Monday, November 15, 2010

Noah Howard's "Schizophrenic Blues" Sounds Fresh Today.

The late alto saxophonist, Noah Howard passed away in early September leaving behind a considerable musical legacy. Born in New Orleans, he emerged in the 1960s among the first wave of ‘free jazz’ artists. He recorded a couple albums for ESP and then recorded “The Black Ark,” but finding the reception for free jazz cool at best in the United States, he relocated to Paris and spent much of the ensuing years of his life abroad, living in Brussels at the time of his death.

Growing up in New Orleans where he played first in church, his first instrument was the trumpet which he played in the military and it wasn’t until later he started playing the alto saxophone. His recordings for ESP were among the 28 or so albums he recorded over the years. Recently, Destination Out (, a web site devoted to free jazz, has started issuing downloads from out-of-print FMP vinyl albums that have never been made available on compact disc. Among the recent albums they have made available is a couple by Howard from the seventies.

“Schizophrenic Blues” reissues a live 1977 performance from the Quartier Latin in Berlin where Howard is joined by Itaru Ok on trumpet; Jean-Jacques Avenel on double bass and Oliver Johnson on drums. The title track is a blues that displays his bluesy tone as he and Ok play variations on the blues theme. His tone has a bit of vibrato, but not overdone, and would indicate that both Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler were influences on a composition would not be out of place on a Coleman disc.  Ok’s trumpet riffs provides a vinegary contrast to Howard, and the rhythm ably anchor the performance. “Birds of Beauty” is a slow ballad with trumpet more prominent at the lyrical opening and the two  complement and interact off the other.

“Fire March,” a tribute to Albert Ayler, opens with Johnson taking a drum solo before the tempo changes to a march like groove as Howard enters in an Ayler-esque mode as Ok evokes Donald Ayler’s trumpet with his playing while Howard exploits the upper registers of his alto and overblows producing shrieks and cries. Ok’s trumpet sounds like a swarm of very unhappy bees here. Bassist Avenel opens up “Creole Girl,” the lengthiest performance of this album, with a lengthy solo. After Johnson sets the tempo, Howard and Ok join in tstating the theme and take solid solos that do not sound to these ears as  very out.

“Solo Sax,” is a slice of saxophone exploration (but not a solo saxophone performance) with Howard employing a bit more vibrato here, as Avenel playing some buzz saw arco bass, Johnson laying an atemporal groove with brushes and Ok’s trumpet buzzes around the sax. The album concludes with a reading of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” with Howard and Ok embellishing the melody in an Ayler-esque fashion.

The performances on “Schizophrenic Blues” hold up over thirty years later. Certainly anyone familiar with the music of Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, and Old Dreams and New Dreams should find this quite accessible and even at its most Ayler-esque moments “Fire March,” there is a lyricism as well as a blues foundation that makes this release engaging. Recommended, and again this can be downloaded at Just go to the store tab and look for this release.

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