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Lewis Wright featuring Kit Downes - Duets Rating: 4 out of 5 An excellent album that combines loveliness with bravado in pretty much equal measure in a well balanced set of compositions that bring out the best of both Wright and Downes.

Lewis Wright featuring Kit Downes

“Duets”

(Signum Classics SIGCD529)

Vibraphonist Lewis Wright is best known as a long standing member of the quartet Empirical, alongside alto saxophonist Nathaniel Facey, bassist Tom Farmer and drummer Shane Forbes. He has appeared on four of the group’s five albums, namely “Out ‘n’ In” (2009), “Elements of Truth” (2012), the double set “Tabula Rasa” (2013) and “Connections” (2016).

Besides his work with Empirical Wright has also recorded on vibraphone with drummer Clark Tracey (Current Climate, 2009), pianist Tom Hewson (“Treehouse”, 2015) and saxophonist Michael Chillingworth (“Scratch and Sift”, 2016). He has also been a guest soloist with trumpeter Wynton Marsalis’ Lincoln Jazz Centre Orchestra.

A frequent award winner he was awarded the Worshipful Company of Musicians Prize in 2011 and was nominated in the Rising Star category of the 2016 Downbeat International Critics Poll. Meanwhile Empirical were declared Best Jazz Act at the 2010 MOBO Awards and Ensemble of the Year at 2016 Parliamentary Jazz Awards.

Besides his work as a jazz vibraphonist Wright has also performed as a drummer, playing across a variety of musical genres with such high profile artists as singers Joss Stone and Melody Gardot.

“Duets” represents Wright’s début release as a leader and teams him with an old friend, the prolific and versatile pianist Kit Downes. Both musicians hail from Norfolk and first played together in big bands and orchestras in Norwich before both moving to London, initially as music students and subsequently as fully professional musicians. It’s a friendship and musical partnership that dates back over twenty years despite the relative youth of both performers. Ironically Downes had a short stint with the first edition of Empirical, appearing on the then quintet’s eponymous début back in 2007.

It’s interesting that Wright’s début should appear on the predominately classical Signum record label based in Perivale, Middlesex. In many ways this represents a reflection of Wright’s various musical influences, among them classical composers Claude Debussy and Bela Bartok. But Wright’s primary interest has always been jazz and this current album emphasises this with the programme consisting of seven original pieces by Wright written specifically for this project as the composer explains;
“There is limited material for vibraphone and piano (especially for improvising musicians), which has the potential to be so rhythmically interesting and polyphonically grand. I set out to compose pieces that showcase the instruments and are built around the language of the musicians. The right pianist, who can speak in this particular dialect of improvisation and has similar taste in the moment was an obvious choice. Kit and I have known each other and played together since childhood and we share many influences, musical and otherwise.”

He continues;
“I’m particularly excited about this album, not only because it is the first album I have solely composed and produced, but also because it represents a 20+ year musical relationship between myself and Kit Downes. It’s quite an unusual combination of instruments, and in this duo setting it offers the composer and performers great freedom to explore different musical roles”.

The album commences with “Fire & Flow”, a piece that combines Reich inspired minimalism with a rich, classically inspired melodicism. The finely tuned rapport between Wright and Downes is apparent from the outset, an easy chemistry that reflects their long history of playing together but one which also encourages mutual exploration and risk taking. The album is all about interaction and musical conversation, but Wright and Downes also know when to remain silent, there’s a passage of sublime unaccompanied piano here before the two musicians come together again with Wright’s mallets veritably dancing across the bars.

One might be tempted to suppose that a set of vibraphone and piano duets released on a primarily classical label would result in a series of gentle, perhaps even tepid or insipid, chamber jazz performances. But not a bit of it - as pieces such as “Fortuna” prove both Wright and Downes are keen to prove that vibraphone and piano are primarily percussive instruments. Rhythmic variation and inventiveness abounds with the two protagonists frequently swapping rhythmic and melodic roles in vivacious displays of musical virtuosity. There may only be two instruments but the listener is frequently mesmerised by the way in which Wright and Downes marshal their seemingly limited resources to create music that is rich, colourful, vibrant and absorbing. They also bring out the orchestral capabilities of their respective instruments, the ‘polyphony’ of which Wright speaks.

With the lovely “An Absence Of Heart” the pair concentrate on mood building and creating an atmosphere rather than sheer instrumental virtuosity. For all their technical prowess these are musicians who are capable of telling a story and securing the emotional involvement and attachment of their listeners. It’s a process that continues on the romantic, shimmering “Ono No Komachi” with its hazy vibes and lyrical piano.

No review of an album of vibes / piano duets can avoid the comparison with the great duo of Gary Burton and Chick Corea, who pioneered the format on such classic ECM albums as 1979’s “Crystal Silence” . In 2007 I was fortunate enough to witness Burton and Corea hold a capacity audience at the Barbican spellbound with a brilliant and mesmerising duo performance. Maybe Wright and Downes were in the audience too.
In any event “Tokyo ‘81” was written by Wright as a response to an inspiring Burton/Corea live recording from that year and thus tackles the inevitable comparison head on. The introduction to the piece is a dazzling passage of unaccompanied vibes and Wright continues in virtuoso fashion throughout, with Downes subsequently coming into his own as both foil and counterpoint to the brilliance of the composer’s playing.

The charming “Sati” then places the emphasis on mood and melody with the duo’s virtuosity more understated. Both solo effectively, with the pair alternating in the “accompanist’s” role. The piece also emphasises Wright’s ear for a good tune, a subject discussed by Richard Williams in his review of the album for his Blue Moment blog. Richard’s piece can be read here;
https://thebluemoment.com/2018/04/10/lewis-wrights-duets/

Wright’s gift for melody can also be heard on the closing “Kintamani”, a charming ballad with something of a Japanese or Oriental feel. The main hook is a real ear-worm with something of the feel of a jazz standard about it, or maybe a hint of a Steve Swallow tune –  the great bassist and composer was a frequent Burton collaborator and regularly wrote for Gary’s groups. In any event the piece represents a beautiful way to conclude an excellent album that combines loveliness with bravado in pretty much equal measure in a well balanced set of compositions that bring out the best of both Wright and Downes.

At just under thirty three minutes in length the album is comparatively brief in contemporary terms but given the pared down instrumentation it’s arguably the ideal length for this duo format. Not a moment is wasted and the listener remains thoroughly engaged throughout, thrilling to both the brilliance of the playing and the melodic and rhythmic inventiveness of Wright’s writing.

Comparisons might be odious but anybody who has enjoyed the music of the Burton/Corea Duo is pretty much guaranteed to love this. But despite the obvious, and acknowledged, inspiration this is no copycat recording. Wright and Downes are very much their own men and this album is just brimming with their own ideas and as such is highly recommended.

Duets

Lewis Wright featuring Kit Downes

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Reviewed by: Ian Mann

Album Review

4 out of 5

Duets

An excellent album that combines loveliness with bravado in pretty much equal measure in a well balanced set of compositions that bring out the best of both Wright and Downes.

Lewis Wright featuring Kit Downes

“Duets”

(Signum Classics SIGCD529)

Vibraphonist Lewis Wright is best known as a long standing member of the quartet Empirical, alongside alto saxophonist Nathaniel Facey, bassist Tom Farmer and drummer Shane Forbes. He has appeared on four of the group’s five albums, namely “Out ‘n’ In” (2009), “Elements of Truth” (2012), the double set “Tabula Rasa” (2013) and “Connections” (2016).

Besides his work with Empirical Wright has also recorded on vibraphone with drummer Clark Tracey (Current Climate, 2009), pianist Tom Hewson (“Treehouse”, 2015) and saxophonist Michael Chillingworth (“Scratch and Sift”, 2016). He has also been a guest soloist with trumpeter Wynton Marsalis’ Lincoln Jazz Centre Orchestra.

A frequent award winner he was awarded the Worshipful Company of Musicians Prize in 2011 and was nominated in the Rising Star category of the 2016 Downbeat International Critics Poll. Meanwhile Empirical were declared Best Jazz Act at the 2010 MOBO Awards and Ensemble of the Year at 2016 Parliamentary Jazz Awards.

Besides his work as a jazz vibraphonist Wright has also performed as a drummer, playing across a variety of musical genres with such high profile artists as singers Joss Stone and Melody Gardot.

“Duets” represents Wright’s début release as a leader and teams him with an old friend, the prolific and versatile pianist Kit Downes. Both musicians hail from Norfolk and first played together in big bands and orchestras in Norwich before both moving to London, initially as music students and subsequently as fully professional musicians. It’s a friendship and musical partnership that dates back over twenty years despite the relative youth of both performers. Ironically Downes had a short stint with the first edition of Empirical, appearing on the then quintet’s eponymous début back in 2007.

It’s interesting that Wright’s début should appear on the predominately classical Signum record label based in Perivale, Middlesex. In many ways this represents a reflection of Wright’s various musical influences, among them classical composers Claude Debussy and Bela Bartok. But Wright’s primary interest has always been jazz and this current album emphasises this with the programme consisting of seven original pieces by Wright written specifically for this project as the composer explains;
“There is limited material for vibraphone and piano (especially for improvising musicians), which has the potential to be so rhythmically interesting and polyphonically grand. I set out to compose pieces that showcase the instruments and are built around the language of the musicians. The right pianist, who can speak in this particular dialect of improvisation and has similar taste in the moment was an obvious choice. Kit and I have known each other and played together since childhood and we share many influences, musical and otherwise.”

He continues;
“I’m particularly excited about this album, not only because it is the first album I have solely composed and produced, but also because it represents a 20+ year musical relationship between myself and Kit Downes. It’s quite an unusual combination of instruments, and in this duo setting it offers the composer and performers great freedom to explore different musical roles”.

The album commences with “Fire & Flow”, a piece that combines Reich inspired minimalism with a rich, classically inspired melodicism. The finely tuned rapport between Wright and Downes is apparent from the outset, an easy chemistry that reflects their long history of playing together but one which also encourages mutual exploration and risk taking. The album is all about interaction and musical conversation, but Wright and Downes also know when to remain silent, there’s a passage of sublime unaccompanied piano here before the two musicians come together again with Wright’s mallets veritably dancing across the bars.

One might be tempted to suppose that a set of vibraphone and piano duets released on a primarily classical label would result in a series of gentle, perhaps even tepid or insipid, chamber jazz performances. But not a bit of it - as pieces such as “Fortuna” prove both Wright and Downes are keen to prove that vibraphone and piano are primarily percussive instruments. Rhythmic variation and inventiveness abounds with the two protagonists frequently swapping rhythmic and melodic roles in vivacious displays of musical virtuosity. There may only be two instruments but the listener is frequently mesmerised by the way in which Wright and Downes marshal their seemingly limited resources to create music that is rich, colourful, vibrant and absorbing. They also bring out the orchestral capabilities of their respective instruments, the ‘polyphony’ of which Wright speaks.

With the lovely “An Absence Of Heart” the pair concentrate on mood building and creating an atmosphere rather than sheer instrumental virtuosity. For all their technical prowess these are musicians who are capable of telling a story and securing the emotional involvement and attachment of their listeners. It’s a process that continues on the romantic, shimmering “Ono No Komachi” with its hazy vibes and lyrical piano.

No review of an album of vibes / piano duets can avoid the comparison with the great duo of Gary Burton and Chick Corea, who pioneered the format on such classic ECM albums as 1979’s “Crystal Silence” . In 2007 I was fortunate enough to witness Burton and Corea hold a capacity audience at the Barbican spellbound with a brilliant and mesmerising duo performance. Maybe Wright and Downes were in the audience too.
In any event “Tokyo ‘81” was written by Wright as a response to an inspiring Burton/Corea live recording from that year and thus tackles the inevitable comparison head on. The introduction to the piece is a dazzling passage of unaccompanied vibes and Wright continues in virtuoso fashion throughout, with Downes subsequently coming into his own as both foil and counterpoint to the brilliance of the composer’s playing.

The charming “Sati” then places the emphasis on mood and melody with the duo’s virtuosity more understated. Both solo effectively, with the pair alternating in the “accompanist’s” role. The piece also emphasises Wright’s ear for a good tune, a subject discussed by Richard Williams in his review of the album for his Blue Moment blog. Richard’s piece can be read here;
https://thebluemoment.com/2018/04/10/lewis-wrights-duets/

Wright’s gift for melody can also be heard on the closing “Kintamani”, a charming ballad with something of a Japanese or Oriental feel. The main hook is a real ear-worm with something of the feel of a jazz standard about it, or maybe a hint of a Steve Swallow tune –  the great bassist and composer was a frequent Burton collaborator and regularly wrote for Gary’s groups. In any event the piece represents a beautiful way to conclude an excellent album that combines loveliness with bravado in pretty much equal measure in a well balanced set of compositions that bring out the best of both Wright and Downes.

At just under thirty three minutes in length the album is comparatively brief in contemporary terms but given the pared down instrumentation it’s arguably the ideal length for this duo format. Not a moment is wasted and the listener remains thoroughly engaged throughout, thrilling to both the brilliance of the playing and the melodic and rhythmic inventiveness of Wright’s writing.

Comparisons might be odious but anybody who has enjoyed the music of the Burton/Corea Duo is pretty much guaranteed to love this. But despite the obvious, and acknowledged, inspiration this is no copycat recording. Wright and Downes are very much their own men and this album is just brimming with their own ideas and as such is highly recommended.


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