I hadn’t heard any of the Steve Howe Trio’s previous albums, so New Frontier, their third release, came as a pleasant surprise. I knew of Steve as the guitarist who took over from Peter Banks in Yes — a band in which my interest diminished as their songs got longer — in 1970, and I knew the trio’s drummer, Dylan Howe, who is Steve’s son and whose album of instrumental versions of David Bowie’s Berlin compositions, Subterranean, I liked a lot on its release five years ago.
The trio is completed by Ross Stanley, a fine keyboards player who is heard here on organ. Guitar-organ-drums trios were a thing in the ’60s: Jimmy Smith, Baby Face Willette, John Patton, Richard “Groove” Holmes and Larry Young were among the organists who made that line-up a favourite format. The guitarist on such albums was often Grant Green, and it’s interesting to discover that a prog-rock guitarist can absorb Green’s spare, bluesy style into his own approach, as he does here on several tracks. There are hints of Wes Montgomery, too, in the occasional burst of octave picking (and Montgomery led a fine organ trio of his own on a couple of Riverside albums).
The result isn’t as heavy and bluesy as some of that music. Stanley doesn’t go for the full Leslie-speaker throb and stays away from the bass pedals, so there’s an airness about the sound, while Dylan Howe has a light, deft touch. Steve Howe varies his tone and effects pleasantly without overdoing it, and uses an acoustic guitar on a couple of tracks. All three contribute compositions, as does Bill Bruford, another former Yes man and Dylan Howe’s one-time drum tutor. Sometimes it’s a little bit like early-’70s Santana without the percussion, or Danny Gatton without the absolute authority. But it’s an extremely nice album, and occasionally — as on the lyrical “Western Sun”, co-written by both Howes — rather more than that.
* The Steve Howe Trio’s New Frontier is out now on the Esoteric Antenna label.