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Greg Howard

 

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by Andy Long

All Chapman Stick players are, it seems, by their very nature explorers and innovators. Their desire to express themselves through this revolutionary and still relatively new instrument gives them a wide-open field of play and they are determined to cover all the bases.  

Amongst this group of explorers and experimenters Greg Howard is known as a true pioneer.

In 1987 he released the first ever all-solo all-original Stick album, 'Whispers' and since that time he has gone on to record even more solo work, group projects and something he calls 'Groove Poetry', which is a mixture of improvised music and of course, poetry.

Greg has well over a thousand live gigs under his belt. He began this year at the annual 'Stick Night' event, which features some of the world's leading players each year. I asked him how the show went... 

Greg:  'Really great. It was very low-key. Larry Tuttle and Don Schiff really stole the show for me. Don has his new Mac rack for effects. I just played naked, with no effects that is, and it was really refreshing. You can't hide behind your distortion pedal that way.'

Photos by Kelly at SWR

Originally from Washington Greg made his home in Virginia in1982 and gained his B.A. in English from the University of Virginia 1986. But how did he come to be a Stick player? 

Greg: 'I was a keyboard player, and wanted more expression without losing counterpoint capabilities. The Stick seemed like the best of all possible worlds to me. It only took a little time with it to realise that it would exceed my expectations.

In 1992 I was "semi-competent" on Stick, keys and sax, and had to make a decision to focus on one in order to move ahead. Choosing The Stick was easy. It had the most unique possibilities. It still does.'

As we have seen from other articles the Stick comes in a variety of models, so I asked Greg to tell us about the models he plays. 

Greg: 'I currently have two Sticks, and they are quite different from each other. My 1995 one-piece rosewood Stick is a ten-string with Emmett's standard humbucking pickup. It's tuned to Baritone Melody/standard bass tuning. The instrument I'm playing most these days is a paduak laminate 12-string with the active Block, fret rails and the new nut. It is tuned to Matched Reciprocal. They are both beautiful-looking instruments, and they play like a dream. Emmett is way ahead of the game in designing and building dedicated tapping instruments.'

Also an integral part of Greg's set-up is the Rane SP-13 pre-amp, the first real bit of kit specifically designed for Stick players. 

Greg: 'The Rane is a great addition to any Stick player's rig. It provides pre-amping and seven band graphic EQ for each side of the instrument and two separate effects routing paths, in addition to being a stereo direct box and headphone amp. All in one single rack space. It has very high impedance inputs, which allow the natural sound of The Stick's passive pickups to really "breathe" right through. It's also very quiet.

The SP-13 is based on the AP-13, Rane's ĎAcoustic Processorí for guitars. I bought one of these and asked them to make some minor modifications to better suit The Stick, like matching the two channels of impedance (on the AP-13 one channel is for a mic input and one for piezo, and I thought the piezo impedance sounded better for both Stick channels).  

Then a lot of other Stick players started doing the same, and Rane thought that rather than keep having to modify existing units it made sense to formalise the mods in a dedicated Stick pre-amp. I'm so impressed with them as a company.'

Throughout all of Greg's recordings, whether solo or with a band, one of the most important factors seems to be the freedom to improvise, but where does that love of improvisation originate from? 

Greg: 'I think the earliest influence would be my father, who was a big band trumpeter, semi-professional in his youth. I remember being very young and listening to him jam along with records. I started improvising on the console organ, a standard suburban living room accessory in those days. And then I saw pianist Oscar Peterson in concert and moved to the piano. I also jammed a lot with friends on alto and tenor sax.

All the while I was listening to improvisers in rock as well like the mid-70's King Crimson. I guess it just suits my personality, I kind of live life in an improvisational manner.'

The Greg Howard Band CD 'Lift' features bassist Jan Van Olffen alongside Greg's Stick and I wondered whether that was expressly designed to free Greg up more for the melody side of things. 

Greg: 'Actually, it was the was the way we could orchestrate the two instruments together. Jan van Olffen's fretless tone is superb, and the tone is so different than the percussive bass of The Stick, that they blend into one big low end. He also plays counter lines up above my lowest bass parts, as if he were a cellist.

Or he'll play a picked fretted part up an octave from me. It is great to not always have to play the bass line, it definitely frees me up, but it's the interplay I like. Jan is also a Stick player, so that makes it a lot easier for us to communicate about our various roles.

Drummer Jan Wolfkamp is also a member of the band and I had recently been watching him play on a live video with Ron Baggerman. I was impressed by both his incredible style and complex set-up. 

Greg: 'Absolutely, but I would say his musicality rises above both of those. Jan is a sonic artist as well as a human groove machine. His playing is very intuitive and visual. By that I mean he's fun to watch, and the sounds are quite evocative.

Between him and Jan van Olffen and Hubert Heeringa (saxes, violin and wind-synth)I have surrounded myself with three very intuitive players. This helps a lot if you want to improvise as a group.'

 
Photo by Kevin Genus

One of Greg's occasional sessions has been working with the Dave Matthews Band, nice work if you can get it. How does one get a gig like that (please!) 

Greg: 'We all live in Charlottesville, Virginia. Before they formed their band I had played with each of them in various contexts. The most active of these was Code Magenta, with Leroi Moore. This was the most improv-oriented group I ever had, we would just jam up grooves and Dawn Thompson would improvise a melody for a poem.

Our CD was mostly live two-track recordings from our shows. I used to mix the trio on the stage with headphones on while performing. 'In 1990 Dave wanted to demo some of his tunes so we put them down in my home studio, complete with Stick and sax parts and background vocals, sampled percussion, etc.

He formed his band shortly after that, and they've been kind enough to include me on a couple of records and as a guest artist on one of their tours.' Greg also runs an e-mail newsletter called 'Sticknews'. 

Greg: 'As you know, we Stick players have a tendency to feel a little isolated, so I wanted to start a Stick-specific email newsletter to help us keep in touch. There was already the Stickwire list, but as an unmoderated forum, it had a tendency to be exploited by folks who wanted to cause Emmett and Yuta and Stick players some trouble.

Sticknews is flame-free, and it's only about the Stick, so it`s a good concentrated source of information. There are currently over 450 subscribers from around the world.  

If you'd like to check out the Greg Howard band in action now's your chance, the band will be on tour in the Eastern U.S. in March, here are the dates : 

March 20, Charlottesville, Virginia
March 22, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
March 23, New York City
March 24, Boston, Mass.
March 26, Burlington, Vermont
March 27, Rochester, New York
March 28, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
March 29, Ann Arbor, Michigan
March 30, Cincinatti, Ohio
March 31, Arlington, Virginia (near Washington)
 

Greg will also be up in Portland, Seattle and Vancouver in early March for a Stick Seminar and some solo concerts.   See  www.greghoward.com for more information.

 

Andy Long is our correspondent in the U.K. and the author of numerous articles in Global Bass for a number of issues. Andy will be continuing over 2002 with a series of interesting and provocative interviews with some of the UK's best and brightest bass players. 

Check out his official website at Third Bass

 

 

Read this article in German

 

 

                                  

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