Violinists often appear to be square pegs when trying to fit into jazz, since most, like their instruments, have classical backgrounds. Christian Howes offers up a curious attempt to bridge the classical-jazz gap on his latest release, Heartfelt, but then again, the electric violinist is a curious figure. With a promising classical career ahead of him, he was arrested on drug charges at age 20, and spent four years in prison in his native Ohio.
To his credit, Howes is open about the experience, which he says expanded his classically tuned ears to other genres like jazz and gospel since his 1996 release. Yet Heartfelt opens with Rippingtons leader Russ Freeman’s “The Wind,” which conjures up images of Nelson Riddle through the orchestral arrangement by pianist Roger Kellaway. Ennio Morricone’s subsequent “Cinema Paradiso” is also orchestrated, but a better showcase for Howes, who states the timeless melody beautifully. A sprint through the standard “Alone Together,” with spirited solos by Howes, Kellaway, bassist Bob Magnusson and drummer Nathan Wood, provides a highlight, even if it sounds misplaced on the heels of its lush life predecessors. Three songs in, listeners might be scratching their heads as they anticipate the fourth. A schmaltzy take on Eliane Elias’ “That’s All It Was” follows, furthering the curious nature of Heartfelt, but the disc’s second half focuses more on Howes’ strings.
He dazzles on a well-executed rendition of Bill Evans’ “Walkin’ Up,” and duets playfully with Kellaway on Benny Goodman’s “Opus Half.” The veteran pianist has worked with Sonny Rollins, Ben Webster and Stan Getz, but also Barbra Streisand, Bobby Darin and the producers of TV themes. If Kellaway had directed Howes more toward his jazz strengths and less toward the Vegas-isms, Heartfelt might have stayed true to its title.