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Noah Howard: Red Star

These two CDs contain mostly, but not all, inside music from alto saxist Noah Howard, who began his career as a New York free-jazz radical. In fact, the great bop drummer Kenny Clarke is on Red Star, as is hard-bop trumpeter Richard Williams; grand piano stylist Bobby Few and bassist Guy Pederson complete Howard’s quintet. The album was recorded in 1977 in Paris and originally released only in Europe. On the samba “Creole Girl” Williams plays with his characteristic pure sound and great technical mastery, alternating simple and complex passages to make a subtly constructed solo. The rubato ballad “Lovers” proves a rhapsodic piece, especially for Howard, whose solo is all simple phrases with scale or arpeggio runs, stuttered notes and other flourishes added. Few is rhapsodic, too, and his linear thread becomes elusive as he moves from style to style.

“Red Star” is a long piece with a Coltranelike theme. Howard’s solo is also reminiscent of Trane, beginning with theme variations and progressing through motivic cycles, heavy on the downbeat accents. Yet the lighter sound of the alto, the bright sound of the very active Clarke’s drums and Few’s avoidance of Tyner trademarks-no recurring pedal tones or laboring fourths, for instance-keep this from sounding like a Coltrane group. There are intense collective improvisations with Howard’s gnarled screams and Williams’ high notes. Few is again wildly eclectic, and the rhythm section keeps it all swinging very hard. The title piece is the best reason to buy the album.

“Angels angels angels angels angels,” says poet Eve Packer on That Look. She also says, “No money no money nomoney nomoneynomoneynomoney,” “It’s raining it’s raining thunder thunder thunder thunder” and so on. She’s one of those readers who likes to repeat herself: “The Duke” is a fragment by Sappho repeated several times in the original Greek, followed by what may be an English paraphrase. Howard plays simple, pleasant alto sax tunes as Packer recites; in the title poem his accompaniment connects just right. Guitarist Leo Izzo, drummer Warren Smith and alternating bassists Wilber Morris and Bob Cunningham join to back six of the poems. They sound good on the rubato “Blue Neon,” the one outside piece and the one that has moments of intensity. But That Look’s words don’t interest me, and the music doesn’t satisfy either.

Originally Published