Howard Alden

13 Strings

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One of the strongest guitar-based jazz records of the 1990s, 13 Strings (so named because of the combination of Van Eps' seven-string instrument and Alden's conventional six-stringer) swings with a relaxed confidence born of equal parts experience and sheer mastery. This record marks Van Eps' return to recording after a period of over 20 years, and his playing displays nary a cobweb nor an uncertainty. His comping retains the same pianistic character that it exhibited 40 years previously on Mellow Guitar, and his solo statements reveal an improviser comfortable weaving complicated, multi-voiced lines. Van Eps' former student, Howard Alden, is no less spectacular, and his voice on his instrument is as seasoned as his teacher's. The tracks are broken down into quartet, duet, and solo performances. On the quartet selections, bassist Dave Stone and drummer Jake Hanna, in addition to laying down minimalist grooves that would set any toe to tapping, make important solo contributions of their own, creating memorable, melodic statements whenever the spotlight is handed over to them. Although the guitarists sound wonderful in all settings, the most satisfying moments on this record are their duets, especially the Ray Noble compositions "I Hadn't Anyone Till You" and "The Touch of Your Lips," where the two guitarists really let their musicianship shine (some of the obvious familiarity with this material may be due to the fact that Van Eps worked with Noble in the 1930s). The songs that Alden and Van Eps have chosen are mainly old standards, with four Gershwin songs in contrast to only one original composition, Van Eps' own "Queerology," which receives a ravishing solo guitar treatment from Alden. Despite the age and familiarity of the material, the tracks never seem old hat, not because they are radically deconstructed, but, rather, because the musicians don't seem to play these songs so much as breathe them. Lines, chords, and countermelodies fly with such relaxed ease that the listener is almost duped into believing that this isn't incredibly complicated music, as ornate as any Baroque chamber concerto. This is jazz that is both classic and classy, and 13 Strings is a wonderful demonstration of the talents of four musicians whose self-assured knowledge of the idiom is unparalleled.

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