by Ian Mann
February 17, 2022
Eira / Snow have created a style of ‘world jazz’ that is very much their own, Anybody who has seen the band live will appreciate and enjoy this album.
Eira / Snow
Grosmont / Y Grysmwnt
Eira / Snow Recordings EIRA001)
Lyndon Owen – tenor & soprano saxophones, clarinet
Caractacus Downes – double bass, baritone saxophone
Eira/Snow is a duo featuring the Monmouth based musicians Lyndon Owen and Caractacus Downes.
Initially inspired by the music of Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek, particularly those classic ECM recordings on which Garbarek fused jazz with various folk and world music elements, Owen and Downes took their band name from the Welsh word for snow, thereby acknowledging both their own roots and that original Scandinavian inspiration. Although it doesn’t actually appear on this recording the Garbarek composition “In Praise of Dreams” has long been a staple part of the Eira / Snow live performance repertoire.
I think I’m also correct in believing that the pair first performed in public as a duo when heavy snowfall prevented the other members of a larger band that they were part of from reaching the gig.
The duo has been in existence for a number of years now and has extended its sphere of influence to encompass the music of Wales, the Mediterranean and the Middle East, with Owen playing a variety of reed instruments while Downes lays down the groove on double bass.
Besides double bass, clarinet and members of the saxophone family Eira / Snow live performances regularly feature more exotic wind instruments such as the Hungarian taragato, Armenian duduk and Galician bagpipes. The duo also deploy various items of small percussion (shakers, rainstick etc.) plus an electronic tanpura that replicates the drones of Indian music. Owen also makes subtle use of a range of electronic effects, often live looping the sounds of his various reed instruments to create interlocking melody lines. Consequently the band’s music often sounds like the work of more than two people.
Over the years I’ve witnessed Eira/Snow performing at a variety of locations and the duo have established an impressive reputation for their appearances in sacred buildings and have played in many churches, often in remote locations, throughout the Welsh Marches. Eira/Snow’s music is particularly suited to church acoustics and the fact that some of these performances have been held by candlelight has also added to the atmosphere.
In January 2017 Eira/Snow played in the Melville Theatre in Abergavenny as part of a Black Mountain Jazz double bill with the young Birmingham based organ trio Ferris, Lee, Weir. That performance is reviewed elsewhere on this site, as is another appearance later that year at BMJ’s annual Wall2Wall Jazz Festival. Whatever the setting Eira / Snow always deliver, whether it be in the Queens Head pub in Monmouth or the more refined atmosphere of a country church.
I’ve long advocated that the duo should commit their music to disc, feeling that a CD release would sell well at gigs. Owen and Downes also play in the band Coltrane Dedication who released the live album “yn yr Amgueueddfa – at the Museum” in 2020, an excellent recording that is reviewed here;
At long last Eira / Snow have followed suit. Again the album is a live recording, documented at a concert in The Nave at St. Nicholas Church in the Monmouthshire village of Grosmont on 8th July 2017. The band have already been successfully selling it at gigs, including at a return visit to Grosmont in late 2021 and more recently at the Queens Head. It has recently been made available for purchase as a download or CD via Bandcamp, giving the wider musical public the opportunity to enjoy the duo’s distinctive brand of ‘world jazz’.
The album packaging includes a quote from yours truly, sourced from my review of that first Black Mountain Jazz show. Thanks to Lyndon and Crac for using my words. Shamelessly I reproduce them here;
“… there’s a sense of being taken on a musical ‘world tour’ at every EIRA/SNOW gig … but for all this EIRA/SNOW’s pieces are primarily folk tunes with infectious melodies and strong grooves and an essential simplicity that ensures that they remain accessible no matter how far the band may push them.” - Ian Mann www.thejazzmann.com
The original intention behind the “Grosmont / Y Grysmwnt” recording was as a ‘trailer’ or ‘calling card’ to help the band get gigs, an increasingly difficult proposition in the wake of the various Covid lockdowns. It also made sense to make it commercially available, particularly to gig going audiences.
The 2017 Grosmont performance was supported by the Arts Council of Wales under their Noson Allan or Night Out scheme and they receive due credit in the album packaging. The disc doesn’t represent the entire show but instead includes highlights selected by the band themselves as the best of the performances. I was a little disappointed that we don’t get to hear some of the more exotic items in the duo’s instrumental arsenal, but it could be that the sounds of the taragato and duduk don’t translate quite as well in the home listening environment as they do live. It’s also possible that pieces such as “In Praise of Dreams” and Anouar Brahem’s “Astrakhan Café” have been omitted for copyright reasons.
In any event there’s still plenty of music to enjoy in a programme that includes another Brahem tune, “The Mozdok’s Train” alongside a mix of Welsh folk tunes, original band compositions and joint improvisations.
First we hear a segue of the Welsh folk tunes “Pontyprydd” and Dacw ‘Nghariad” featuring Owen on tenor sax and Downes on double bass. Deeply resonant bass figures underpin folk tinged sax melodies, the sound of Owen’s tenor sometimes echoed, as if to emphasise the church acoustic. It’s music that blends the sound of folk dance with something more spiritual and ecclesiastical. If Jan Garbarek had been born Welsh he may have sounded a little like this.
Owen moves to soprano sax for “Manteca Araba”, which blends Spanish and North African influences and emphasises the duo’s love of Mediterranean and Arabic sounds, something that has led to previous collaborations with the internationally acclaimed Algerian born oud player Yazid Fentazi, This tune is one that was played by this trio and is introduced here by Owen’s thrilling, scene setting solo soprano sax cadenza. Subsequently his soprano dances lithely above Downes’ propulsive and implacable bass grooves.
The evocative “Estrella Verde” is a more recent addition to the Eira / Snow repertoire and makes effective use of electronics and uncredited percussion to create an exotic and slightly sinister atmosphere, reminiscent of being lost deep in the rain forest. Double bass and live looped percussive sounds set the scene before Owen blows long tenor sax melody lines above Downes’ grounding bass groove and the still circulating sounds of looped percussion. Owen probes deeply, adding the kind of avant garde flourishes that befit a musician who names the great German sax improviser Peter Brotzmann as one of his musical heroes.
In his role as a promoter Owen programmes the regular jazz events held at the Queens Head, which has hosted a phenomenal array of jazz talent over the years including Andy Sheppard, Partisans, Asaf Sirkis, Get The Blessing and many more. All the gigs are nominally free of charge although donations are invited with a pint pot being passed around.
The ‘Queens’ is well established on the UK jazz touring circuit and Owen’s love of free jazz has also seen him inviting leading practitioners of that particular art to the ‘Queens’. These have included top quality improvisers who are rarely seen outside London such as Tony Bevan, Alan Wilkinson, Paul Dunmall , Alex Ward, Mark Sanders and Trevor Watts plus international musicians Joe Morris, Axel Dorner, Hans Peter Hiby and Necks drummer Tony Buck. Indeed Owen fulfils such a vital role in the musical life of South Wales and the Borders that it’s sometimes easy to overlook his own abilities as a musician.
Returning to the album as Tunisian oud player Anouar Brahem’s “The Mozdok’s Train” transports us back to North Africa. As well as being a brilliant instrumentalist Brahem is also a supremely talented composer with a genuine gift for a memorable melody, as this piece plus the aforementioned “Astrakhan Café” proves. Eira / Snow’s performance of Brahem’s tune finds Owen switching to clarinet, live looping one melodic motif before effectively duetting with himself as Downes’ provides the grounding bass pulse. It’s totally beguiling and hauntingly beautiful.
“Aberystwyth” is a Welsh hymn tune. It’s also the town of Owen’s birth and thus a very natural choice for the duo’s repertoire. With Owen on tenor the piece is given a joyous, gospel flavoured jazz interpretation whilst still retaining the essential spirit of the piece.
I’ve often written about the ‘globe trotting’ nature of Eira Snow’s music. The spontaneous “Improv” finds them exploring without a map, but still finding intriguing paths to follow. It has become customary at the duo’s shows for Downes to pick up his baritone sax towards the end, usually for the closing number. This happens a little earlier here as the duo engage in a joyous call and response improvisation featuring interlocking tenor / baritone melody lines, variously informed by jazz and folk motifs.
The marvellously titled “Grosmontage” closes the album, a more reflective and atmospheric improvisation featuring the combination of clarinet and baritone sax, plus a soupçon of live looping. It’s another hauntingly beautiful piece, and one ideally suited to the sacred space in which it was performed and recorded. The ecstatic audience reaction to this, plus all the other pieces that appear on this album, is testament to the quality of the duo’s performance.
Although I’ve seen Eira/Snow perform on a number of occasions in a variety of settings I don’t find myself tiring of their distinctive blend of world jazz and audiences are always appreciative of their music.
I’m therefore delighted that there is an official recording available at last. With a running time of just thirty three and a half minutes it’s not quite as definitive as I would have hoped for, with some live favourites omitted, but it’s still a hugely enjoyable release and it’s good to have it out there.
Anybody who has seen the band live will appreciate and enjoy this album and its availability on Bandcamp will hopefully bring the duo’s music to the attention of a wider constituency beyond their numerous fans in the Welsh Marches. Jan Garbarek’s many followers will undoubtedly enjoy this recording, but Eira / Snow have moved beyond that initial influence to create a style of ‘world jazz’ that is very much their own, a celebration of the Celtic diaspora ranging from the Middle East through North Africa, the Balkans and Spain to their native Wales.
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