Howard Alden: Seven strings, will travel

Howard Alden - photo by Joseph Boggess
Howard Alden: playing locally at various venues. Photo: Joseph Boggess

Howard Alden makes a powerful impression, even when you can’t see him. In Woody Allen’s great 1999 film Sweet and Lowdown the veteran jazz guitarist supplied the beautiful fretwork delivered by Sean Penn’s fictional Emmet Ray, a tormented musician who describes himself as “the second greatest guitarist in the world” (topped only by the very real guitar legend Django Reinhardt). At the time, Alden wasn’t particularly associated with Reinhardt’s Gypsy swing sound, but he’s a highly versatile player who thrives in just about any setting.

In the next two weeks, Alden plays numerous gigs around the region, including a solo recital tonight at Schoenberg Guitars in Tiburon, and Tuesday at St. Albans Episcopal Church in Albany with members of the Berkeley Choro Ensemble and Grupo Falso Baiano (namely flutist Jane Lenoir, clarinetist Harvey Wainapel, guitarist Brian Moran, and percussionist Ami Molinelli Hart).

He also plays tenor banjo at Armando’s in Martinez with banjo expert Jack Convery and friends 4-8 p.m. Sunday, and Thursday, Aug. 13 at Bird & Beckett in San Francisco with bassist Peter Barshay and drummer Vince Lateano. But for most of next week he’ll be in Berkeley co-teaching the California Jazz Conservatory’s Summer Guitar Intensive with Mimi Fox (a class that culminates with a student concert at the CJC on Friday, Aug. 14).

For jazz fans who got to know Alden through his numerous recordings for Concord Jazz, including a sensational duo session with clarinetist/tenor saxophonist Ken Peplowski recorded at Maybeck Recital Hall in 1992, his passion for Brazilian choro might come as a surprise. A master of the seven-string guitar, Alden is a stylistically expansive player who is as comfortable playing duets with swing-era guitar greats like George Van Eps and Bucky Pizzarelli as he is exploring the rarified harmonies of pianist Bill Evans. Though he’s never recorded choro repertoire, he got turned onto the music, which was a 19th century precursor to samba, some three decades ago.


“The great clarinetist Kenny Davern gave me a tape of Jacob do Bandolim that Charlie Byrd had given him,” says Alden, 56, referring to the Brazilian composer and mandolin master who launched a choro revival in the 1940s. “I fell in love with that cassette, and didn’t even know there was a genre called choro. It’s such infectious music, and has so many parallels with early jazz and ragtime and bebop. At that time, it was really underground in Brazil, and what’s so cool is that in the past two decades there’s a whole crop of youngsters in Brazil dedicated to choro.”

Around 2001 Alden discovered a small choro scene in New York City centering on some Brazilian musicians and fellow converts like Israeli clarinetist Anat Cohen, who’s recorded several choro-inspired albums. In the Bay Area, mandolin master David Grisman introduced many musicians to choro in the 1970s (like string maestro Mike Marshall) and released Jacob do Bandolim’s classic recordings on his Acoustic Disc label.

While Alden isn’t usually cast as a jazz innovator (a status that’s often of dubious merit), he is largely responsible for reintroducing the seven-string guitar to straight-ahead jazz. People often assume that the additional string makes it a much more difficult instrument (“So many people say I love the seven-string and would love to play it but I’m still struggling with six,” Alden says).

But Alden finds that the additional bass notes provide “a more complete picture of harmony. The way it’s structured you’re able to hear and see more harmonic possibilities, which makes everything clearer and easier to see.”

Before Alden, the seven-string guitar was associated almost entirely with Van Eps (who taught Bucky Pizzarelli). It was Alden who inspired Grupo Falso Baina’s Brian Moran to start playing seven-string.


“I saw him in 1993 as a freshman at the University of New Hampshire with Ken Peplowski,” Moran says. “I had never been aware of the seven-string guitar before that. Ten years later, Bruce Forman brought him to do a Jazz Masters Workshop at Enrico’s in North Beach, and the next day I went out of found one in South San Francisco and bought it.”

Born and raised in Orange County, Alden got his start playing New Orleans jazz at pizza parlors and at Disneyland in the mid-1970s. A protégé of the great jazz and studio guitarist Howard Roberts, he moved to New York City in 1982 and attracted the attention of veteran masters like Woody Herman and Dick Hyman (the 88-year-old piano patriarch, who served as music director on numerous Woody Allen films including Sweet and Lowdown, performs with Ken Peplowski at the Lesher Center in Walnut Creek on Saturday). Alden recently relocated to Phoenix, so he might be around for more Bay Area dates.

He’s certainly game for just about any situation. Moran invited him to play a duo show for a summer program at Stanford University with kids visiting from China, “and he agreed immediately,” Moran says. “He’s a really kind soul.”

Recommended gigs: John Ettinger at Jupiter, Avotjca at La Peña

John Ettinger. Photo: Sylvia Ettinger
John Ettinger. Photo: Sylvia Ettinger

El Cerrito violinist/composer John Ettinger writes startlingly strange and beautiful music, marked by elliptical melodies and lapidary textures. He performs Friday 8-11 p.m. at Jupiter with guitarist Jon Preuss, bassist Myles Boisen, and drummer Vijay Anderson.

Poet, percussionist, DJ, activist and tireless advocate for the arts Avotjca celebrates her 74th birthday at La Peña on Sunday 7-10 p.m. with a mini-festival of Bay Area literary and musical talent, including Augusta Lee Collinsw, Tony Robles, Marci & Ricardo Valdivieso’s Duomuxa, Los Cenzontles Youth Group, Ian Dogole and Mariah Parker, Carlos Reyes, Vukani Mawethu, and her own band Modupue with violinist Sandi Poindexter, saxophonist Francis Wong, bassist Baba Ken Okulolo, percussionists Manny Martinez and Raul Ramirez and guest drummer Myron Cohen.


Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. He also reports for the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. Read his previous Berkeleyside reviews.

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