Puppies eventually become dogs. Teenagers bloom into young adults. And jazz guitarist Howard Alden wants people to know that neo-swing players--those young guys who perform with and like the old guys from the original swing era--can grow up, too. "I should hope so," says Alden, who at 36 is among the most junior of those who've been lumped with neo-swingers. "I've noticed that what's been happening in the last couple of years is that I've been trying to move away from the neo-swing label."
In fact, Alden has a hard time even saying the words "neo-swing"--he sounds as if he's going to choke on the phrase before he can get it past his lips. That's a big change from the attitude Alden held just four years ago, when he told an interviewer, "Call me whatever you want as long as I'm playing the kind of music I enjoy playing." It's clear that this Southern California boy, who began his musical career at fourteen by playing tenor banjo in a Shakey's Pizza Parlor, is now his own man.
"I think I'm just starting to assert myself more as a leader or a soloist," he states. "I'm lucky, because I went through most of my career, up until a few years ago, as basically an apprentice to people like Ruby Braff, Red Norvo, the late Buck Clayton and Kenny Davern. Now I feel like I can get out on the bandstand and play with some conviction and play the way I want to play. I incorporate a lot of the stuff I've learned, but I think I've managed to blend the tradition with my own sound on the instrument."
Alden's absolutely correct: He's become a guitarist with his own voice--and a very pleasing voice it is. Moreover, his style has evolved naturally from his early work, which is notable less for its innovations than its often unexpected juxtapositions. During the mid-Eighties, for example, he and trombonist Dan Barrett formed the Alden/Barrett Quintet, a combo that proved that guitars and trombones can be surprisingly compatible instruments. The group, which still plays one or two dates each year, based its approach on a philosophy that continues to underlie Alden's current efforts: Play quietly. Play in tune. And swing.
An even more impressive coup took place in 1991, when Alden convinced George Van Eps, the harmonic wizard of the seven-string guitar, to record a duet album with him after many years of inactivity. Since then, the two have collaborated on two other discs, and this past December Alden and Van Eps, now 81, gigged together in Los Angeles.
Van Eps also provided the inspiration for Alden to take up the seven-string guitar. The result of this decision has amazed both Alden and his listeners. "I'm making a lot of progress on it," Alden says. "It's been a big help in developing my harmonic sense. I'm not just modeling myself after George or Joe Pass, who are probably the two best-known solo guitarists. I think you have to set high standards for yourself. Hopefully, you might even get something better than you hoped for sometimes."
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That's an apt description of Alden's latest project for Concord, Your Story--The Music of Bill Evans. The CD, which features Alden, the members of his current trio (bassist Michael Moore and drummer Al Harewood) and, as a special guest, the legendary Frank Wess on tenor saxophone and flute, is a worthy tribute to its subject. "I'd always loved to listen to the music of Bill Evans, and I wanted to do some of his tunes for a long time," Alden reveals. "But I never felt like I could do them justice until recently--until I learned how to play better and really understood them inside and out. After I started playing the seven-string, I was able to grasp his harmonic concept."
Another of the irons in Alden's fire combines his professional and personal sides. In late 1993 he married jazz vocalist Teri Richards, and he now spends part of each year touring Europe with her. Alden, who contributed to a recording Richards made in England a few years ago, hopes to join her in the studio closer to home in the near future. He's also eager to make a solo-guitar platter--perhaps one that encompasses the music made famous by the late Brazilian guitarist Noel Rosa and mandolinist Jacob do Bandolim. "It's wonderful music," he notes. "Not like bossa nova or anything. It dates back to the turn of the century. Wonderful melodies and rhythms. It's kind of like ragtime, but more swinging."
Whatever genre Alden decides to tackle next, his goal will remain the same. "In simplistic terms, I guess I'm just trying to play better." As for a descriptive for his musical life after neo-swing, he says, "Just [call me] a jazz guitarist. That works just fine."
Howard Alden, with Kenny Davern, Bob Wilber, Bob Haggert, Ralph Sutton and Bob Rosengarden. 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, January 13 and 14, Park Hill Golf Club, 4141 East 35th Avenue, $30, 333-5414 or 333-2940.