Born in Edmonton, Owen Howard‘s love for the drums began at an early age. One doesn’t have to stretch the imagination much to imagine a young Owen plunging himself into the instrument during those absurdly cold Alberta winters, hammering relentlessly just to keep warm. At 15, Howard began to take his art more seriously and, within a few years, he was sitting in with various artists as they passed through the Canadian city.
By 1988, Howard had received a study grant from the Canadian Council for the Arts and the rest, as they say, is history. For the past 18 years, he’s enjoyed a considerable career as a leader and composer. Howard’s latest record, Drum Lore, continues the role in fine fashion.
Drum Lore features compositions written by drummers. Along with Howard’s own piece, the record carries tunes by Peter Erskine, Billy Hart, Chick Webb, Tony Williams, and many more.
The first thing apparent about these compositions is how blissfully melodic they are. Every piece seems to draw the focus away from the drummer, pulling the listener inside a bright set of melodies and textures played through by Howard’s accompanying musicians. John O’Gallagher (alto sax), Andy Middleton (tenor and soprano sax), Adam Kolker (tenor and soprano sax, bass clarinet), Frank Carlberg (piano), Alan Ferber (trombone), and Johannes Weidenmueller (bass) join Howard’s drums with concise, beautiful playing.
Drum Lore opens with a little slice Eastern European folk in Erskine’s “Bulgaria.” The tune is pronounced and nearly anthemic, built on sophisticated chording from Carlberg and Howard’s subtle accompaniment. The track builds gorgeously, weaving through alternating pressures until pulling apart into delicate solos and finespun percussion passages.
That’s not to say that Howard stays out of the fray, however. The drummer’s solo on Ed Blackwell’s dynamic “Togo” is the stuff of legends, brimming with intelligent passion. The track utilizes three different time feels to set the table for the solo.
Howard’s own composition, “Roundabout,” plays with the time signatures a little more and really lets the sextet blast through.
Drum Lore is a compelling record because it showcases the often undervalued realm of composition from the drummer’s point of view. Throughout history, musicians like Buddy Rich and Art Blakey have transformed the idea of the “mere drummer.” For Howard, being philosophically confined to the kit is not an option. His arrangements are invigorating and clever, matching his playing mark by mark with raw spirit.