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Ben Redwine

Joseph Howell Quartet: Live in Japan. Joseph Howell, clarinet; Keigo Hirakawa, piano; Kenji Shimada, bass; Kenichi Nishio, drums. J. Henderson: Serenity, Jinriksha, Mamacita; T. Dameron and Count Basie: Good Bait; W. Shorter: Nefertiti; V. Young and N. Washington: My Foolish Heart; B. Strayhorn: Take the A Train. Summit Records, DCD 776. Total Time: 78:06.

Clarinetist Joseph Howell presents a recently-released CD, recorded live at the Jazz Live House CASK in Yokohama, Japan, in May 2018. Howell’s quartet consists of a standard piano trio, plus clarinet. The ensemble’s performance would be described as post-bop, “straight ahead” or postmodern jazz. They easily command their chosen repertoire with confidence and musicality. The repertoire consists of mainly modern works, and by modern, I mean written in the 1960s, with three compositions written in earlier decades. Howell acknowledges in his liner notes that his favorite jazz is from this time period, and the compositions chosen were written by his influences – saxophonists Joe Henderson and Wayne Shorter – with the older compositions written by Tadd Dameron, Victor Young and Billy Strayhorn.

This style of jazz has the chance of sounding academic, with solos often sounding angular and sterile if not presented musically. Howell’s quartet successfully avoids this potential pitfall generally, except, perhaps in one track, the first on this recording, when the solos do verge toward sounding like etudes. However, the ensuing solos do not have that feel as the recording progresses. The musicians on this CD are highly-skilled improvisers and are masters of their craft. My favorite track on this album is “My Foolish Heart,” the Victor Young standard. Howell ends the track with a lengthy, impressive cadenza, giving listeners a taste of his best clarinet tone.

For a live recording, the fidelity of this CD is quite high. Howell explains in the liner notes that the recording engineer placed multiple microphones “all over the tiny stage.” Additionally, the audience is isolated sufficiently to not interfere with the music created by the quartet. It is quite refreshing to hear a recording in a live setting when it is so tempting to rely on technology to present a “perfect” recording. Hearing the music just as you would hear it in an intimate jazz club is preferable, in my mind, to hearing a super mixed and altered product, “improved” with electronics.

The presentation of this CD is quite attractive and interesting. Liner notes are written by Howell and detail how this quartet came to be, how they chose their repertoire and how this recording was accomplished. It turns out, after the live concert, the members of the quartet largely forgot about the recording, except for drummer Kenichi Nishio, who surreptitiously had the session professionally mixed, then presented it to the band for release. Howell further supplies all of the artwork for the CD jacket and cover, quite impressive renderings of various styles of art depicting this quartet! Included also is a mini-epic poem which is an appropriate accompaniment to the recording. Unfortunately, the author’s attribution is printed on a previous page, with no title above the poem. The poem’s inclusion and presentation could have been included in a clearer and more prominent manner.

Overall, this CD is presented in an attractive package, with excellent performances throughout, both as an ensemble and individually. If you like postmodern jazz, you will enjoy this recording.

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