Richard Howell Quintet at Yoshi’s San Francisco By James Adams
Certain artists have a presence that draws you to them. It’s difficult to describe, but by watching and listening to them, sometimes, before they’ve played a single note, you know you’re going to connect with them.
Bay Area-based Richard Howell is one of those artists. This veteran musician, vocalist and educator is usually seen and heard touring the world in the bands of other great musicians. Leading or not, whenever he’s onstage, you can feel that presence. Howell recently showcased his new band at Yoshi’s in San Francisco. The Monday night audience was filled with a host of family and long-time friends-one from as far away as Denmark. The performance was also taped for upcoming CD and HD Video releases, both due out in late 2008.
The band features a number of locally known musicians, including Fred Harris on piano, Gary Brown on bass, E.W. Wainwright on drums, and Destiny, harpist from the ‘hood. Anyone not familiar with the use of a harp in a jazz ensemble would benefit from some research into the seminal works by the late Alice Coltrane. In fact, the style of Howell and the arrangement’s use of the harp, conjures up memories of the sound created by Coltrane and her frequent recording partner, Pharaoh Sanders.
In a somewhat unusual beginning for a jazz performance, Howell’s longtime friend and comedian, Timothy Jackson, opened with a short stand-up routine. As he was coming to the end of his routine, segueing into the band introductions, Howell could be heard playing, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” from backstage. He then emerged from the wings, still playing, while the rest of the band took their places onstage.
To open, he engaged the audience in a conversation, first to thank them for being a part of this important musical event, then to provide perspective on the origins of this group and it’s direction moving forward.
Introducing the opening song, Howell was intentionally ambiguous in terms of the title. In essence, he was getting the point across that the title was far less significant than the piece itself.
As he laid it out, you began to understand that it was music “in the moment.” Now, whether or not it was a previously written and rehearsed piece remains an interesting mystery. The closeness of this unit, their ability to connect with each other musically and spiritually, makes it easily feasible that they could perform an entire set, freeform.
Howell’s compositions and this band’s interpretations combine to create music that connects with one’s soul. The up-tempo pieces embody the atmosphere of celebration and festivals. In the ballads, a tone of meditation and spirituality replace the all too frequent sadness and melancholy.
A high point in the set, and what had to be a very proud moment for Howell, took place when his son, El Salif, joined the band on stage for a number.
The younger Howell is a student of Wainwright, and has become quite a versatile musician. He is not quite a teenager yet, but has already adopted the drumming style of the legendary Elvin Jones. Both his grade school and piano teachers were in attendance, and after a solo piece on the djembe, Wainwright and his father joined him on an improvised percussion piece.
As with any joyous occasion, no one wants it to end. This one did, after almost running into the start of the second set. The band is preparing to tour Europe before making the rounds around the country. Somewhere along the line, I’m sure a recording session will be in the works.
In any case, this set of performances is scheduled to be released in the fall of 2008. Make sure to keep it on your radar.
San Francisco Chronicle
Tenor saxophonist Richard Howell, who’s also adept at playing a number of other instruments, is not a guy you hear too much about, but he’s a lively force on the local scene, tirelessly devoted to spreading the jazz gospel, with an accent on African influences. Howell’s Coltrane-inspired sax playing is in high demand – he’s been hired by Etta James, Chaka Kahn, Don Cherry, Buddy Guy and many others. Tonight Howell leads a group with drummer E.W. Wainwright, pianist Fred Harris, bassist Gary Brown and Destiny, “harpist from the hood.”
Please use this weblink to Smugmug.com. Here you find a fine photo gallery of Richard Howell: