Friday 22 November 2019

The Steve Howe Trio - New Frontier (2019)

Country: UK
Style: Jazz/Progressive Rock
Rating: 6/10
Release Date: 27 Sep 2019
Sites: Wikipedia

Name November was all about me catching up with a glut of releases from the well known artists and important lesser known ones who apparently waited to release their new work all at once. In hindsight, November shone because of bands at the heavier end of the spectrum: Opeth, Insomnium, Alcest, Mayhem, Nile and Exhorder. Only Jeff Lynne's ELO album really stood out amongst them from a lighter perspective, so I'm interested to see if anything else light might play well in that company.

So here's Steve Howe, best known as the guitarist for prog rock legends Yes (and their temporary continuation in Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe), but he also deserves recognition for his work for arena rock bands such as Asia and GTR. Add a many solo albums, plenty of collaborations and guest appearances on albums for artists as varied as Lou Reed, Frankie Goes to Hollywood and William Shatner and you have a serious rock career.

The Steve Howe Trio is a jazz group featuring Howe on guitar, his son Dylan on drums and Ross Stanley on Hammond organ. There are no vocals and there's no bass. As you might imagine, it's easy listening both in the sense that it really is easy to listen to and in the sense that it could well be piped out of hidden speakers in hotel lobbies. This is their third album in just over a decade, following 2008's The Haunted Melody and 2010's Travelling.

However, it's also interesting stuff if we focus in and, with Howe the major driving force and with fellow Yes alumnus Bill Bruford contributing to three of the ten tracks, it's not entirely shorn of the prog rock elements that we might be forgiven for seeking out. And, while this is clearly Howe exploring a new musical direction, hence the title, there's prog rock here, especially early on.

Hiatus, for instance, may be an odd title for an opening track, but it's an impressive one whose major flaw is that it ends too soon. This is prog rock, especially before the drums kick in, with Howe coaxing delightful sounds out of his guitar and Stanley's Hammond doing exactly what we don't expect. The drums don't add much here, but the combination of guitar and keyboard could easily have built into a Yes song, with a full band joining in when it ends.

Left to Chance, the longest song on the album at six and a half minutes, is prog for a while too, again mostly through the interplay between guitar and organ. Dylan Howe gets the picture a minute in and gets interesting too. If the song progresses into more overt jazz territory after a while, that's OK because this is a jazz trio, but Yes fans coming to this will have found it worthy. Of course, it's hard not to imagine Yes fans not getting into Howe's guitar, whatever it is that he's doing.

I'm not remotely well versed enough in jazz to recognise anything that this trio borrow from the expansive jazz songbook, but some parts do sound rather familiar, especially on Showdown but also on Fair Weather Friend and others. It doesn't matter, of course. Jazz is all about reinventing material, often in an improvisatory setting. This doesn't seem loose enough to be a freeform jam but that doesn't mean that they aren't riffing on older material in new songs.

I enjoyed this interlude from the heavier side of name November. It's hardly going to be of interest to all rock fans and it's not remotely challenging, but anyone into prog and jazz would likely get a kick out of it. Even with only three instruments recorded in a bare bones setting, there's plenty of interesting stuff going on.

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