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Phil's Picks


Phil's Picks

Joseph Howell Quartet’s ‘Live In Japan’ Is Among The Best Of 2021’s New Live Recordings

More than three years ago, nobody would have ever imagined that the COVID-19 pandemic would make its way to the shores, or even around the world. Now more than a year into the pandemic, questions still remain about when it will finally end and when the world will finally be able to throw out the masks and finally return to life as we once knew it. That normal life includes going out to enjoy live music, which thankfully is looking more likely to happen again sooner rather than later. Announcements are not necessarily coming fast and furious, but they are happening, and the concerts are returning this year. However, there are still those promoters and organizers who are sitting on their hands, waiting for “the other guy” to make the first move. Luckily, while audiences continue to wait for the full return of live music, jazz group Joseph Howell Quartet is giving its audiences and jazz fans alike a way to get their live music fix. The group released its new live recording, Live in Japan Feb. 5 through Summit Records. The seven-song recording will appeal to all of the noted audiences. That is due in part to its companion booklet. It is rare for any recording’s booklet to be the most important part of said presentation, but that is the case here. It will be discussed shortly. The songs and the band’s performance thereof collectively make up another key aspect of the recording. Together with the booklet, the elements make the overall presentation even more engaging and entertaining. They will be discussed a little later. The recording’s production puts the finishing touch to its presentation. When it is considered along with the rest of the recording’s noted items, that whole makes Live in Japan an unquestionable candidate for a spot on the list of this year’s top new live CDs.

Joseph Howell Quartet’s recently released live recording, Live in Japan, is a positive new offering from the band. It is a presentation that will help any jazz fan get his or her live music fix while waiting for live music to finally make its full return. Part of the recording’s appeal comes from its companion booklet. As a matter of fact, the recording’s companion booklet is the most important of its elements. That is because of the background that audiences receive through its liner notes. The liner notes give a thorough explanation of how Howell, a United States Navy veteran came to join his fellow musicians – Keigo Hirakawa (piano), Kenjo Shimada (bass), Kenichi Nishio (drums) – came together. Not to give away too much, but according to Howell, the group came together thanks in large part to Hirakawa. There is more to the story, and audiences will be left to learn the rest of the story for themselves.

The story of how Howell and company formed their group is just one part of the story told through the booklet’s liner notes. Howell also points out his pleasure that while the recording was originally captured in 2018, it was released this year in lieu of any new live music. Howell admits here that because of the pandemic’s impact, he was uncertain as to when the group would manage to reunite, leading to the appreciation that the recording was archived and released now. That anecdote alone makes for its own interest. That is because as enjoyable as it is, there is a chance it might be the only show the group plays together in one place for some time. That understanding will lead to more appreciation for this fully engaging and entertaining show among audiences.

As if all of this is not enough, Howell also offers up an explanation in the liner notes as to why the recording features performances of covers instead of originals. Again, not to give away too much, but the explanation points out that the reasoning had to do with Howell’s personal taste in music; especially jazz and its various subgenres. This explanation makes for its for its own share of interest. Together with the other noted anecdotes noted here and everything else noted in the liner notes, the whole makes clear why the recording’s companion booklet is so important to its whole. It sets the scene and mood for the recording’s presentation, and does so in expert fashion.

The rich presentation that the recording’s liner notes creates for its whole are just one of the ways in which the recording stands out. As noted, the songs featured in this recording are all covers. They are presentations of songs originally composed by jazz legends, such as Wayne Shorter, Billy Strayhorn, and Joe Henderson. Considering what Howell noted in the liner notes as to the decision to perform covers instead of original work, such presentation makes sense and is just as welcome as any original works that might have otherwise featured in the concert. All three musicians/composers crafted works that fit well into the post bop subgenre of jazz. Howell and company do Shorter full justice in the group’s take of ‘Nefertiti.’ Howell’s performance on clarinet here is just as rich as Shorter’s performance on the soprano sax in the original. Meanwhile, Hirakawa’s performance on piano is just as impressive in its subtle sort of counterpoint to Howell’s performance. Nishio deserves his own praise as his performance on the drums does so well to harken back to the little used drum part in Shorter’s original composition. It puts a nice subtle accent to the whole just as with the original tune.

The group’s take on Joe Henderson’s ‘Mamacita’ is another great example of why the group’s chosen songs and performances thereof are important to the recording’s presentation. Shimada and Hirakawa pair in the song’s opening lines to set the mood. This takes the original song a step farther because the original does not feature that bass line in its opening bars. It makes for an interesting enhancement that is a nice secondary to the piano line. Given, Howell and company’s take does not have the richness of the full Joe Henderson sextet. That take really makes for a more big band style sound and approach while this take is more intimate for lack of better wording. That’s the important thing, though. The varied sound and stylistic approach gives the song a slightly different identity from its source material, which itself will make for even more engagement and entertainment.

The quartet’s take of Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington’s famed (and timeless) composition, ‘Take The A Train’ is another example of the importance of the recording’s featured songs and their performances. As with the set’s other noted songs, this work is well known among many jazz circles. Hirakawa’s performance in this song takes listeners, once again, back to Howell’s comments in the liner notes of why he wanted to go with covers for the performance rather than new songs. The covers gave more opportunity for improvisation, especially within the group, according to Howell. Improvising is exactly what Hirakawa does in this performance, too. His runs are stylistically similar to those of Strayhorn, but still bear their own identity. The result is that they create a presentation that while familiar, is still its own unique work from the group. When this song and performance are considered with the others noted here and the rest of those featured in the recording, no doubt is left as to the importance of that overall content. When that content is considered along with everything offered through the liner notes, that collective makes for even more entertainment and engagement. Even with all of this in mind, there is still a little left for audiences to appreciate, in the form of the recording’s production.

The production of Live in Japan is so important to consider because of the clarity in the sound. Audiences know they are listening to a live recording, but there is something in the sound – thanks to the production – that makes the recording almost studio quality. If not for the subtle audience sound and laughs from the band members, one would almost assume the recording was in fact a studio recording. That is meant in the best way possible. It is overall, just that clear. The enjoyment created through such clarity puts the finishing touch to the recording’s presentation. When it is considered along with the positives of the songs and performances thereof, and of the booklet’s liner notes, that whole makes Live in Japan a presentation that Howell and company’s fans will enjoy just as much as any jazz fan in general.

Joseph Howell Quartet’s recently released live recording, Live in Japan, is a presentation that any jazz fan will enjoy. That is due in part to its booklet. The liner notes featured in the booklet offer so much rich background information about the band’s history and the recording. This forms a solid foundation for the recording. The songs and performances featured in the recording make for their own appeal. The songs themselves are familiar as are the artists who originally composed them. What’s more, the songs all feature a familiar style of jazz, joining them together on that thread, too. The band’s performance of the songs pays tribute to their composers and the original compositions while also providing them a somewhat new identity in the process. That adds even more enjoyment to the overall listening experience. The production of the overall performance gives it the finishing touch, giving the recording a fully professional sound. Each item noted here is important in its own way to the whole of the recording. All things considered, they make Live in Japan one of the best of this year’s new live CDs. Live in Japan is available now. More information on this and other titles from Summit Records is available at:

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