7 December 2012

Paganini’s chook

Christian Howes was one I’d been looking forward to. He’s a jazz violinist. It’s an unusual instrument in jazz, so that’s something to explore. And he had a great local band, and it was at Canberra Grammar, so intimate. The gig was moved to a theatre to allow for a larger audience, but there were still beanbags and we could mingle.

Christian came from NYC with accolades. We were not disappointed, of course. He mentioned sitting in weekly with Les Paul, and this comes as no surprise. Pauline had heard him performing at 55 Bar in Greenwich, and that was only 100 metres from where we stayed in NYC, so I felt he was a local. It was Pauline’s invitation that got him to Canberra after his Asian tour. For all the great skills and classical/jazz cross, Christian is a jovial and friendly bloke, and terrifically well received. This was skills plus and unconventionally disparate in styles. It’s the only concert where I’ve heard Paganini (his virtuosic 24th caprice, with flabbergasting melodies in harmonics and heterogeneous bowing techniques) and Wichita linesman (no, not joking) and Jaco’s The chicken played solo on violin (Jaco’s looped bassline overlaid with a guitar chords and wah, then violin fills, all supporting the melody and solo played live; I could only chuckle at this) and a few standards and some originals. He showed us an electric violin (I held it later and it’s a diminutive and surprisingly light instrument) but he played a standard instrument with pickup through a multieffects into a little amp (violinists can travel light) and a borrowed loop pedal for The Chicken (his had blown up in China). So this was entertaining and pleasant and some great, hot play. Violin sounds different, of course: strong, sustained, vibratoed, stratospheric harmonics and big intervals in a very small space. Christian had it all, plus nice jazz feel for time and dissonance and solo structure.

This was a wondrous display of modern mainstream playing with a very decent band in support, to which Christian offered several respectful grins. Michael was his normal explosive self, bashing into the tunes, going hard and then taking it higher still. I marvel at his excitability. None of this was particularly exploratory (this is mainstream) but it’s gloriously skilled and enthralling. Michael’s a blowout every time. Bass is an essential instrument, meaning of the essence of the music. It’s harmonic though not chordal, and it’s relatively clumsy, but Eric was fluent and busy and laid malleable but always driving and embroidered accompaniments and lyrical solos. And Mark, despite some obvious discomfort from his flu, was busy and colourful on brushes and laid into some inexorable but easily syncopated rock and jazz rhythms and solos that famed rockstars could probably not even hear in their dreams. (What is it with this inversion of skill and popularity in our era? Too many people listen with their eyes.) The standards included Nardis and Monk’s Rhythm-a-ning and Tenderly and they played Dave Holland’s The Oracle. There were a few originals with demanding reading, especially one dedicated to an influence of Christian’s, Bobby Floyd, with killer syncopations that must have been a learner. And then a funky tune to end with heavy effects and synth-sounds of portamento and drive.

This was hot playing, friendly and entertaining, for an audience that was all smiles and flabbergast. It’s mainstream and not the arty extremes, but so hot and so well done (after only meeting at 3pm that day, but then that’s jazz). I could only imagine how the jazz violinists in the audience (Pauline and Anna and El and maybe others) would have found it. Expect to hear the concert on ArtSound’s Friday Night Live in coming weeks. Christian Howes (violin) played with Michael Azzopardi (piano), Eric Ajaye (acoustic, electric basses) and Mark Sutton (drums) at Canberra Grammar School.

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