by Ian Mann
September 12, 2018
This is one of the most exciting acts on the current jazz scene, a group still expanding the seemingly limitless possibilities of the piano trio.
(Edition Records EDN1112)
A somewhat belated review for this eponymous début recording from Enemy, the international trio featuring pianist Kit Downes, drummer James Maddren and double bassist Frans Petter Eldh.
It’s tempting to think of Enemy as the continuation of the Kit Downes Trio, featuring Maddren and double bassist Calum Gourlay, that released the Mercury nominated album “Golden” back in 2009. But whereas the original trio was very much centred around Downes’ writing Enemy is a much more democratic and interactive group with compositional duties divided pretty much equally between the pianist and Eldh. The bassist also has a considerable hand in the production process, a reflection of his alternative role as a producer and re-mixer in the world of electronic music.
“Enemy” is the first out and out ‘piano trio ‘album that Downes has released since “Golden” bearing in mind that 2011’s “Quiet Tiger”, credited to the trio, often saw the group expanded to a quintet with the addition of James Allsopp (reeds) and Adrian Dennefeld (cello).
Downes has recorded frequently since 2009 as both a leader and a sideman in a variety of formats ranging from solo piano or organ to big band (Troykestra). A versatile and open minded musician his output has embraced a similarly broad panoply of musical styles but with the emphasis on jazz and contemporary classical music. Maddren has been involved with several of Downes’ projects and is arguably the most in demand young jazz drummer in the UK, having already appeared on literally dozens of albums.
Petter Eldh was born in Gothenburg, Sweden but studied at the Rhythmic Conservatoire in Copenhagen with Django Bates. He first became familiar to British jazz audiences through his work with Bates’ Beloved Trio. Eldh is now based in Berlin (where he seems to have acquired the additional name Frans) and has become a significant presence on that city’s music scene. His other projects included Amok Amor, an international quartet featuring the American trumpeter Peter Evans, and Speak Low, his collaboration with the Swiss vocalist Lydia Cadotsch.
In May 2018 I witnessed a double bill featuring Speak Low and Enemy at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, an experience that whetted my appetite for Enemy’s long awaited début album release. The recording doesn’t disappoint and includes many of the pieces that were featured at Cheltenham.
Things commence with Eldh’s composition “Prospect of K” which neatly encapsulates what this trio is all about. The composer’s taut, thrusting bass introduces the piece, quickly joined by Maddren’s stuttering, bustling drum grooves, these sometimes simulating the rhythms of hip hop and electronic dance music. Downes’ piano cuts a mercurial swathe through the busy rhythmic undergrowth. For all its tightness of focus this is music that rarely stays in one place for long and the piece undergoes several changes of pace, yet never loses its essential edge and energy.
Downes’ own writing is similarly vibrant and colourful, as evidenced by his own “Race The Sun” which keeps the pot bubbling with its powerful and vigorous rhythms and darting, percussive piano phrases. Guest Ruth Goller (aka Mrs Downes) adds a distinctive smattering of electric bass into a mix that also features a subtle soupçon of post production work from Eldh.
Eldh shows that he is capable of subtlety with “Figo”, a piece whose melody makes teasing reference to Gershwin’s “Someone To Watch Over Me”. Maddren deploys brushes for the first time and the composer’s bass soloing is both melodic and lyrical. It’s not an out and out ballad performance, the composition is too quirky and whimsical for that and also acquires something of the trio’s trademark energy in its later stages.
Also from the pen of Eldh “Brandy” features the soloing of another guest as the core trio is joined by Lewis Wright, of Empirical fame, on vibraphone. Wright and Downes are long term musical associates and recently collaborated on the duo album “Duets”, credited to Wright’s leadership and featuring the vibraphonist’s compositions. Here Wright brings a lustrous shimmer to the proceedings that contrasts well with the core trio’s edgy, crackling energy.
Credited to Downes “Low Hanging Fruit” combines quirky, riffy written passages with bursts of improvisation, adding high pitched electronic flourishes along the way. At a little under two minutes in in length it’s the album’s shortest track but manages to cram a lot of information into its brief duration. On first listening I thought that it was longer than it actually is.
Downes’ “Jinn”, introduces another guest, cellist Lucy Railton, the pianist’s colleague in the duo Tricko and a one time member of his quintet. She adds colour, texture and subtlety to a piece otherwise distinguished by its restless energy. Stark and rapid contrast, often within the course of a single tune, is something of an Enemy speciality.
Eldh’s “Children With Torches” is another piece that borrows from the rhythms of hip hop and dance music and combines playfulness with an edgy, urban feel, withthe core instruments of piano, bass and drums again augmented by a hefty, but judicious, slice of post production. But for all that it’s Downes’ turbulent, cascading piano solo mid tune that really catches the ear.
Downes takes up the compositional reins for the rest of the album. His “Ruster” is one of the recording’s gentler tunes but is still bright and full of interest with Maddren’s colourful, neatly detailed drumming an integral part of the proceedings. Eldh’s melodic but resonant bass also plays a prominent part in an arrangement that also features the composer’s flowing piano lyricism.
At a little under nine minutes in duration “Politix” is by some way the lengthiest piece on the album and features the recording’s final guest. Chris Montague, Downe’s one time colleague in the contemporary organ trio Troyka, add his multi-faceted guitar skills to the proceedings on a piece that ebbs and flows in the best Enemy fashion. Montague’s spiralling guitar inventions combine well with Downes’ sparkling piano soloing, with the ever flexible and imaginative rhythm pairing of Eldh and Maddren also adding much of interest.
Writing about the trio’s rendition of album closer “Faster Than Light” at Cheltenham I compared their performance of this tune with label mates Phronesis at their best. Eldh’s muscular bass combines well with the percussive sounds of Downes’ piano and Maddren’s breathtaking polyrhythmic drumming to create something aurally spectacular. Maddren also shines with a dazzling extended drum feature, the only one on the album.
But the most memorable thing about this final track, and the album as a whole, is the sheer energy and vivacity of the fiercely interactive musical exchanges. The presence of the pugnacious Eldh gives Enemy’s music an ‘attitude’ that Downes’ earlier trio didn’t really possess. Eldh’s command of electronic music rhythms and techniques, plus his subtle, but inventive, use of post production also adds an extra dimension to this current band.
Enemy’s début album was a long time coming, and this review even longer, but the music has been well worth waiting for. This is one of the most exciting trios on the current jazz scene, a group still expanding the seemingly limitless possibilities of the piano trio.blog comments powered by Disqus