The promise of Ally Hocking Howe

There’s this idea that violinists are some kind of ‘rare species’ in the jazz universe, and although you can count the names of jazz violin masters on the fingers of one hand (let’s see: Stephane Grappelli, Eddie South, Joe Venuti, Stuff Smith, Ray Nance, Sven Assmussen, Jean-Luc Ponty, Michał Urbaniak, Billy Bang, Regina Carter, Jenny Scheinman — okay, two hands), there seems to be no lack of jazz violinists in Australia at the moment. Only in Melbourne, we are lucky to have stellar violinists like the Extraordinary Xani (if you haven’t listened to her instrumental solo album Three, drop everything you are doing and buy it now; thank me later), the Fantabulous Fem Belling, the Spectacular Esther Henderson (equally adept in hot jazz and electro pop), and the Swinging Heather Stewart, just to name those on top of my head (all female, by the way, but that’s a whole different story).

And then you have Canberra-based Ally Hocking Howe; a 22-year-old violinist who recently released a self-produced EP, The Feather Came First. In just four tracks — one of which lasts 44 brief seconds — she demonstrates her musicality, arranging skills, sensitivity, and approach to collaboration. Her music occupies the territory someplace between jazz and electronica, classical and pop, ambient and folk; it’s a Venn diagram of contemporary cinematic soundscapes that twirl and swirl and carry themselves like clouds in the sky, turning from cotton-white calmness to charcoal-grey and thunderous, then — right after they let off a few perfectly timed lightning bolts, returning to the hot pink and orange – hued bliss of the dusk.

Howe lays her melodies on laid back, lightly funky mid-tempo grooves, that allow her to unfold the tunes, stretch her phrases, move around her ideas. Each tune features a guest artist, starting with none other than the Queen of Jazz Violin herself, Regina Carter, whom Howe recognises as an influence and mentor (a relationship that flourished during the pandemic); their call-and-response collaboration in ‘Rose Coloured’ is a perfect demonstration of such mentor-mentee dynamics applied in practice.

Brendan Keller-Tuberg and Ally Hocking Howe | Photo: Andrew Sikorski / Art Atelier Photography

‘Better Kept Together’ features the electric bass of Brendan Keller-Tuberg; it’s a juicy, meaty electro-lounge tune that would not be out of place in the chill-out section of a mediterranean night club. Berlin-based bassist Isaac Said offers a hand — and bow — for the short and sweet interlude that leads to the EP’s piece-de-resistance:

‘After Kindness’ is a heartbreaking melody that features the great Andrea Keller, who offers a series of tender phrases, juxtaposed to Ally Howe’s acute blade assaults. At 3’19” the song ends too soon — it could be three times longer, and it should be three times longer.

I can’t help but dream of these two brilliant musicians further expanding this tune, exploring its possibilities, making an odyssey out of this journey.

Ally Hocking Howe | Photo: Meg Houghton

The worst crime — and one of the most usual ones — that a reviewer can commit, is to review a work of art, not for what it is, but what they thought it should be. I just committed that crime, I know, but, for all the album’s merits, what makes The Feather Came First a great listen is not the music itself, but the promise it carries: the promise of a great composer, and a great musician, who can mover through genres and blend elements from all sorts of sources to create something new. We need to hear more of her; lucky for us, it looks like we will.