Open Blue OBCD-1201
Reviewed by Tony Mitchell, January 1st, 2015
Saxophonist Howie Smith, who is based in Cleveland, Ohio, established the first university jazz studies program at the Sydney Conservatorium in 1973 on a Fulbright grant, and was Director of Jazz Studies there for three years as well as a member of Jazz Co/op with Roger Frampton, Phil Treloar and bassist Jack Thorncraft. He has taught jazz studies at Cleveland State University since 1979. He first met Mike Nock in Sydney in 1988, after Nock had returned here after 25 years in the USA.
The 19 tracks on this CD date from a session in Sydney in 2012, funded by a Creative Workshop fellowship from the Community Partnership for Arts and Culture of Cuyahoga County, with seven tracks composed by Smith, four by Nock, one by Charlie Mariano (the final He’s Gone), and seven joint improvisations. They demonstrate the enormous range of these two musicians, embracing chamber music, ballet, fusion (Nock still calls his publishing company Fourth Way after the jazz rock group he formed in the USA in 1967) and avant-garde.
The brief opener Through a Window features Smith on sweet soprano, while Ever Distant is a melodic Nock piece, with some chunky chords and strong melodies more than off-setting Smith’s soprano. Landscape is back to Smith, a more ambient piece with Nock on synthesiser and Smith on alto, and Sail is a melodic piece with Smith on alto and Nock playing repeated figures. A number of Smith’s tracks are very brief, like The Magic Garden, a Webernian bagatelle, the self-explanatory Rag(ged) Time, Earrational Number almost Stockhausen-like, and the jittery Yin-Yang, all a minute or less, with the longest track on the album, Fallen Angel, another expansively melodic Nock composition, coming in at 7’23”. The feisty To Be, Ornette, To Be, and Wayne’s Whorl both reference the eponymous US sax maestri, with the Shorter piece coming from a composition for the 13 piece unit Smith plays with. Shadow Dancers, a Smith composition, features a repetitive dance figure from Nock with Smith soaring over the top on a dance-like fugue.
The title track was recorded at Cleveland State University in 1997, and is a more austere duologue, although it flourishes in its own way. Counterclockwise has a repetitive bass rumble from Nock supplemented by some almost boogie woogie riffs, while Smith explores minor figures. The variety and diversity is rounded off with the calypso Jamaican Rhumba and Mariano’s beautifully melancholic closer, illustrating how these two veterans can really ring the changes.