Stick it: Howard pulls right strings
Charlottesville will watch with fascination when the Rolling Stones, some of the foremost practitioners of classic rock in history, take the stage this week. We have some superb musicians in town the other 364 days of the year, though, and one of them is working with an instrument that still hasn't reached a critical mass.
Greg Howard has worked in one musical capacity or another with many of Charlottesville's heavy hitters– Dave Matthews, Tim Reynolds– and more recently Thompson/D'earth and sesshin– but he's best known for his work on the Chapman Stick, a unique and relatively recent instrument that combines elements of guitar, bass, and piano.
Picture yourself playing a guitar with one hand and a bass with the other. Now do both at the same time, perfectly synchronized. Oh, and you get just one brain to control it all.
To make things a little less confusing, Howard often plays familiar covers by artists such as Charlie Mingus and The Beatles. To document his arrangements of those songs, he's currently working on a cover album– very slowly and deliberately.
"I think in a way I'm intimidated by the songs," he says. "I want to make sure the versions I release are great. I'm going to take my time with this record, because I really admire the music and want to make sure it's treated well."
So perhaps as an exercise in procrastination, he has been exploring other performance possibilities, including periodic shows as part of the new jazz program at the Blue Bird Café.
"I've been doing some solo performances to try to get back into relearning jazz standards and exposing solo playing," he says, "as opposed to the more experimental music I was doing on Ether Ore."
That disc, his most recent release, is a live recording of seven off-the-cuff, stream-of-consciousness pieces. The Stick, he claims, is a unique vehicle for improvisation.
"It has an incredible range for a stringed instrument, so you can cover all the ground that a bass and a guitar can, but all at once. You can be like two people, which means you have much more interaction with yourself as a player."
Nevertheless, he still plays with a number of other musicians, including John D'earth on trumpet and Jamal Millner on guitar.
"Those guys are great players. When there's a guitarist in the band, I can lay off on the accompaniment and focus on the bass. When there's a wind player like John, there's a whole other layer of interaction."
On October 9, people will have a chance to see what he's talking about when he hosts a Stick Night at Gravity Lounge. In addition to some local guest appearances, Howard will perform with his trio– Matt Wyatt on drum kit and African percussion expert Darrell Rose.
"Darrell and Matt are perfect for one another," he says. "I think that Matt is the perfect drummer for these small ensembles, and they're both very expressive players, so there's a lot of give and take."
There may be a lot of give and take rhythmically, but with that particular group, Howard has control of nearly everything else– and that's the whole point. "Having just one pitched instrument in a trio format gives me a lot of freedom in terms of where I want to take the music harmonically," he says.
"I enjoy the combination of these ancient percussion instruments and this really new electric instrument. I think they sit well together."
Why here? I came here to go to UVA in 1982 and fell in love with the town, then the countryside. I travel a lot, and I like coming home to a wonderful, beautiful place. I've moved away three times, but I always come back.
What's worst about living here? It's becoming more like everywhere else, and that's very disappointing.
Favorite hangout? The Downtown Mall, anytime
Most overrated virtue? Compromise
People would be surprised to know? I shovel horse manure everyday. My wife has two prolific horses.
What would you change about yourself? I'd like to have a lighter impact on the earth. I'm always working toward that goal.
Proudest accomplishment? Being invited back to play at the 2005 Montreal Jazz Festival.
People find most annoying about you? I'm more than willing to offer constructive criticism.
Whom do you admire? Winston Churchill because he knew what he had to do, Mark Warner because he doesn't play politics, and the Dalai Lama because he seems to know how to love all of humanity.
Favorite book? The Greenlanders by Jane Smiley
Subject that causes you to rant? The relentless selling off of our land, resources, culture and institutions to the highest bidder
Biggest 21st century thrill? Meeting, in person, Stick players I've met online from all over the world
Biggest 21st century creep-out? Besides the Bush presidency? People are using the word "pod" a lot.
What do you drive? A 1995 Subaru Legacy Station wagon with 257,000 miles on it.
In your car CD player right now? The as-yet-unreleased new Thompson D'earth CD (still loving it...a good sign)
Next journey? A short trip up to Schenectady, New York, to play at a nightclub, which incidentally is the same venue where my Mom had her wedding reception 45 years ago. I'm also hoping to go out to New Mexico soon to make a new record with Tim Reynolds.
Most trouble you've ever gotten in? A head injury while moving cross-country in a van with all my stuff, by myself, just outside Oklahoma City, in the middle of winter
Regret? Not studying music more
Favorite comfort food? Coffee
Always in your refrigerator? Ale, half-and-half, cheese, mayo, leftovers, eggs, preserves, butter, and old vegetables
Must-see TV? Any Star Trek show (God, I miss them)
Favorite cartoon? "The Far Side" where The Scarecrow's dog eats his new brain while he's on the phone telling his friend that he "just got it and can't wait to put it in."
Describe a perfect day: 24 hours totally alone with my wife– no phones, computers, animals, or work
Walter Mitty fantasy? I'm a successful politician who actually makes a difference in the world.
Who'd play you in the movie? Johnny Depp (no, seriously)
Most embarrassing moment? Last year I was in France, and my host told me that we had to go have some crepes, because they are the best anywhere (I was in Brittany). It sounded like he said "crabs," so I went on a while about how we had great crabs here in Virginia, but he said crepes, which are definitely better in Brittany. Generally, it's whenever I open my mouth and there's someone there to hear what comes out.
Best advice you ever got? Stay out of debt (I should have taken it)
Favorite bumper sticker? Practice abstinence in 2004. No Dick. No Bush.
PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO