Friday, April 07, 2006

Under Rated: Noah Howard

Although he is documented on relatively few releases, alto saxophonist, Noah Howard, is one of the truly great free jazz players.

Howard was born in New Orleans in 1943. He started out on trumpet (the instrument he played in the military during the early '60s) but subsequently switched to alto. He was on the ground floor of the early free jazz movement, making his debut as a leader for the groundbreaking ESP label, with a pair of releases in 1966 (NOAH HOWARD QUARTET and NOAH HOWARD AT JUDSON HALL).

Dissatisfied with the reception given his music — and the avant-garde movement in general — in America, Howard, like so many American free jazz musicians of the era, relocated to Europe in the late 60's. There, he played with Frank Wright, most notably on Wright's UHURU NA UMOJA LP. He also recorded with Dutch masters, Misha Mengelberg and Han Bennink (among others) on PATTERNS, which he issued on his own AltSax label.

Howard continued to languish in relative obscurity, with only sporadic releases of his recording activities for the majority of the next three decades, until the late 90's when interest/visibility in his career was renewed with the reissue of PATTERNS (along with a 1979 recording, MESSAGE TO SOUTH AFRICA) on the great Eremite imprint. Releases of his recordings then began to appear on labels other than AltSax, most notably, a pair of awesome live dates from 1997, NOAH HOWARD QUARTET - IN CONCERT (Cadence) and LIVE AT THE UNITY TEMPLE (Ayler). Other worthy releases/reissues in the new millenium include, LIVE AT DOCUMENTA IX (reissued in 2002 by Boxholder) and a compilation of a wide range of his recordings, NOAH HOWARD - THE EYE OF THE IMPROVISER (2003 on Howard's AltSax imprint). He has also made a number of recordings with vocalist, Eve Packer, which I must sadly admit that I have not yet sampled, so I can't make any comments on them.

Spurious observations/points - Howard's best recordings seem to come in the quartet setting and, in particular, he seems to leave a lot of space for/relies on the excellent pianists who have graced his recordings, most noatably, Bobby Few (another under rated free jazz great!). I must also say that I'm surprised that in all the influences name dropped in reference to Howard (Ayler, Coleman, and so on), the name, John Coltrane, never comes up. Yeah, Howard plays alto, but his style, especially on those 1997 live dates really reminds me of Coltrane and he has released at least two Coltrane covers (Ole and Afro Blue) and one homage (We Remember John).

I'm glad that Howard has finally begun to get a little more credit for being a truly great alto player and an early avant-garde innovator. If you're not familar with his work and you're interested in free jazz, then you owe it to yourself to check out Noah Howard!

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