzy solo, to the Oriental mood of ‘Mount Fuji’, whose charming melody just about manages to stave off tweeness. In any case the focus is not really on the melody itself- it serves more as a springboard for some righteous blowing and sparkling, ferocious interplay. Also note the way that, as with Coltrane, the melody seems to have become transformed once returned to –struggle and exploration making the starting-point the more precious for having been ‘attained’ the hard way.
On ‘Fuji’, Cross constructs his solo out of yelps and growls, buzzing repeated fingers and tension-building long, held notes. Doyle goes straight for the jugular, like Pharoah Sanders, concentrating on sound and emotion rather than melodic line and careful construction: wailing and screaming, he’s liable to stay in the extreme upper register of his horn for minutes at a time, unleashing barrages of stratospheric trills and supplications. Richard Williams had this to say about Doyle in his 1972 review of the album for Melody Maker, thus: “this man is dangerous – he never plays anything you could recognize, just furious blasts of rage. His solo on “Domiabra” couldn’t be written down, or even sorted out. It sounds more like raw energy than anything I’ve ever heard. He’s nasty, man.” Another review, with reference to that same solo, puts it more dramatically: “he sounds as if he’s trying to blow his whole body through the saxophone.”
Through all of this, the pure, smooth directness of Howard’s alto cuts through like a knife, and it is the moments when all three horns are going for it that are the most compelling on the album. Try resisting the sound of Doyle roaring, Cross blasting, Howard obsessively repeating melodic phrases or playing with yearning, lyrical fervour, undercut by Few’s splashy piano, the insistent bass strum and hum, Ali’s cymbal-work and Juma Sultan’s congas, with the use of a spacey delay sound giving them a Sun-Ra vibe (though it’s easy to lose the detail of their accompaniment in the general exaltation).
It might be helpful to note here that, while the record just drowns in passion, it’s all the more effective for introducing variety in texture and mood, for mixing the bitter with the sweet and the rough with the smooth. As Howard notes in an interview, “if you’ve ever been in a black Baptist gospel church, and the choirs cut loose, you have this incredible harmony, and then you have the soloists, and the soloists go all the way out. And most of the preachers can sing too, and they’ll go all the way out. But always within the context of gospel harmony.” The balance between freedom and restriction, dissonance and harmony, noise and melody, is a difficult one to maintain, but the musicians manage it just about perfectly here.
I personally have a soft spot for another Howard album, the (still out of print) ‘Space Dimension’, which was cut a year later with a slightly smaller group that featured Frank Wright instead of Doyle, and be-bop drummer Art Taylor pitching right into the free fold to replace Mohamed Ali (on all but one of the tracks). It features some of the same tunes, but takes them even further out, and the contrast between Howard’s smoother, more patient and lyrical approach and Wright’s straight-for-the-gut, throaty passion, is perhaps even more pronounced. The way they build from a simple, catchy groove to massive, noisy free jazz is a shining example of how powerful this stuff can be when done right, and has perhaps never been bettered.
‘Uhuru Na Umoja’, released under Wright’s name, features the same group and a similar set of tunes to that covered on ‘Space Dimension’, though the compositions are re-titled (e.g. ‘Queen Anne’ from ‘The Black Ark’ becomes ‘Aurora Borealis’, ‘Viva Black’ is ‘Ole Negro’). The longest track is just under eight minutes, the shortest just three – quite compressed running time for a free jazz record, but this succinctness doesn’t mean that anything is lost in emotional fervour; the musicians give it their all, and the result is one of the most attractive albums in both the Wright and Howard catalogues.
2/ ‘Mount Fuji’ from ‘The Black Ark’ (1969)
3/ ‘Church Number Nine’ from ‘Space Dimension’ (1970)
4/ ‘Aurora Borealis’ from Frank Wright, ‘Uhuru Na Umoja’ (1970)
Howard’s career trajectory was the usual one for free jazz musicians at the time: early recordings with ESP-Disk, under-appreciation and financial difficulty in America, and a subsequent move to Europe to find greater playing opportunities. His relocation occurred in 1972, when he decided to base himself in Paris. A year earlier, he’d recorded for Dutch radio with Misha Mengelberg and Han Bennink, leading lights in the emergent European free jazz/improvisation scene, who’d earlier collaborated with visiting American jazz musician Eric Dolphy. The sextet date, released as ‘Patterns’ on Howard’s own label (and later re-issued on Eremite Records), pairs three Dutchmen (Mengelberg, Bennink, and guitarist Jaap Schoonhoven) with three Americans (Howard, bassist Earl Freeman and conga player Steve Boston) in a free improvisation with a raw, anarchic edge that could be found elsewhere in Howard’s work with Frank Wright and in Mengelberg/Bennink’s Dadaistic improvisations: ululating vocals and African percussion abound. The record cuts in, seemingly mid-way through the improvisation, with a spacey section featuring thick, Sharrockian electric guitar and prominent congas, and it builds from there; a whirlwind of percussion, thunderous grooves, and uneasy romanticism rendered eerie by the studio reverb on Howard’s sax and the unpredictable backing of Mengelberg’s pan-idiomatic, often dissonant piano. There’s some sense that it’s not always an easy fit between the Dutch improvisers, with their desire to play freer and freer, and the groove-focussed Americans – and perhaps it’s that slight mismatch that makes this near-forty-minute session so fascinating. Given the way the piece unfolds, it’s hard to excerpt from it, so I’ve decided not to include the MP3 in this playlist; however, the album (which also includes the collaboration with Chris McGregor included below) should be fairly easily available to buy.
During the 70s, Howard recorded and toured in Europe, often (like Frank Wright) returning to the same themes as anchors for the freer improvisations. He also began to play in a style that was closer to modal jazz than to the ‘New Thing’, as demonstrated on a live 1975 recording of Coltrane’s ‘Olé’. This was also covered by Pharoah Sanders a few years later, and both musicians use the tune’s repetitive chordal structure to build expansive solos, repeating motifs over and over until they seem to crumble under the strain, coalescing into new figures or smooth, held tones and pinched, piercing cries, the drums’ propulsive rhythms constantly threatening to surge and sway over into free playing while always keeping things surging ahead within the framework of the tune. Neither Sanders nor Howard try to emulate the ‘exotic’ quality of Coltrane’s original, which featured Eric Dolphy’s and the wondrous combination of two basses, strumming and bowing to provide a textural element largely lacking from the be-bop of the preceding years. They also focus more on the celebratory, joyous nature of the piece than on the darker, ‘duende’ elements that peaked through in Coltrane’s version; one might also describe the approach as more ‘crowd-pleasing’, though there’s certainly no skimping on length (Howard’s version lasts 12 minutes, Sanders’, 20). It was during this period that some free players began to move back ‘inside’, structuring their playing within more familiar harmonic and rhythmic territory, a kind of middle-ground in which they could meet players associated in most critic’s minds with a slightly more ‘mainstream’ approach – the sort of artists recording for the Strata-East Record label. Whether or not this apparent ‘softening’ of approach gained more than it lost is a matter of debate; personally, I find it a tad predictable, bypassing as it does the transitional, perhaps more episodic and ‘abstract’ approach evinced on the Judson Hall recordings for a more schematic theme-solo-climax-theme layout that, while it does not negate much attractive and inspiring playing, does feel somewhat restrictive. One knows roughly where things are going to go before they happen, in contrast to earlier recordings, where there was a sense of near-chaos, of danger, a sense that the music was being driven by the emotional logic of the moment as much as by pre-determined structural considerations. Nonetheless, if my favourite items from the Howard discography are those from the late 60s and early 70s, particularly the collaborations with Frank Wright, I still find much to enjoy in the later 70s work, and ‘Olé’ in particular is a fine listen.
from ‘Live in Europe, Vol.1’ (1975)
1977’s ‘Red Star’ has the bonus of being available (not the case with many of the Howard recordings that still languish out-of-print); it’s a studio date on which he once more collaborates with the great pianist Bobby Few, as well as with legendary be-bop drummer Kenny Clarke. The track I’ve chosen from this album is ‘Creole Girl’, one of Howard’s signature tunes from this period until, it seems, the last few years of his life. A simple boogaloo, it’s treated here in a fairly straightforward manner. Bass and drums are recorded with that slightly artificial splashiness and lack of depth that seemed to characterise some recordings from this decade (perhaps from engineers who weren’t familiar with the importance of the jazz rhythm section as an interacting part of the whole ensemble, rather than simply background noise). But this is actually one of my favourite Howard tracks from the get-go – listen to the way it opens, with a little tinkle down the piano, popping bass establishing the groove before the entry of the horns; listen to the theme, which comes across in this rendering as at once blissfully relaxed and slightly melancholy, stated in velvet unison by Howard’s alto and Richard Williams’ trumpet. Each band member gets a short and sweet solo – all that is, apart from Kenny Clarke, who, of all the players on this date, would actually be the most familiar to your average jazz fan. First up is Bobby Few, who elaborates on the chord changes with jabbing repeated notes and gospelly fervour. Richard Williams’ trumpet is mellow but ecstatic; Howard develops simple melodic ideas with disarming unfussiness and plenty of feeling; Guy Pederson begins with twangy variations on the theme before the tempo slows for him to ruminate at greater length; then the theme comes back in and we’re done. For me, the charm of this piece comes precisely from the fact that it’s quite low-key – neither a super-fast scorcher, nor an all-out emotional free jazz piece. It’s smooth and ‘professional’, but the musicians don’t sound uninterested – rather, they have their say in compressed, sweet statements that stick close to the tune’s harmonic outline without every sounding overly constricted. The eight minutes just fly by.
6/ ‘Creole Girl’
from ‘Red Star’ (1977)
In 1979, Howard connected with the great South African musicians Chris McGregor and Johnny Dyani to record a session originally designed for release by the Mercury Record label. In the event, what they played was judged too politically inflammatory to release, due to McGregor’s interpolation of the ANC Anthem (this before it became trendy for pop musicians to oppose apartheid). The track in question is a kind of free-ranging suite, sometimes centring around melodic figures, elsewhere flowing into sections loosened up by the ecstatic singing of Kali Z Fasteau, and Dyani’s Zulu vocal interjections and incantations. Howard sounds right at home, striking just the right balance between topical, righteous anger (his playing makes much more use of the ‘honks’ and ‘shrieks’ vocabulary than on the previous two tracks) and celebratory melodicism.
7/ ‘Message to South Africa’
from ‘Message to South Africa’ (1979)
During the 80s, Howard turned to funk, though there seems to be no documentation of this period in terms of recordings. I’m also not familiar with his most recent work, often released through his own label, in which he seems to have been experimenting with world music and lounge-jazz fusions, as well as introducing his singing voice. But there’s some fine material among the music that I’ve heard of his from the late 90s and early 2000s, which is, broadly speaking, in the free jazz mould. ‘Live at the Unity Temple’, a 1997 release on Ayler Records, finds him playing once more Bobby Few, covering some of the staple tunes that have travelled with him throughout his career. A measured solo introduction focuses on the repeated main theme of ‘Lovers’, space filled up by Few’s chunky piano, the drums setting up a cracking pace, full of boiling cymbal crashes – the music feels volatile, dramatic, exciting. Over the next ten minutes, this full band rush alternates with bass and drum solos, before Howard introduces the perky theme of ‘Schizophrenic Blues’ which provides, not an anchoring groove, but the spur to more storming, squalling, rousing improvisation, with Howard frequently, obsessively returning to that melodic figure. It’s a suitably joyous way to end this tribute - like the best of Howard’s work, full of impassioned vigour and melodic zest. The man, and his music, will be missed.
8/ ‘Lovers/Schizophrenic Blues’
from ‘Live at Unity Temple’ (1997)