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The Rehearsal Studio

Stephen Smoliar

The Rehearsal Studio

About a month ago the jazz label Summit Records released a Live in Japan album of a club date by the Joseph Howell Quartet. During his time as a musician for the United States Navy, Howell had served in Japan for about three years. He frequently used his leave time to check out jazz practices in Japan and, when possible, jam with the musicians.

The musician that seems to have had the greatest impact was drummer Kenichi Nishio. Through Nishio, Howell was able to connect with pianist Keigo Hirakawa, his previously fellow student at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. Eventually, they were joined by bassist Kenji Shimada; and the Joseph Howell Quartet was born. The Live in Japan album documents a performance that the quartet gave in Yokohama at the Jazz Live House CASK on May 27, 2018.

I was happy to discover that three of the seven compositions on this album were tunes by Joe Henderson, since I seem to be consistently reminding myself that I need to learn more about Henderson as both performer and composer. The tunes themselves are “Serenity,” Jinriksha,” and “Mamacita,” all given satisfying quartet performances with refreshing inventiveness from Howell himself. Wayne Shorter is also represented on the album with “Nefertiti,” in an account that I found to be a bit too polite when compared to the more visceral approach that Shorter took with the Miles Davis Quintet.

On the other hand the quartet takes an engagingly refreshing account to one of my personal favorites, “Good Bait,” composed jointly by Tadd Dameron and Count Basie. This is the second track on the album, which concludes by balancing Basie with Duke Ellington. The final track is Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the ‘A’ Train,” which quickly became a standard for the Ellington orchestra and many others thereafter. The remaining track is devoted to a more traditional standard, Victor Young’s “My Foolish Heart,” which was more part of the pop scene until Bill Evans added it to his own book.

Most important is that this is a quartet album on which everyone has his own time under a spotlight. For all of Howell’s own inventiveness, he is particularly good at letting the other players add their respective voices. The result is a stimulating reminder of just how engaging jazz practices could be for the better part of the twentieth century. These days it is harder to come across that kind of originality, so it is good to know that at least one group is doing a good job of keeping the torch burning in the current century.

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