Richard Galliano is billed as a special guest on Southern Exposure, but it’s difficult to imagine the album without the French accordionist’s input. Though violinist Christian Howes and the fellow Americans that comprise his rhythm section—pianist Josh Nelson, bassist Scott Colley and drummer Lewis Nash—are virtuosic, responsive and world-wise, Galliano brings eloquent textures and coloration to the Latin-based repertoire that acutely maturates and enhances it. On Galliano’s own “Heavy Tango,” he and Howes chase, scamper and sync seamlessly with Colley and Nash’s precision stop-starts. On the extended, balladic Astor Piazzolla weeper “Oblivion,” the accordion’s mourning lyricism provides a bed for Howes’ and Nelson’s unabashed opulence.
None of that praise for the guest is intended to slight Howes’ leadership. In other words, this is his show, and he shines throughout. Desiring to pay tribute to the music of Brazil, Argentina, et al., is admirable, but giving it authenticity and a personal stamp takes skill and insight. As a soloist, he’s ablaze on Ray Bryant’s “Cubano Chant” and the Egberto Gismonti opener, “Ta Boa, Santa? (Are You OK, My Dear?)”; romantic on Ivan Lins’ “Choro Das Àguas (The Water’s Cry)” and Paco De Lucia’s “Canción de Amor (Love Song)”; and alternately prankish and sensitive on his own “Tango Doblado (Bent Tango).”
But Howes saves his most lasting impressions for the final two pieces: “Spleen,” written by Galliano, is rendered as a duet between violin and accordion, striking in its expansiveness and luster, and “Gracias por Ilustrarnos (Thank You for Teaching Us),” orchestral and dramatic, suggests a possible next step should Howes choose to make this more than a one-off.