Many jazz guitarists have been known for their blazing solos. These practitioners’ comping chops have tended to be less substantial. Others have acted as rock-solid rudders, happily keeping things swinging while shunning solos. Howard Alden, on the contrary, is an exceptional jazz guitarist; his soloing and accompaniment styles—both characterized by an unerring sense of swing and an allegiance to the song—exist on an equal plane. On his newest Concord release, In a Mellow Tone (CCD-2207), Alden is paired with a similarly multi-faceted guitarist of an older generation, Bucky Pizzarelli.
Alden, who was born in 1958 and raised in California, first took up the guitar at the age of ten after devouring records by Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Django Reinhardt, and George Van Eps. While in his teens, Alden first encountered Pizzarelli through his Plays Bix Beiderbecke Arrangements by Bill Challis. The A-side of that LP found Pizzarelli playing five Beiderbecke numbers with a team of heavyweight guitarists—Artie Ryerson, Barry Galbraith, Allen Hanlon, Howie Collins, and Tony Mottola—while on the opposite side, Pizzarelli and his then 16-year-old daughter, Mary, played duets of obscure 1930s swing tunes. The record changed Alden’s life. "It was really an eye-opener for me,” says Alden. "It was so enlightening to hear these fantastic modern guitarists playing this old music, with all kinds of fascinating counterpoint, and I immediately knew that was something I had to explore further.”
In 1982, Alden moved to New York City, where he further explored jazz with such artists as Ruby Braff, Woody Herman, and Joe Williams, and accumulated accolades from luminaries like Benny Carter, Dizzy Gillespie, and Clark Terry. After a while, Alden met up with Pizzarelli. "Bucky and I started playing together in 1991; since then, we’ve jammed every time we’ve gotten the chance, mostly at festivals and in hotel rooms. We have developed quite a nice rapport,” Alden says. Most significantly, Pizzarelli convinced Alden to ditch his six-string guitar in favor of the more robust seven-string variation. "I had always been intimated by the seven-string,” admits Alden, "but Bucky said, ‘You gotta do it—you’ll be a natural!’ So I switched around ’92. I just took my first Benedetto seven-string out on tour with me and forced myself to perform on it. And now, that change has really enriched my playing.”
While Alden and Pizzarelli have sporadically enriched each other’s playing for the past 13 years, In a Mellow Tone marks their first recording together. In preparation, the two scoured the Great American Songbook. Alden says, "We looked for an assortment of classic tunes that would work well with two seven-string guitars. Some of the ones we went with are things that Bucky taught me, and others are I songs I suggested. In the end, I think that we had an ideal assortment.” And, the perfect recording session, too. "We did the CD in one afternoon at Avatar Studios in New York. It was very relaxed and homey; we just sat down, really listened to each other and had a natural conversation, so a lot of things fell right into place,” says Alden.
Indeed, everything aligned immaculately on In a Mellow Tone. On the title track, the guitarists swing exuberantly through Duke Ellington’s evergreen, then give a similar treatment to his "Do Nothin’ Till You Hear From Me.” They sail effortlessly through "Cherokee,” pushing one other to greater heights in each subsequent chorus, while switching seamlessly between soloing and accompanying. The pair settles down a bit on "The Very Thought of You,” which Pizzarelli introduces with a gorgeous chord-melody solo before Alden joins in on a reharmonized, though faithful interpretation. On the penultimate chorus of Claude Thornhill’s "Snowfall,” the guitarists converge in simultaneous, almost telepathic chord solo, yielding a range of uncanny colors. "It can be tricky to juxtapose chordal ideas,” says Alden, "and that was definitely a magic moment.”
Apart from Pizzarelli, Alden performs a pair of superlative solos. First, and fittingly, there’s Bix Beiderbecke’s "In the Dark,” which Alden first learned from the aforementioned Pizzarelli record. This rendition reveals Alden’s incredibly thorough harmonic approach. "I always think of Bucky when I play that piece,” says Alden, "so naturally I had to include it here.” The other solo, "Blowing Bubbles,” finds Alden rhapsodizing quietly, his guitar resonating like a tiny orchestra.
Alden and Pizzarelli reconnect on "Blues for Emmett.” Coincidentally, the guitarists played on the remarkable Dick Hyman soundtrack for the Woody Allen movie Sweet and Lowdown; Alden even tutored the leading man, Sean Penn, who portrayed an eccentric jazz guitarist living in the shadow of Django Reinhardt. "Blues for Emmett” is imbued with the same sense of spontaneity and comradeship as the interpretations on In a Mellow Tone. Alden says, "Bucky and I composed that one on the fly. We needed a tune that sounded as if it were made in the ’30s, so we quickly worked up a blues in B-flat, and it turned out really nice. You know, when I first started out in New York City, I was playing with Joe Bushkin and Milt Hinton, and after a few weeks someone came up to Milt and said, ‘What’s it like playing with this young kid?’ And Milt said, ‘like playing with an old pair of shoes.’ Alden says the same thing about Bucky; "He’s such a comfortable fit; everything feels really natural and supportive. Playing with Bucky is always a totally satisfying experience, and I think that joy is apparent on the album.”