Noah Howard, 1943-2010

Noah Howard Quartet
Schizophrenic Blues
SAJ/FMP : 1977

NH, alto; Itaro Oki, trumpet; Jean-Jacques Avenel, bass; Oliver Johnson, drums.

Noah Howard Quartet
Live at the Swing Club
SNIR : 1974

NH, alto; Michael Smith, piano; Bob Reid, bass; Noel McGhie, drums.

Noah Howard Quartet
Noah Howard Quartet
ESP : 1966

NH, alto; Ric Colbeck, trumpet; Scotty Holt, bass; Dave Grant, percussion.

Noah Howard
Live in Europe, Vol 1
Sun : 1975

NH, alto; Takashi Kako, piano; Kent Carter, bass; Muhammad Ali, drums.

More sad news. The name Noah Howard may not mean much to anyone who’s not a free jazz aficionado, but he was an important musician who released a number of key masterpieces over the past four decades.  His name has been written small in jazz history in the U.S. because he spent much of his career as an ex-patriot. Since the early 1970s, he lived in Paris and then Brussels and rarely played his home country.

Very much an independent spirit, Howard ran his own label — AltSax, which he started in 1968 — and later underwent a musical revival beginning in the mid-’90s, releasing a series of vital, adventurous albums that have yet to be fully appreciated or evaluated by most critics. We’ve selected a handful of key tracks to showcase his immense talents. Several of these are from hyper-rare albums. These are not offered as collector bait, but to underline how much of Howard’s musical legacy remains stubbornly submerged from view.

Born in New Orleans, Noah Howard began playing music in church as a child. Growing up, he started on trumpet and played with Louis Armstrong; echoes of his native city’s soulful musical heritage and his gospel roots could always be heard in his music, even in his most out excursions.

In the early 1960s, Howard was in New York City for the birth of the city’s fertile free jazz scene. His playing was deeply inspired by Albert Ayler. This influence was fully digested, but it’s fascinating to hear him paying explicit tribute to Ayler years later on “Fire March,” from 1977’s Schizophrenic Blues.

Howard made his recording debut for the legendary ESP-Disk (which he later called “a monster of deception” for never paying royalties) with a pair of exceptional albums, both captured in 1966: his self-titled first outing (recorded in January) and Live at Judson Hall, an October date with expanded lineup. The beautiful “And About Love,” from the debut, owes something to Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry’s early collaborations, as the trumpet/alto interplay of Howard and Ric Colbeck winds its way down an open, blue field.

Like many, Howard was unhappy and disillusioned with the paltry critical and commercial reception of avant garde jazz in the States and began playing gigs in Europe to more receptive audiences. He recorded the absolutely essential Black Ark in 1969. As we wrote in a Black Ark-focused post from 2006, “It’s notable as Arthur Doyle’s debut, but even more so for its stunning combination of sweet and sour sounds, woolly spontaneity and soulful structure.” We’ve reupped that post; hear the track “Ole Negro” here. During this fertile period, he was also member of Frank Wright’s ferocious band, playing on such classics as Uhuru Na Umoja (America, 1970) and One for John (BYG/Actuel, 1969) .

A classic from his European years, the spiritual “Lift Every Voice and Sing” gets a fairly straight reading on the compilation Live in Europe. Like Ayler, he makes every note count, and the fairly brief tune, clearly stated, is nevertheless just dripping with emotion, the cry in Howard’s tone tugging, reaching for literally every voice. Uncluttered, moving, quietly devastating.

“Lecke” from 1974’s Live at the Swing Club again shows Howard in a mellow mood, teasing out a hushed melody from a dramatically austere arrangement. Note how he confidently builds this ballad to a fiery crescendo, organically pushing the music into more ecstatic realms without the listener realizing how far they’ve traveled in a mere seven minutes.

Other key recordings for the intrepid listener include Space Dimension (America, 1970),  Live at the Village Vanguard (Freedom, 1972), Berlin Concert (SAJ/FMP, 1977), and Patterns/Message to South Africa (two ’70s dates combined for a 1999 Eremite re-release).

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See also David Grundy’s Streams of Expression, which last week upped a tremendous Noah Howard post, complete with strong writing and a mighty mp3 mix.

Special thanks to GEORGE SCALA for invaluable help with this post.

What are some of your favorite Noah Howard recordings/memories?

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