They say art imitates life... or is it the other way around? In the case of virtuoso poet Alfred Howard, it's both. As a man who has dedicated his life to art and his art to life quite deliberately, he's making a name for himself as a world-wise poet trying to make a difference through his words. After finishing as a student at Boston College, Al became a student of the world, embarking on a cross-country vision quest. As he meandered the highways of North America, so too did his mind meander, both inwardly and outwardly, culminating in the self-realization that music would be his life's work. The fact that he did not consider himself at all musically inclined would serve only as a minor obstacle. When determination sets into a strong mind, such technicalities carry little weight.
Al Howard :: 04.29 :: San Diego
On this cross-country adventure, young Alfred started keeping a journal of his thoughts, questions, concerns, quandaries and perplexities. As the precious book evolved, it began taking on more rhyme and meter, while the awe and inspiration of his favorite musicians grew around it. He credits that journey as being a major musical catalyst in his life: "That road trip was huge," he says. "The first year performing with this band, almost all the songs had come from [it]. I think that's the ideal time to do it," he continues, "because you have so much surfacing in your head and so much generally unsettled. What better time to go out and explore, and kind of live your way into some of these questions that you're asking?"
One of the questions he was asking himself involved seeking the path that would lead him into the realms of his idols - countless great musicians from all times and lands. "Since I was 13," begins Al, "music's been my life. I reached this point where it was no longer satisfying to just be a passive observer, and I knew that I had to do something involving music. [My ability with] instruments never really developed in any way, so I started writing. It felt natural, so I put all my time into that, to keep evolving it." And evolve it did. All he had needed was a starting point, and all the unspoken thoughts rushed to the surface. "After 21 years of being fascinated with music, and [with] what's going on in the world surfacing every day, and I've always been really into nature. Having never expressed any of these ideas before, it just kind of came pouring out." Over the next two years, Alfred Howard crafted his poeticisms and began performing as a spoken-word artist. But it didn't take long before he was seeking musicians and making the jump of his dreams.
Al Howard :: 04.29 :: Winston's :: San Diego
After meeting and connecting with guitarist Travis Daudert, the two started putting together a full band, and shortly thereafter, the K23 Orchestra was born. The growth rate has been rapid, and the personnel solid, right from the start, undergoing only minor changes. Drummer Steve Craft, and percussionist Aaron Irwin, along with bassist Matt Lebarber, lay the rhythmic foundation for Daudert's guitar, and Josh Rice's keys, alongside our man Al's rapid-fire lyrical delivery. It's a great group of experienced musicians with varied but strong backgrounds, and to them as individuals, it feels like it's all been leading up to this.
Al Howard & the K23 Orchestra :: 04.29 :: San Diego
I've known Al for some time and have even had the distinct honor of DJing at several of his hometown San Diego shows. It's always nice, though, to don my "civies" and truly soak up what's going on in the room. On April 29th at Winston's in Ocean Beach - one of San Diego's premier live music venues - I did just that. I've been following K23 over the past few years as they've been diligently working to establish themselves both locally and regionally, which they have done with notable success. Working the festival scene always provides rising bands with opportunities for exposure outside their local markets, and these guys are no strangers to that. Reaching a point where the band has achieved a fair amount of recognition, the hometown shows take on a whole new meaning. In the comfort zone of Winston's, playing to a packed house of loyal fans, Al and his band were able to really cut loose and put on a phenomenal show that demonstrated the progress they've made over the past couple years.
The music of the K23 Orchestra is based primarily on a foundation of funky, danceable grooves, keeping feet tapping and heads dipping consistently throughout the night. Occasionally, Al goes into an a cappella frenzy, but for the most part, the music is very beat-driven, the lyrics politically and socially charged, as these excerpts from "I'm Scott Craft ***** and this Ain't No ********" demonstrate:
Al Howard & the K23 Orchestra :: 04.29 :: Winston's
I was out last night trying to translate a vision
There is only one physical life we've been given
Somehow we've forgotten to experience living
Shedding our humanity like layers of skin
Beginning to blend in with the machines
Green trees few and far between outside of my dreams
Digital deity TV screens paint one sided realities
Indoctrinated with waste satiated by complacence...
With the momentum of the sun of view all as one
And one as all, we'll break these walls so this is a call
Stand tall and march against this swollen empire
Pledge allegiance to our lives and not allegiance to the wires
Which tie us and bind us and force our surrender
The moment I tasted freedom I will always remember
There would be no turning back and no about face
No minute hand watching rat race paper chase
Time ceased to exist so there was no time to waste
Just watch this world change at a leisurely pace
At a K23 show, it's potent lyrics such as these that go whizzing all around you – at times much faster than they can be absorbed, wrapped in an eclectic blend of jazz, funk, and just all around fun music. The diverse backgrounds of the musicians allow them to draw inspiration from any number of styles while still maintaining a cohesiveness and an ability to develop those styles into their own unique sound. Al himself says it best: "My favorite thing about our band is that everyone in the group has a very different musical perspective, very divergent interests. We have cats who are very focused on classical music, the study of West African percussion, and a heavy metal drummer who's really into funk music and soul. I feel that that's the goal of our band - we're pulling from hip-hop, from experimental rock, from the jamband scene, from funk, from jazz, from Latin, from Afro-beat, and at the same time, trying to build something different out of it." And as they become more comfortable with each other and discover which types of experimentation are more productive, each member finds more room to shape the sound in his unique way, heavily influencing the venerated improvisational element. "There's a lot of dynamic switches and shifts, from really aggressive to atmospheric and ambient," states Howard, "but over the past year, we've really opened up a lot. We've been letting the solos take as long as they need to develop to that pinnacle and trying to create space where sometimes it'll just be lyrics. And then sometimes it'll be drums, bass, and vocals, and everything will come layering in to keep building dynamically. But with the succinct tightness of the funk movement, we also like to open it up and get experimental - let a section go where it's going to go and have no limitation on where that might be."
Al Howard :: 04.29 :: San Diego
Limitations are definitely not what come to mind when one is in the audience of a K23 Orchestra show - quite the contrary, in fact. After seeing firsthand the leaps and bounds these guys have made in a relatively short period of time, the sky seems to be the limit. In sitting in with countless other bands whenever the opportunities arise, Al Howard is spreading himself like butter all over the mess of biscuits that is the West Coast music scene. And the friends he makes in traveling this musical landscape often appear on his stage as well. At this particular Winston's show, the stage was graced by vocalist Rosie Dawn, who belted out pristine tones with the force of a hurricane, changing up the dynamic and giving the crowd something completely different to chew on. Nice touch. On the whole, the event was highly energetic, the music - tight, and the crowd - peaking. The way the energy continued to intensify throughout the night, Winston's must be grateful for the standard California 1:40 a.m. "last call." If not for this compulsory cutoff, the club would likely be roofless.
Words by: Adam Matar
Images by:Gabriel Skvor
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