If it’s possible to relax into excitement, to paint color on sound, then listening to James Howard fill a space with music is such an experience. His guitar evokes an other-worldly quality, ethereal and expansive yet grounded and earthy, like dancing in a forest. It makes sense that Howard is known as much for his bluesy originals as the layered instrumentals he plays as lead-guitarist at Seattle’s Center for Spiritual Living. Giving roots to gospel favorites or infusing the secular with soul, he brings the same level of reverence to both.
As his fingers work the strings on those hard-driving or long dreamy sequences, his body in constant motion, sometimes companion sounds spring from his lips. Many of Howard’s performances are accompanied by this passionate punctuation of howls, moans and whispers. The combination is dramatic and transports the music to a different level.
He’s admired as far as Memphis, where his band represented the Washington Blues Society at the International Blues Competition in 2016, and enjoys a huge fan base here in the Pacific Northwest, as evidenced by his regular appearances at the Highway 99 Blues Club and the generous donations to his latest self-funded project, an instrumental CD of popular songs.
In his capable and creative hands, Pink Floyd’s Breathe and the lofty strains of Moon River are molded into equals. America the Beautiful is as sumptuous and thrilling as a Prince or Bowie classic, and feel at home on the same recording. The new compilation, For the Love of Song, is a collection of “spontaneous compositions” he found himself performing during the offertories at the church.
While the tunes are very recognizable, and most are truncated to the 3-minute range, Howard takes the chord progressions and improvises on top of the melody. He is thoughtful in his description of the process, acknowledging that he is building on the works of others, adding his own vision. He says his contribution is to lift spirit in it, to transform and transport through experience. At its most basic, he offers, no one can really own sound, or rather everyone owns it, as portrayed in the recent evolution of the music business.
Here the artist’s esoteric view and studied philosophic leanings inform his approach. He speaks of a song he’s performed, published by Elvis Presley’s publishing company, I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You. The melody, he asserts, associated with the film Blue Hawaii and the king of American hip-shaking rock-and-roll actually originated in 18th Century France.
He says we can’t know who wrote the ancient songs, so the notes, the sounds belong to everyone. Music is not separate from the web of life. All is energy, and Howard sees music as an expression of energy, of spirit, of love. The money he attracts as a musician, as a music teacher, as a songwriter, is that loving energy made tangible. As are licensing fees. As are donations to his Go-Fund-Me campaign.
He says he sees the value in the music itself, in making it accessible and joining his voice to others. He feels like a caretaker, loving the music into being, and not seeing himself separate from it, or separate from an audience. True to this he is often smiling, affable and approachable, funny and fearless. He says he studies the music intensely until he knows it well enough to let go and get out of his own way.
This practice pays off in performance and accolades. His guitar virtuosity and emotional presentation have propelled him from finalist in Guitar Player Magazine’s Hendrix Contest to Best Blues Guitarist in the 2011 Yamaha Global Guitar Competition.
His maverick style is indefinable, drawn from many genres and influences. He’s even backed up Loretta Lynn’s granddaughter, and performed a Flamenco duet in front of a 25-piece orchestra at Benaroya Hall. He seems comfortable in almost any musical setting, not changing, chameleon-like, but immersing himself and adding his essence revealing different layers of his talent.
The man, too, defies labels, except to say he is a contributor, a curator of music. He sees his job as a musician to contribute to community, to act as a channel for the music, to learn and discover as much as create and transform. He is always becoming; always emerging.
Originally written as a prayer, the Van Morrison composition, Have I Told You Lately, which graces Howard’s recording, illustrates his philosophy.
“There’s a love that’s divine, And it’s yours and it’s mine.”