Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019


by Ian Mann

June 17, 2022


This is improvised music that is vibrant, colourful and intelligent, intense but ecstatic – there’s a real sense of the musicians being ‘let off the leash’.

Andrew Lisle / John Edwards / Kit Downes


(Raw Tonk Records RT058)

Andrew Lisle – drums, John Edwards – double bass, Kit Downes – piano

Released on saxophonist Colin Webster’s Raw Tonk record label (he also provides the album artwork) this recording brings together the multi-generational improvising trio of drummer Andrew Lisle, bassist John Edwards and pianist Kit Downes.

It was recorded at the Café Oto venue in London in November 2020 during a brief respite between Covid lockdowns and represents the first ever performance by this particular trio.

Edwards is a free jazz and improv veteran who has appeared on literally dozens of recordings with a stunningly broad array of collaborators. Lisle is a more recent recruit to the scene but is already establishing an excellent reputation as an improvising musician. He has recorded regularly with Webster, Alex Ward and many other British and international collaborators.

In a sense Downes represents the ‘wild card’ of the group. A consistently adventurous musician whose playing has been heard in a variety of contexts he has featured regularly on the Jazzmann web pages, either as the leader of his own groups or as a collaborator with others. He has always been up for a musical challenge, but as far as I’m aware this is his first foray into the world of totally improvised music, despite the avant garde credentials of some of his previous works.

“Multi-directional” is an apt title and the recording features four lengthy collective improvisations all credited to Lisle / Edwards / Downes. The titles given to these pieces, “Vehemence – Parts 1 & 2” and “Ardency Parts 1 & 2” are reflective of “the strength of emotion felt as a result of making this music after a period of such great uncertainty in the world”.

“Vehemence Part 1” is a twenty two minute improvisation that quickly establishes an impressive creative rapport between the members of this then new trio. As ever Edwards is a hugely physical presence on the bass and he combines well with Lisle, who is a busy and inventive presence behind the kit. Downes provides darting melodic fragments, inhabiting the spaces the rhythm team leave open. But as with all the best improvised music it’s not all sound and fury, and despite its title this opening sequence also contains moments of quiet reflection and genuine beauty as the trio display an admirable command of mood and dynamics. Edwards is heard with the bow as the music becomes more abstract. The lead changes hands several times, there’s a sparkling piano led section followed by a passage where Lisle’s drums assume prominence. Favourably reviewing the album for “Wire” magazine Daniel Spicer singles out Edwards’ contribution and as the most experienced member of the trio it’s true that his playing does much to shape the direction of the music. Nevertheless one gets the impression that this is still very much a trio of equals and the level of empathy that the musicians achieve at this first meeting is remarkable. Downes rises to the improv challenge brilliantly and his playing is frequently dazzling.

“Vehemence Part 2” is shorter at a little under fifteen minutes. It emerges from abstract sonic explorations featuring the use of extended techniques, with Downes’ exploring ‘under the lid’. Edwards again makes inventive use of the bow during these early ruminations. Eventually the music gathers greater momentum with Downes taking the lead at the piano and delivering another stunning ‘solo’, vigorously supported by Lisle and Edwards. As the energy dissipates there’s a genuine three way discussion, this becoming increasingly agitated as the pace increases once more. The conversation then goes through a further series of dynamic peaks and troughs, concluding with a high octane passage with all three musicians in free flow.

“Ardency Part 1” weighs in at a little under eighteen minutes and builds from a shadowy introduction featuring the dark, grainy sound of Edwards’ arco bass, balanced by the lyricism of Downes’ piano. When Edwards eventually puts down the bow the group interaction generally becomes more vigorous, with Lisle becoming increasingly involved, but the music still embraces an element of dynamic variation, allied to an essential joyousness, as implied by the title. Again the lead changes hands, first Downes on piano then Lisle on drums. There’s even a brief passage of solo piano from Downes before Lisle and Edwards crash back in, the latter now wielding the bow. At times the playing on this piece is some of the most intense on the entire album, but nevertheless the performance concludes quietly, almost subliminally,  as it segues gently into “Ardency Part 2”.

The second part of “Ardency” is a little under fourteen and half minutes and begins gently, almost sounding like a jazz pastiche at first, with Downes adding a dash of blues from the piano. Edward’s muscular bass lines and Lisle’s bustling drums subsequently steer the music into knottier, more experimental areas, the group sound becoming more feverish and intense. Edwards flourishes the bow during one particularly prickly section, while Downes embraces his inner Cecil Taylor during a spectacularly boisterous set of exchanges with Edwards and Lisle. A grunt of approval is detectable at one point.

No audience applause is detectable and one gets the impression that the trio were effectively using Oto’s facilities as a studio during lockdown. Heads up to engineers Shaun Crook and Callum Albrow for capturing both the energy and the nuances of the music, plus the sheer joy of the trio’s collective music making. This is improvised music that is vibrant, colourful and intelligent, intense but ecstatic – there’s a real sense of the musicians being ‘let off the leash’ after a lengthy period of imposed non-performance.

As with all free jazz albums it will probably only suit so many ears but it’s an excellent example of the genre and Downes’ many fans will doubtless be interested in hearing his playing in a different context.

Put together, and nominally led, by Lisle the trio is still performing, with allowance for its members numerous other commitments. It would no doubt represent an exciting musical experience to see this exceptional trio playing live.


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