Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

Christian Howes: American Spirit

JazzTimes may earn a small commission if you buy something using one of the retail links in our articles. JazzTimes does not accept money for any editorial recommendations. Read more about our policy here. Thanks for supporting JazzTimes.

For a song that became recognized beyond the Broadway stage, “America,” the immortal West Side Story showcase, possesses one of the more abrasive cadences in popular music. Christian Howes opens American Spirit with the song, but his version lacks the bombast one might normally expect from it. His violin extends the familiar melody over a stop-start cluster of beats, which actually adds a little more swing to it, strengthened by Gregory Hutchinson’s drums.

It’s an ambitious start to an ambitious idea: an album that tries to capture different perspectives that define American spirit. Howes avoids flag-wavers and jazz standards, heading instead into Americana, incorporating folk, gospel, blues and classical, along with three original pieces, to make his point. A dramatic performer, the violinist sounds best when the music doesn’t get overly dramatic in its presentation.

Spurred by Ben Williams’ walking bassline and the piano/organ interplay of Josh Nelson and Hamilton Hardin, respectively, Howes tears through “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” with abandon. “Angela,” Bob James’ well-known theme from the sitcom Taxi, succeeds for the opposite reason-it remains subdued, spotlighting the nuances of the song. Things fall short in a smooth-funk version of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now,” which washes away the yearning quality of the song, despite the out-of-tempo, misterioso shift in the chorus. Samuel Barber’s “Galop” also gets too elaborate with its plucky staccato jazz-meets-classical theme. Better are Howes’ own contributions, especially when he blends folk melodies and classical voicings (the title track), and takes his instrument back to church (“Amazing”).

Originally Published