Amongst Steve Howe’s projects, The Steve Howe Trio is his vehicle to experiment in a more intimate musical environment with a focus on jazz influences. The new album from The Steve Howe Trio, New Frontier, will be released on September 27th so we decided this was a good time for Velvet Thunder to touch base with Steve Howe to talk about this gem of a new album.
Steve Howe needs little introduction to most readers. His periods in Yes are more than enough on their own to guarantee him legendary status. Like myself, less young readers will have worn out a record stylus or two listening to those classic albums during the 70s while trying to fathom out the meaning of those stunning Roger Dean gatefold album covers. Steve has also had enormous success with Asia and has collaborated with many others from rock’s highest echelon (yes, that’s even him playing Spanish guitar on Queen’s Innuendo!). He’s been a prolific solo artist too, finding time to record 13 albums. And as an outlet for his more jazzy influences, Steve formed the Steve Howe Trio back in 2008, along with son Dylan, and organist Ross Stanley. He’s about to release the third album from The Steve Howe Trio.
I’m curious about how a rock guitarist ends up playing in a jazz trio so I start by asking where this interest in jazz derives from and Steve reveals that it goes back right to his earliest attempts at guitar-playing. “Just before I got started on the guitar, at about age 12, I wanted to get books to learn to play the guitar and I bought a book called Dance Band Chords for the Guitar by Erik Kershaw. I could almost see myself as a guitarist in a jazz band at the time. That was before the rock thing started to happen, initially with groups like The Shadows. A few years later when I was still only 16, I saw Wes Montgomery playing in Ronnie Scott’s club and that was amazing. I was looking for guitarists to listen to. The ones that were accessible on the surface like Bert Weedon had a simplicity that I could copy quite easily but I liked the challenge of hearing guitarists and thinking ‘how the hell do you play like that?’ Possibly I’m still saying that today with a lot of great jazz guitarists!” concludes Steve with a laugh.
I observe that three songs on The Steve Howe Trio’s first album, The Haunted Melody, were penned by another jazz legend, Kenny Burnell, so I suggest that Kenny must have been another influence. “He was a major influence” confirms Steve “also with the music he made when he teamed up with organist Jimmy Smith. Kenny is a lovely player, and thank goodness he’s still with us today. He plays a Gibson Super 400 and that really defines his sound. He always had a great sound; he is that sound!”
I ask how he settled on the Trio format with guitar, organs and drums. “As I mentioned” Steve continues “Kenny Burnell and Jimmy Smith were really great together on their albums so that’s where I got the idea for the organ and guitar together. And I think Dylan and I had often talked about doing a trio because the fewer people you’ve got the higher the communication level potentially is. And the bass is covered most of the time since the organ is capable of adding the bass texture, so a Trio is enough.” Once decided on the Trio format, how did you find the third member of the Trio, organist Ross Stanley, I inquire. “It was through Dylan. We were talking about this and he said ‘I know this guy who plays a lot of piano but he’s also got an organ’ so we said to him ‘Bring the organ and let’s see’. That was our first incarnation for just a run through and we grew from there I think the organ is a wonderful all round instrument, just like the piano. It has those different textures, the tactile percussion and the organ drawbars that give a full spectrum of sound.”
Fans of progressive rock music tend to see the Hammond organ as an instrument that emerged into the limelight during the 70s thanks to progressive music but Steve points out that it has a much lengthier history in the jazz world. “In the great days of jazz, we always had a Hammond. The Hammond organ was the archetypal organ; you could make it sound like a cinema organ, or you could grind it up and distort it a little bit and then you have Keith Emerson!”
New Frontiers consists of ten instrumental tunes with the interwork between the guitar and organ creating fascinating and original soundscapes. Compared to The Haunted Melody, jazz influences are less dominant and there’s a more modern sound. I check with Steve whether that change of sound was a deliberate intention with this album. “Yes, that’s correct” confirms Steve. “We didn’t want to feel lumbered with having to come up with more jazz band tunes to fit being a trio. We felt we were free to reinvent ourselves and collaborate on the writing and have the opportunity to have an original album with original tunes. We agreed we were never going to play just jazz standards. For us it was time to leave the original reference point of Kenny Burrell to allow the new Trio album to move a few further steps on.”
The album has the sort of diversity sometimes seen on Steve’s solo albums and that new found freedom is seen in the various musical styles that pop up on the album such as the funky section on Left To Chance and what appears to be Bossa Nova rhythms of Zodiac. “I quite like Zodiac” interjects Steve. “And indeed it’s pretty unfamiliar compared to our previous material. I tried to write something there as if we were in a swing band.”
Steve’s rockier side also comes out on the album in more upbeat tracks such as Outer Limits. “That one has a whole slew of musical ideas in it” responds Steve. “That more harder rockier side certainly comes out when I play the Telecaster.“
Perhaps the standout track on this fascinating album is Gilded Splinter which has a hypnotic repeated phrase that is then offset by a beautiful electric guitar melody. I spot that this was one of three songs co-written by drummer veteran Bill Bruford, so am curious as to how that collaboration developed. “It was great collaborating with Bill and bringing some of his music into the fray because he’s been a big influence on me, and Dylan of course” explains Steve. “We loved the idea of developing this music from ten years ago that we hadn’t found a way to develop yet. We were really excited to have 3 tracks co-written with Bill Bruford.” I ask Steve to confirm that I’d heard correct and the origin of those songs was ten years ago. “Yes, it must have been about 10 years ago, or maybe a bit more, when Bill he sent me some tunes – just embryonic recordings of the melody – and I dabbled with them a bit without really seeing how to use them at the time. But when the Trio were composing different titles, I said ‘look guys I’ve got these tunes, what do you think about these?’ And their faces lit up and they said ‘this fits, this works, we can take this and build on it!’ That’s how the three tracks came up with Bill on them.”
The New Frontier packaging features atmospheric photos showing bleak open uninhabited vistas, a country road and an open railway crossing that wouldn’t look out of place on a Springsteen album. There are some cryptic song titles but as an instrumental album it’s difficult to discern a theme or meaning. This prompts me to ask Steve which comes first when writing an instrumental song: the title or the music.
Steve pauses to reflect on that question a bit and then continues. “Well, there are really two answers to that question. One is the music comes first and you consider what the feeling is and what title fits it best. But also I have a list of titles which is considerably long which I can look through when I’m thinking ‘what shall I call this one?’ I’ve used that stockpile of titles once or twice on this album. So basically, I try to make a good choice – I think that’s the best you can do with an instrumental. Sometimes I might be thinking about a song with lyrics that then becomes an instrumental. That’s how the track Zodiac came about because I sang something like ‘Born in the first sign of the Zodiac’ but the song became an instrumental so I thought just ‘Zodiac’ would just hit the spot.”
I like performers and I love for example the Foo Fighters. They go on and they trash the hell out of it. They’re giving their utmost.
With such a solid album under their belt, I am curious as to whether there are any plans to go out on the road with The Steve Howe Trio. “We’d love to” admits Steve “but we haven’t got any plans yet. We’ll see how next year’s plan shapes up. We just hope there will be a time when we can.”
One of the striking things about listening to the songs on New Frontier is that Steve’s guitar playing is instantly recognisable even though we are miles away from Yes or Asia. I ask Steve how he would explain this in layman’s terms. “The way I could approach an explanation” begins Steve “is that I fumbled around as a beginner and had a blind confidence that I could learn it even though I’d had the guitar for three weeks! So I was a bit naive at this point but I think the band Tomorrow was really the stepping stone. You had to invent what you were going to do and I think that was when the Gibson E175 – that I bought in 1964 and still have – set me on a course. For a lot of people, it wasn’t the right guitar because people weren’t playing that sort of full-bodied big guitar in rock bands. So, I stuck at it vigorously – I loved the look of this guitar and the sound of it – and I developed my sound on that. I was then worried when I started playing acoustic guitar on things like Roundabout because I was thinking ‘I wonder if anyone will really recognize me. Will they think it is someone else?’ I also nurtured my sound, during the recording process: what I played; how it sounded; the mixing; how it was positioned; what delays it had if anything; and whether you could hear the bloody thing or not! I didn’t just leave it for someone else to decide. In fact, sometimes when I’ve done that it’s been an absolute disaster! That’s what’s joyous about solo albums obviously because I can do that to a 100% degree, but on Yes and other things it’s collaborative and therefore I’ve got to respect everyone’s wishes.”
I venture that one thing that differentiates him from many guitar players is the absence of a massive ego. There are many fans that would happily worship Steve for the music he’s created but he doesn’t fall into the trap of walking onto the stage to just bask in the adulation.
“It’s interesting that you say that because I notice that too” reflects Steve. “I like performers and I love for example the Foo Fighters. They go on and they trash the hell out of it. They’re giving their utmost. They’re massive but there’s no big ego. Quite early on in Tomorrow when I used to play quite long hypnotic guitar solos people used to say to me afterwards “God, that was amazing”. I went “what?” and they’d say “that guitar solo, it was amazing”. And I was lagging in the realization of what I was doing and I think that was a good thing. What’s important is to have the idea that what you are doing is contained within the song. And I think that has always been my goal. I don’t need to stroke myself and wind myself up with the grandiose concept that I’m better than anyone else. I know I can do a lot but that doesn’t mean I have to be a flash bastard! I’m never detrimental about other guitarists or never flashy at gigs waiting for the adulation as you say. I do have rules about meeting with fans – I don’t shake hands and I don’t take selfies but I’ll give you an autograph. I’m a happy guy to be who I am. That’s important. When people tell me I’m their favourite guitarist, my reply is often ‘Have you heard Wes Montgomery?’! I admire other guitarists so much that I don’t put myself above them. Around them and with them, but not above them.”
I couldn’t let the interview end without touching on the subject of Yes and especially those halcyon days of the 70s. It was Steve joining the band that helped generate their first classic, The Yes Album, and continuing ever stronger with Fragile and Close To The Edge. Then came Tales From Topographic Oceans which has divided fans to this day – is it a masterpiece or an overambitious and overlong album? Now 46 years later, I ask Steve how he feels about it personally.
“I never lost sight of what was in there” reflects Steve. “Certain members of the band rejected it after spending four months recording it, but basically if they didn’t get to their goal I did with mine. And lyrically, Jon and I collaborated quite a lot on there and there are lyrics that are really deep. So basically, I think it was a big thing to have done, and maybe we went pretty crazy on side three but at least we redeemed ourselves with a beautiful acoustic song, Leaves Are Green. You can’t knock Ritual. Some of the songs on there are basically Yes’ best. And remember it was the only true concept album that we ever made. So I’m full of love for it and I love playing Side 1 and Side 4 live. Those two sides were also mixed better on Tales than Side 2 and 3 which have got some unusual mixing approaches but that’s because we were we hadn’t really done anything like this before.” I mention I have a soft spot for Side 2 and Steve responds “I agree. I’m not knocking it but it was hard to keep up the finesse. That’s why we play Sides 1 and 4 on the live album series. They stand up brilliantly as two pieces.”
When Patrick came in we got a real burst of energy from him. We love what he invented for us on there. I don’t think Rick could have done that
Rick Wakeman left the band after Tales From Topographic Oceans but I suggest that his composition skills and use of multiple types of keyboards might well have improved the following album Relayer in respect to the more consistent synthesizer-based sound of Patrick Moraz who had replaced him.
“Rick’s commitment to Yes was on and off, you know” confesses Steve. “He was in, he was out, but when Patrick came in we got a real burst of energy from him. We love what he invented for us on there. I don’t think Rick could have done that. Like you say, it would have been different. I think it sits perfectly with the classic albums and is a very musical and very adventurous record. To Be Over is like nothing else we did, although it’s like You And I in the way it’s gentle. And Sound Chaser takes the biscuit – Patrick was great on that one!”
Patrick Moraz is only credited with that one album with Yes but there have been rumours that the material for Going For The One was being worked on while Patrick was still in the band. I ask Steve whether he remembers if this was the case. “Yes, he was in the band when we started writing Going For The One” confirms Steve. “Rick joined when we’d already written most of Going For The One. Patrick was following on from Relayer but we just hit a few stops there and went back and forwards on whether he wanted to stay and whether he thought we should be jazzier, and we thought we’re not going to be more jazzier with what we are. We only do jazz in a certain way. But anyway, that’s the correct scenario: we started the album with Patrick and finished it with Rick.”
The 50th Anniversary has certainly been a major landmark for Yes. It’s now 5 years since the last album of new studio material from Yes so the inevitable question is whether there are any intentions to release another Yes studio album. Steve responds positively: “There’s a good chance there will be. We haven’t got all the pieces quite together yet but we’re working towards a direction where we could start to think that we’ve got it. And I think it’s about how much you believe in your own music and how much we believe in the collaboration we have. So, if we’ve got the right vehicles – which we’ve got a wealth of – I think we’ve got to whittle it to the point where we start to think we’ve got it. So, we’re not thinking that we’ve got it but it’s an option!”
Reflecting on the passing away of Chris Squire and the fact that Yes have continued onward (as explicitly desired by Chris himself), I dare to ask Steve the rather morbid question of whether he would like to see Yes continue after his own death. “That’s a peculiar question!” exclaims Steve. Thinking further, he adds “I’m not overly possessive in what Yes is. I know that to help Yes you’ve got to have good ideas so if a guitarist could replace me and add good ideas then I don’t see why not.” I press the point and ask who he would see picking up that guitarist role. “I hope that by the time it happens it’s someone that I wouldn’t have even thought of today!” jokes Steve. ”But obviously people like Steve Morse can play my stuff which shows it’s not impossible but of course I think the texture and the style and sound of another guitarist would be different, and I think that does change the band considerably when you do that. You can see that in Yes in the 80s.”
Well let’s hope we see lots more material from Steve Howe, whether it is with Yes, solo or the Steve Howe Trio. We really are blessed that he has the desire and energy to still be churning out great albums covering many styles after over half a century. I guess we could conclude it’s been half a century of perpetual change.