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From a whisper to a scream: Dakota late night with Harrison and Howes

The late-night music menu at the Dakota Jazz Club & Restaurant has become a solid crowd-pleaser the last few months, featuring adventurous, top-notch local acts such as Monk in Motian and the Atlantis Quartet.

The late-night music menu at the Dakota Jazz Club & Restaurant has become a solid crowd-pleaser the last few months, featuring adventurous, top-notch local acts such as Monk in Motian and the Atlantis Quartet. But this weekend, the wee-hour itinerary takes another step forward, as a pair of players who have both been prime-time headliners in larger venues and sport strong new national-label records will front an exciting quartet at the club.

Billed as the Joel Harrison Quartet featuring Christian Howes, the group is capable of playing a harmonically sophisticated chamber arrangement on one song, then tamping down the throttle on a jazz-rock fusion number the next. Guitarist Harrison has won numerous awards, grants and commissions for his compositions, and just released his best recording to date, “The Wheel,” a five-movement suite for chamber quartet and jazz quintet. Howes, a violinist who plays on “The Wheel,” also has a brand-new record out, “Heartfelt,” a lush, highly produced affair featuring pianist Roger Kellaway.

“It is definitely more straight-ahead than my other stuff, with more ballads. It shows me playing pretty, although a few songs go away from that. It is a more mainstream record for those who couldn’t get through my other records,” Howes says with a laugh over the phone.

But he’s probably only half-joking. The first time I saw Howes play the Twin Cities, he tore up the tiny, now-defunct Brilliant Corners jazz club, his long hair flying as he blurred both hands at blazing speed over his violin. By contrast, you could deploy much of “Heartfelt” to soothe the irritability of a colicky infant. But Howes passes the challenge of playing “pretty.” Kellaway, an uber-mainstream pianist who has played with practically every jazz violinist of note — Stephane Grappelli, Joe Venuti, Ray Nance, Jean-Luc Ponty, etc. — says of the Berklee College of Music teacher, “I think Christian is a major talent.”

Will likely perform pieces from new disc
Howes says the Harrison Quartet will probably play Kellaway’s “Invasion of the Forest” and soundtrack maestro Ennio Morricone’s “Cinema Paradiso” off the new record during the group’s two-night stint at the Dakota, plus the jazz standard “Alone Together” that also appears on “Heartfelt.” He dismisses the notion that it might be a problem performing tunes with a piano-less quartet from a record where the pianist, Kellaway, was a co-star attraction, citing his musical affinity with Harrison.

“Joel and I are different on a surface level but there is something about our approach that makes it easy to lock up. We’re both really eclectic, both motivated by traditional stuff and stuff that’s far out there. Plus Joel is really good at making strings adaptable to jazz, so of course I like that.”

Harrison’s string arrangements are indeed exquisite, particularly on “The Wheel.” Unfortunately, winnowing charts for nine pieces down to four forces Harrison to include only one of the movements from the new disc in the set list at the Dakota. “We can turn movement four [entitled “We Have Been The Victims of a Broken Promise”] into more of a jazz-folk ballad,” he says, while acknowledging that “The Wheel” was “a challenge where I was raising the bar for myself and for that reason became very satisfying.”

A first for Harrison
Yet even without the ability to fully showcase his best music, Harrison is excited about taking an abbreviated Midwestern tour with Howes, who is a native of Columbus, Ohio, has myriad connections to the Twin Cities, and says over the phone, “your area feels like home to me.” Whereas Howes will be making his sixth Dakota appearance, Harrison has never played the club. His last engagement in town was almost exactly a year ago, when he brought a dual-guitar quartet into the Cedar Cultural Center, a venue that indicates the cross-pollination of styles in his catalog of songs.

Most of “The Wheel” may be off-limits, but Harrison notes that the group will be playing songs from “Harbor,” an album praised by the New York Times for its “fascinating modern fusion of eastern and western tonalities.” He’ll also perform “Beware of Darkness” and “Here Comes the Sun” from his conceptually clever “Harrison on Harrison” collection of George Harrison covers. More to the point, he’ll indulge his string-driven synergy with Howes.

Howes’ versatility
“Christian has the ability to play very quiet and beautiful music and also to be very extroverted. I’ll have him playing both ways,” he says. The quartet will be rounded off by Fima Ephron (who has also played with Me’Shell Ndegeocello and ex-Screaming Headless Torsos guitarist Dave Fiuczynski) on electric bass and drummer Jordan Perlson, who has contributed to many other Harrison projects. 

Thanks to the Artists’ Quarter in St. Paul, Twin Cities residents have been able to enjoy late-night jazz for years. On Friday, for example, folks can venture out late to the AQ and catch the last set from Source Code, the band led by ex-Weather Report drummer Eric Kamau Gravatt, who will keep time in the McCoy Tyner Quartet at the Blue Note in New York on the occasion of the great pianist’s 70th birthday in December. Cover charge for Source Code: A mere $12.

But now there is also another quality late-night option for jazz lovers. This Friday and Saturday at 11:30 p.m., you can hit the Dakota for the Joel Harrison Quartet featuring Chris Howes. Cover charge: $10. This is what it means to be a big-league metropolis.