by Ian Mann
September 18, 2021
As befits a group celebrating its tenth anniversary this is very much a ‘band’, its sum even greater than its admittedly impressive component parts.
Duski, Tenth Anniversary Gig, Queens Head, Monmouth, 15/09/2021
Aidan Thorne – electric bass, Greg Sterland – tenor sax, Paul Jones – keyboard, Dan Messore – guitar, Mark O’Connor- drums
It’s almost impossible to believe that Duski, the Cardiff based electro-jazz quintet led by bassist and composer Aidan Thorne has actually been going for over ten years.
The group began as a chordless jazz trio featuring Thorne, Sterland and O’Connor and in this early incarnation performed at the Queens Head as well as making regular appearances at the much missed Dempsey’s in Cardiff.
But somewhere along the line things began to change, as this quote from the band’s own website explains;
“It began as a chordless trio in darkest Wales comprising of sax, double bass and drums, then guitar and piano appeared. Jazz styles disappeared and heavy jams with collective improvising took its place. The piano morphed into different synthesisers and tape loops and the double bass cracked open to reveal its electric counterpart. Standard chord progression melted away to reveal the dark minimalist progressive rock band that is Duski”.
My first exposure to Duski’s music was in October 2014, again at a gig at the Queens, by which time they had expanded to a quintet with the addition of Jones on keyboards and Tom Ollendorff on guitar. The group’s distinctive ‘intelligent fusion’ sound was already in place, with Thorne openly acknowledging the influence of polymath David Lynch, of Twin Peaks fame, on the group’s music.
My review of that performance can be viewed here;
The performance featured most of the material that appeared on the band’s eponymous début album for Cambrian Records, released in 2016. By this time Ollendorff had been replaced on guitar by Dan Messore. A review of the album can be found here;
With influences including jazz, rock and cinema Duski’s distinctive and highly original sound attracted a degree of international attention and the band signed to the American independent label Ropeadope for the release of their second album “Make A Wish”, which eventually appeared in the summer of 2020. This recording built upon the success of its predecessor and represented an even more substantial and convincing realisation of the unique Duski sound. Review here;
More recently the band has released the digital only EP “Taith”, featuring four new tunes, and the archive digital album “Live At Café Jazz”. The last named was recorded live at the now defunct Café Jazz in Cardiff in 2014, at the end of the same tour that visited the Queens. The material includes four items from the début album plus three very substantial pieces that didn’t make it onto the albums and have thus become commercially available for the first time. These two digital releases, plus the rest of the Duski catalogue, can be purchased here;
Since becoming a five piece and developing their sound Duski’s music has begun to appeal to adventurous rock listeners and they have made regular appearances at the nationally famous Green Man Festival in Crickhowell, including a recent show at the 2021 edition. They have also appeared at the Swn Festival in Cardiff, a celebration of that city’s independent music scene.
Tonight’s event was the first in a short series of Welsh dates celebrating the release of the two digital releases, plus the band’s tenth anniversary. Of course it should have taken place last year at the time “Make A Wish” came out, but inevitably the pandemic soon put the mockers on that.
For myself this was my first visit to the Queens since March 2020 and it was good to be back at one of my old haunts again and to catch up with my friends in that part of the world, and of course with the band members themselves.
In the past I have seen Duski perform as a quartet due to the unavailability of Messore, but tonight I was pleased to note that the full line up was out in force. Despite the still ongoing Covid scares there was also a good audience turn out and the atmosphere was warm and supportive as Duski delivered two excellent sets, featuring music from both albums, the new digital EP and a couple of even newer, as yet unrecorded pieces.
Thorne is the sole composer for Duski and his themes act as launching points for collective improvisation. By and large the band eschews the jazz based head-solos-head approach in favour of something more organic and collective. After ten years Duski is very much a ‘band’ (despite its members, multifarious other musical activities) with a strong group identity.
The leader is reluctant talker between tunes and in concert Duski like to expand upon the recorded versions of individual pieces and also to segue pieces together, in a style beloved by the ‘Canterbury’ bands – Soft Machine, Caravan and Hatfield & The North. As a result Duski sets resemble musical tapestries, embracing a range of styles and dynamics and with various group members coming to the fore at various times, but not in the style of signposted individual solos.
I arrived slightly late as the band were coming towards the end of their first number, “Arjun Nagar”, a piece from the “Make A Wish” album, a piece inspired by the music of saxophonist Donny McCaslin and guitarist Pat Metheny. Although I only caught the tail end of this it proved to be a rousing opener.
This was followed by “Home”, a piece sourced from the same recording, a more impressionistic offering with a greater emphasis placed on texture as sax, keyboard and guitar melody lines gently spiralled and intertwined.
Two items sourced from the new “Taith” EP followed, beginning with “Free”, another piece concerned with creating a sense of atmosphere. The Frisell like twang of Messore’s guitar hinted at that Twin Peaks influence and the performance included a powerful tenor solo from Sterland, a musician whose saxophone is often the spearhead of the Duski sound.
“Flat Holm”, named after an island in the Bristol Channel, is a piece that has been in the band’s live repertoire for some time. Here it began with a freely structured, sax led passage out of which a more formal group dialogue emerged, centred around Jones’ recurring keyboard motif. As the piece gathered momentum explosions of sound erupted with Sterland again blowing up a storm on tenor, followed by a dazzling solo from Jones at his Nord Stage keyboard that included some positively filthy electric piano sounds.
The first set concluded with “Simple Song”, sourced from Duski’s début album. As I have mentioned in previous reviews of the band Thorne is not afraid to keep his writing simple, the relative simplicity of the themes thus providing greater space and scope for spontaneous improvisation and invention. Dynamic and grooving this piece set heads bobbing around the venue and incorporated powerful and inventive solos from Sterland on tenor, Jones on spacey keyboards and Messore on guitar.
Set two commenced with the taut riffing of the Miles Davis inspired “Milk Thistle”, a tune sourced from the “Make A Wish” album. Throughout the course of the evening the consistently impressive O’Connor deployed a mix of jazz and rock rhythms and his powerful rock inspired drumming here, allied to Thorne’s propulsive electric bass lines, encouraged saxophonist Sterland to reply in kind.
The leader’s bass introduced the eerie, dreamlike soundscapes of “Settlers”, another item from the band’s second album. This was teamed with the as yet unrecorded pieces “Flintlock” and Let’s Talk”, the latter a more forceful offering that culminated in a dynamic drum feature from O’Connor.
These first four items had been merged together as a single, lengthy segue. Thorne now spoke to introduce a piece simply known as “C”. Described by its composer as “weird” this was an impressionistic item that saw Messore deploying a drum stick on his guitar strings to achieve an eerie ‘glissando’ guitar effect, reminiscent of the late Daevid Allen of Gong, or possibly the Norwegian guitarist Stian Westerhus.
Thorne habitually refers to his compositions as “songs”, and many of them do indeed have a song like construction, but with this acting as the springboard for collective improvisation; for all the rock trappings and electronics Duski is still very much a jazz band. But that song like element is very much there in “Take It Back”, the opening track from the “Make A Wish” album and the piece with which Duski elected to close tonight’s show. This began with the band members combining to create a hypnotic, mesmeric, motorik like pulse, that set those heads nodding again. Out of this eventually exploded a melodic sax hook that Pete Wareham would be proud of, reminiscent of an indie rock anthem. One could imagine the crowd singing along with this at Green Man, as indeed one or two were doing here. This fed into dazzling solos from Jones on keyboards, deploying a pungent mix of Rhodes and synth sounds, and Messore on guitar.
The audience loved this and whooped and hollered their approval. After such a rapturous reception an encore was pretty much inevitable and Duski bid us “Goodbye” by slowing things down with a subtle guitar and bass introduction evolving into wisps of saxophone melody played above ambient keyboard textures and eerie cymbal scrapes, followed by a gentle free jazz style wind-down.
I’ve seen the individual members of Duski perform many times in a variety of musical contexts and can safely say that I’m a fan of all them. But collectively, as Duski, they become something else again. As befits a group celebrating its tenth anniversary this is very much a ‘band’, its sum even more than its admittedly impressive component parts. Thorne may be a low key kind of leader but the concept of the band is very much his and he deserves credit for creating such a distinctive musical unit, one whose influence extends beyond Wales onto the international music scene. It’s an entity that has the potential to deliver more excellent music in the future.
Listening again to “Make A Wish” as I write, I realise I just love this band.
Duski’s other 2021 Welsh dates are;
17th September - Lost Arc, Rhayader 7:00pm
with support from Toby Hay
24th September - Haverhub Haverfordwest 8pm