Southern Exposure is an evocative musical geography tour writ in bold strokes, precise plucks and sublime squeezebox embraces. At the helm of this travelogue is violinist Christian Howes, a classical music prodigy who landed in jail for years as a teenager for selling drugs. Howes is renowned as a genre-busting whirlwind who has credibly covered Jimi Hendrix and handles concertos, bluegrass jams and jazz improvisation with equal facility. His frenetic energy is beautifully restrained here by the theme of the disc — music from throughout the Southern Hemisphere — and by his co-pilot, the French accordionist and Astor Piazzolla protégé, Richard Galliano.
But as the music and the liner notes make abundantly clear, this is no winsome stab at Parisian café music. The first track, “Ta Boa, Santa?” by Brazilian Egberto Gismonti, bounces from jazz shuffle to barn dance to a prancing lilt and on through a spirited bass and drum exchange between Scott Colley and Lewis Nash before Galliano takes an accordion twirl — and we’re halfway through the song. That’s followed with a bittersweet samba by Ivan Lins, Piazzola’s classic “Oblivion,” and into the hard bop of Ray Bryant’s “Cubano Chant,” a staple of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. Howes and Galliano each contribute a tango, and there is a compelling duet between them, entitled “Spleen” before the group closes out with a string-laden arrangement of a Howes original.
The secret ingredient of Southern Exposure is the rhythm section. Colley and Nash merit their reputations as top-notch timekeepers who can flex but never really stray from jazz. They are joined by the less-heralded but on this date sterling pianist Josh Nelson, and they collectively keep the two almost congenitally romantic lead instruments from lapsing into too many swoops and swoons. This is sunny but alert music that skirts banality even as it twirls and sashays forth from style to style and culture to culture. Or, put more simply, Southern Exposure is plenty warm enough, but not too cuddly.