Interview with Tommy Howard
When did you start playing the guitar and why? What did you study and what is your musical background?
I starting playing the guitar at age 13. The first music I was exposed to as a child I was my parents music from the 70’s- The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, classic country music from that time, ect. At the age of 7 my whole world changed when I saw Michael Jackson on the Mowtown Anniversary show doing “Billie Jean” and moonwalking. That was the lightning bolt moment for me. Like every other kid in America at that time I wanted to be Michael Jackson. I had always been fascinated with records and music for as long as I could remember but now I knew music was going to be my calling. Soon after that I discovered hip hop and breakdancing. After hearing Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit” I started taking piano lessons but it wasn’t what I thought it was going to be and I soon quit. In sixth grade I joined band playing euphonium but that didn’t work out either. I had a friend who played guitar so I got a guitar in seventh grade and it stuck. My first influences were Hendrix, SRV, Zeppelin, and some of the newer ‘80s rock like Van Halen and Metallica. At my mother’s insistence I auditioned for the school jazz band and thus began my journey towards jazz. My band director in high school, Mr. Scott McDonald, was very instrumental (pun intended) in mentoring myself and many others in jazz music and I credit him with the direction my life and music took towards the jazz world. After high school I attended the University Of North Texas where I earned my bachelor’s degree in jazz guitar performance.
What were and are your main musical influences? Listening to your last record “Storybook” I felt the presence of Wes Montgomery, Grant Green, Barney Kessel, Charlie Christian…, do you like their way of playing?
Definitely those and much more. I listen to the whole history of jazz guitar, jazz music, and really American (Black) music in general. The recorded history only goes back a hundred or so years so it’s not really that much history to study. I think as a musician it behooves you to do so, and besides that it’s such a rich, wonderful history. Why wouldn’t you want to listen to and study as much of it as you can? I often get labeled as a more traditional player, probably because of my sound more than anything, but I listen to any and everything. Some other influences include: Fishbone, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Dilla, Ari Hoenig, Lage Lund, Peter Benstein, Brian Blade, Joel Frahm, Freestyle Fellowship, The Roots, D’Angelo, Herbie Hancock, Brad Mehldau, ect.
How did the idea start to release a solo album like “Storybook” and why did you choose Destiny Records to produce it?
I had written all of those tunes so I originally approached George Shalda (Destiny’s in-house engineer) about producing my record. I had no intentions of being on the label but George suggested I ask label-owner Mike Shields if he’d be interested in releasing it on the label. The rest is history…
In “Storybook” you “show” us an amazing sound, but I think you don’t you use pedals, is it just guitar and amplifier?
Yes. No pedals it’s just a 1991 Gibson 165 Herb Ellis model plugged into a 1969 Fender Twrin Reverb. I’ve considered the pedal thing many times and it just doesn’t seem to suit me. I’ve went and sat down with pedals at the music store several times and it always seems to take away from my sound, not add to it. You have to spend a lot of time incorporating pedals into your sound to make it personal, Kurt Rosenwinkel is a master of this, and I just don’t have the time. I’d rather be practicing. Who knows, maybe one day.
What does mean improvisation in your music research? Can we go back to talking about improvisation in a repertoire so encoded as the classic or you’re forced to leave and turn to other repertoires, jazz, contemporary, etc.?
I’ll take this questions as: “What does improvisation mean to you?” Improvisation in music to me means being able to speak freely in the context of the music you’re playing at that moment. That means being very well prepared, especially in jazz music, because the topics of conversation are usually pretty heavy. The more studied and prepared you are, the more you will be able to freely express yourself. You also have to have conversations (play) with people all the time to remain a good conversationalist. I do believe you CAN say (play) anything you want in any given moment in jazz, but you have to know how to do that and make it sound good, and that takes dilligent practice, experimentaion, and refinement.
And what do you think is the “function” of a moment of crisis?
Those are the moments of the most growth. As my friend Andre Hayward says: “Fail forward to success.”
What are your essential five discs, always to have with you .. the classic five records for the desert island ..?
Ahmad Jamal- Live At The Pershing
A Tribe Called Quest- Midnight Marauders
Stevie Wonder- Musiquarium
Barney Kessel- The Poll Winners Ride Again
What are your next projects? What are you working on?
I’m slated to do two records with Destiny. I guess we’ll see how this one does first. I’m just continuing to write music, even if it’s just a bar a day, and trying to become a better muscian and composer. The next record will definitely have a bigger band. Whether that’s a quartet with piano or a quintet with horns I haven’t figured out yet.
Last question: a few years ago, during an interview with Bill Milkowski for his book “Rockers, Jazzbos and Visionaries” Carlos Santana said, “Some people have talent, some people have vision. And vision is more important then talent, obviously.” I think you have a great talent, but … what is your vision?
My vision is the same as my goals as a musician and composer: to write and play music that communicates to people and makes their world better in some way when they hear it. I feel that musicians are the true prophets of the world. We are the mediums. We channel messages from the universe and deliver it to others for the benefit of their spiritual well-being. That I’m able to do that is a priviledge and a blessing and I will continually strive to be a better conduit and beacon of hope and positivity.