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Howard Wales on Jerry Garcia, Hooteroll? and Beyond

by Dean Budnick on April 07, 2017

In a serendipitous turn of events, the coming week will shine a coast-to-coast spotlight on the music of Howard Wales.

First up is a performance on Friday, April 7 at the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, NY. The evening will feature a tribute to Hooteroll? the 1971 instrumental album by Wales and Jerry Garcia. Wales wrote all of the material on Hooteroll?, collaborating with Garcia on one track and Martin Fierro on another. Joe Russo will lead the charge to interpret this music at The Cap, joining forces with Dave Harrington (bass), Stuart Bogie (reeds) and Jordan McClean (trumpet), along with three members of Russo’s former band Fat Mama: Erik Deutsch (keyboards), Jonathan Goldberger (guitar) and Kevin Kendrick (vibraphone and percussion).

Then on Thursday, April 13, Sweetwater Music Hall in Mill Valley, CA will host an appearance by the HTK Trio, in which Wales will be joined by guitarist Terry Haggerty (Sons of Champlin) and Kevin Hayes (Roy Rogers). Back on March 11, the 74 year-old keyboard iconoclast performed with the three-piece on KPFA’s Grateful Dead Marathon, generating plenty of anticipation for next week’s show.

Wales has maintained a long and fascinating career, following his own muse while maintaining a particular commitment to improvisation in the live setting. He cites Jimmy Smith and Jimmy McGriff as two of his early inspirations on the Hammond B3. In the mid-1960s, Wales’ prowess on the instrument led him to perform and record with such artists as: Freddie King, Lonnie Mack, The Four Tops, The Coasters and
Little Anthony and the Imperials.

Wales even put in a brief stint with James Brown. However, given Brown’s controlling nature and Wales’ free spirit, this collaboration was not destined to last and the keyboard player remained with him for only four dates.

On the more adventurous side, during the same era, Wales was among the musicians who appeared on the soundtrack to Alejandro Jodorowsky’s time capsule of a film, the absurdist acid western
El Topo. Wales recalls that Martin Fierro, whom he first met in Texas during the mid-1960s, invited him to join these sessions (and also helped find him a job in a tortilla factory when Wales moved to California around this same time).

Jerry Garcia once stated that "Howard did more for my ears than anybody I ever played with because he was so extended and so different."

To this end, looking back on his career, Wales laughs and comments, “If you don’t know who you are then how can you be original? Originality is who you are. It’s not being somebody else.”

Wales reciprocates with his own approbation of Garcia as a musician, then adds, “Beyond that though, Jerry was a really great soul.”

Garcia first encountered Wales when the keyboard player was leading a Monday night jam sessions at the Matrix in San Francisco, which Wales hosted from 1969 to 1971. The two soon connected musically and also shared a wonderfully skewed perspective on the world that allowed them to bond as friends.

In 1970 Garcia invited producer Alan Douglas to come down and watch one of the Monday Matrix sessions at which Garcia had become a regular and after the show, an enthusiastic Douglas told the guitarist that he’d like to record the core group. Douglas was so enthusiastic that he approached Joe Smith, the executive at Warner Bros. to secure permission, since Garcia was under contract with the Grateful Dead.

The ensuing album, Hooteroll?, also features steady Garcia collaborators John Kahn on bass and Bill Vitt on drums and Fierro on saxophone and flute is somewhat reminiscent of Miles Davis’ electric band from this same era, although at times it is even more out.

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