While writing for Modern Drummer Magazine in the late '70s, area percussionist, keyboardist and composer Harold Howland got a chance to interview several of his jazz idols. Art Blakey, Max Roach, Elvin Jones -- they all stressed one thing, says Howland: self-reliance.
It's safe to say that Howland, who now leads the Howland Ensemble, runs Howland Records and teaches percussion and theory at the Howland Music Studio, learned the lesson well.
"It seemed to me that so many jazz artists felt left out in the cold by the traditional music industry," recalls Howland, who will bring his quartet to Blues Alley tonight. "Some of them had not been in a position to take advantage of the entrepreneurial side of it. What I thought is that the only way the music could survive is if people take charge of their own destiny, put their music out there and hope for the best."
Which is precisely what Howland has done. Operating out of his studio in Vienna, the 34-year-old Washington native has just issued his ensemble's self-titled debut album. A smartly produced, beautifully recorded audiophile record, its sound rivals -- in some cases even betters -- what some of the major jazz labels are releasing today. And that same level of quality applies not only to the packaging and production; the ensemble's performances of pieces composed by Howland and the group's former vibist, Tom Reed, are colorful, evocative and mercifully free of gratuitous rock and pop concessions.
"When I was going to grad school in the late '70s, I was becoming very interested in the whole avant-garde/Art Ensemble of Chicago kind of style. Actually, that particular band was sort of a model for me. If I could have some sort of dream, free blowing, theatrical, multimedia band, that would be it."
Not that anyone is likely to confuse the relatively restrained jazz recorded by the Howland Ensemble with that of their Chicago brethren -- not for a while at least. Howland admits his group wanted to release some of its most accessible material at first, not just for the obvious marketing reasons but also because these tunes reflect another part of his personality.
"I have a real romantic side, too," he says, "and I didn't want melody and harmony to get pushed so far into the background in favor of improvisation that it just begins to lose focus . . . in concert, there certainly will be a lot more free-blowing."
In addition to Howland, the ensemble now features newcomer Jon Metzger on vibes, Bruce Swaim on saxophones and flutist and bassist John Previti. Most of the band's material is composed by Howland, whose musical interests, to put it mildly, are varied.
And for good reason. Though born here, Howland, a self-described "Foreign Service brat," traveled extensively as a youngster. Not surprisingly, some of his childhood experiences -- in the Middle East, for example -- still resonate throughout his music, coloring tunes like "Bedouin Song" with exotic themes and textures.
It was while his parents were stationed in Holland that a friend introduced Howland to the exploratory American jazz of Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk. Monk, in particular, had a strong influence on Howland the jazz composer.
Rock 'n' roll, particularly the Beatles and the rest of the burgeoning British invasion, would compete for Howland's attention later, in high school. A veteran of several rock bands, he still dabbles in all kinds of pop music but insists that the jazz ensemble's work is special.
"I feel as though I get a chance to play enough of that kind of music pop and rock in the free-lance world that I don't need to impose it on this music. I would like this particular band, and this music, to be a bit purer. It's sort of a world away from some of the other things I do."
And some of those "things" extend far beyond pop and jazz. In college, Howland developed a real passion for classical and baroque music, especially timpani literature. After studying for six or seven years with Fred Begun, the timpanist of the National Symphony -- years spent developing what Howland calls "a really musically inspiring relationship" -- the former student has turned teacher, instructing students of all ages in his Vienna studio.
For the moment, though, Howland is busy handling the sundry details that go along with promoting a self-produced jazz album. Making the record wasn't easy, he says, but it's been worth the effort and expense, and he says he's certain of one thing: the public will get its money's worth.
"That's something I felt strongly about from the beginning," he notes. "I didn't want to put out a cheesy pressing and a Xeroxed black-and-white cover that really looked like the basement tape so many local albums are. A debuting artist certainly owes it to himself and to a listening public that is now accustomed to a much higher quality listening format -- CDs and digital pressings and so on -- to put out the best sounding and best looking album he can afford."