Of Sticks and Strong Coffee: Greg Howard and the Java Men Play the Rudyard

By Tim Roberts

It looks like a fretboard from a big guitar, contains twelve strings, and may have been one of the instruments played by the band in the Cantina scene in Star Wars. It's the Chapman Stick and Greg Howard is one of its masters. He appeared with the Java Men - Todd Hildreth on keyboard, Craig Wagner on guitar, and Ray Rizzo on drums - in a performance and jam session at the Rudyard Kipling on July 14.

During Howard's segment of the show, he first demonstrated the full capabilities of the Chapman Stick. It is held just like a guitar. The performer plays bass lines with the left hand and melody and chords with the right, like a piano at a vertical angle. Howard, whose work is featured on the recent Dave Matthews Band recording Before These Crowded Streets, was able to change the sound of the melody by tapping foot pedals in front of him. The melody could sound hollow, almost acoustic one time, then screech like an electric guitar, then become a series of chordal, almost chime-like tones. The changes between each sound and method of playing were seamless. He capped off this portion of the show with a segue directly into "Norwegian Wood."

Java Men drummer Ray Rizzo then joined Howard for a duet section featuring works from his CDs, two Latin-tinged numbers called "Goya's Dream" and "El Chique." Adding trumpeter Charles Ferris, Howard and Rizzo played the Miles Davis classic "All Blues."

After Howard finished, the Java Men performed a short-but-flawless set of their works. Howard and Ferris rejoined them for an extended, jaw-dropping jam session.

It started with Howard taking the lead on a standard version of "Autumn Leaves." After playing the theme and taking a solo, the song changed into something that sounded like fusion, then rock, then rhythm-and-blues, then into something indescribable, with a bare trace of a melody, where keyboardist Todd Hildreth played the "Theme From S.W.A.T" over the changes. There was a short breath of a pause, then the combo popped right back into "Autumn Leaves." It earned them a standing ovation.

Chicago-based Spazztet, originally on the bill with Howard and the Java Men, was not able to make it to the performance.