by Ian Mann
July 01, 2020
An impressive début from Downard. It’s a highly mature musical statement that establishes his credentials as a composer of considerable ability and imagination.
“Seven Japanese Tales”
Joe Downard – double bass, synthesisers, Alex Hitchcock – tenor saxophone, James Copus – trumpet, flugelhorn, Will Barry – piano, Rupert Cox – synthesisers, Felix Ambach – drums,
plus Jon Moody – Hammond organ, Todd Speakman – Space Echo
“Seven Japanese Tales” is the début album as a leader by the London based bass player and composer Joe Downard.
A former member of the National Youth Jazz Orchestra (NYJO) Downard studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London where his tutors included fellow bassist Jasper Hoiby, pianists Tom Cawley and Pete Churchill and saxophonist Barak Schmool.
Downard plays both double bass and bass guitar and following graduation he has performed across a range of musical genres, including jazz, soul, electronic and West African music.
In a jazz context Downard has previously appeared on these web pages on a number of occasions for his work as a member of NYJO and as a sideman with small groups led by saxophonists Alex Hitchcock and Phil Meadows. In the latter’s sax/bass/drums power trio Skint Downard was playing loud, heavily distorted electric bass.
For his album début as a leader Downard has recruited a core sextet mainly drawn from old NYJO and Academy contacts with Hitchcock on tenor sax, James Copus on trumpet and flugel, Will Barry on piano, Felix Ambach at the drums and Rupert Cox on an array of vintage analogue synths. The recording also includes contributions from Jon Moody on Hammond organ and Downard’s co-producer Todd Speakman, who is credited with ‘Space Echo’.
As its title might suggest “Seven Japanese Tales” is a semi-conceptual project with Downard’s compositions taking inspiration from a series of short stories by the Japanese author Junichiro Tanizaki (1886-1965).
Tanizaki’s work was published under the same “Seven Japanese Tales” title and his stories embrace a wide range of human emotions, qualities that Downard has endeavoured to bring his music.
The album embraces both acoustic and electric sounds with multiple synthesisers being deployed alongside more conventional instruments such as saxophone, trumpet, piano and the leader’s own double bass. The synths are often deployed as melodic front line instruments in addition to their more familiar soundscaping role.
Besides its literary inspirations Downard’s music has also been influenced by a variety of musicians across a range of genres, among them trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, classical composer Olivier Messiaen and the rock artists James Blake and Radiohead.
In his album notes Downard explains that the majority of the album was written at the piano, but with some of the grooves being developed on the bass. Tanizaki’s work inspired a veritable flood of musical ideas with Downard responding instinctively to the author’s words before developing his ideas more fully in terms of harmony and melody.
The compositions were written with these specific musicians in mind with Hitchcock, Copus and Barry subsequently helping to develop the pieces harmonically via the process of improvisation. Meanwhile Cox’s inquisitive and experimental approach to his range of synthesisers proved to be vital to the creation of a distinctive sonic landscape. Downard also praises the fluid and intuitive drumming of Felix Ambach.
Remarkably, the album was recorded over the course of a single day in September 2019 with the aim of delivering an exciting and organic musical performance. Downard then took the finished tracks to LONO, a collective that he is involved with, to enhance them further via the means of post production techniques.
Downard explains the process thus;
“We (LONO) are a group that create collaborative music projects within a studio setting that seeks to set no boundaries of genre and simply thrive in a blank canvas setting where there are few rules. Myself and co-member of LONO Todd Speakman spent time shaping the album with soundscapes and digital/analogue sound design that is heavily featured throughout. Something I am incredibly happy with is the integration of a series of field recordings that I did on my recent trip to Japan, of which you’ll have to listen out for. As well as the sound design I also tracked extra instrumentation such as Hammond organ/Rhodes and other obscure studio tools including an original 70’s Roland space echo. This production edge is another side of my musical career that I want to express and explore more and I hope you enjoy this balance of acoustic contemporary jazz with a more modern approach within the post production.”
Downard regards the album as a suite and the individual compositions, or ‘movements’, contain both written and improvised material. The opening “A Portrait of Shunkin” commences in abstract fashion with the soft rustle of gently percussive sounds, possibly sourced from Downard’s field recordings. These are merged with the sounds of Barry’s acoustic piano to create an impressionistic opening passage that functions a little like an overture.
There’s a change of direction and dynamics as the leader picks up his bass to instigate a powerful groove, initially in partnership with Ambach but later with Hitchcock and Copus combining to provide a hefty double horn punch. The first real solo goes to Cox who conjures an intriguing array of sounds on analogue synth as Downard and Ambach supply the fluid rhythms of which the composer speaks. The piece moves through a variety of stylistic, dynamic and emotional variations and the next soloist to be heard is Copus, whose feature runs the full gamut, developing in unhurried fashion from the pensive to the outright anthemic as the music gradually and organically gathers momentum. A gentle coda then features the sounds of acoustic piano, double bass and guest Moody’s Hammond. Post production elements are scattered throughout the piece and help to give the music an almost orchestral quality.
“Terror” was actually released as a single, although let’s face it, a six minute contemporary jazz instrumental was never likely to bother the pop charts. Nevertheless it’s still an excellent piece of music that combines acoustic and electric sounds and the propulsive power of Downard and Ambach’s grooves with the soaring gracefulness of Copus’ extended flugelhorn solo.
The introduction to “Bridge Of Dreams” is more impressionistic, generating an aura of almost Zen like calm via its combination of electric and acoustic keyboard sounds, the leader’s melodic double bass and the almost imperceptible rustle of Ambach’s brushes. When Hitchcock and Copus are added to the proceedings the pair combine gently and effectively. Enhanced by colourful splashes of post production the piece as a whole is quietly beautiful and has an ethereal, ambient quality that befits its title.
“Bridge Of Dreams” segues into the nine and a half minute epic “The Tattooer”, a typically multi-faceted composition that begins quietly and features the leader’s melodic double bass on the first solo. The momentum then builds via a sparkling acoustic piano solo from Barry that moves up through the gears to express a dazzling exuberance. The piece is also characterised by incisive unison horn lines and Ambach’s dynamic drumming. Hitchcock takes the next solo on tenor, performing with power, fluency and authority as the gospel tinged sound of Moody’s surging Hammond is added to the mix.
“Aguri” is an altogether gentler and more impressionistic affair, once more featuring a beguiling combination of acoustic and electric sounds. Hitchcock again features as a soloist, this time demonstrating a more reflective side of his playing, but still stretching out with an assured fluency.
The ten minute “The Thief” surges along with the kind of urgency that its title might suggest. Cox’s synths sometimes give the piece a ‘jazz rock’ feel but the interplay between Hitchcock and Copus, the front line of Hitchcock’s own quintet, also hints at classic era Blue Note too. The pair trade fiery licks and solos, spurred on by the muscular rhythm team of Downard and Ambach. Barry’s joyous acoustic piano solo feels like sunlight on dappled uplands after a long hard climb, as he continues to sparkle. The pianist’s solo is followed by a more impressionistic episode, whose eerie soundscapes eventually lead to a tumultuous closing section, but not without further twists and turns along the way. Inspired by the contours of Tanizaki’s stories Downard’s compositions are far from predictable.
The album concludes with another multi-faceted, ten minute tour de force titled “A Blind Man’s Tale”. Softly bubbling synths introduce the piece, gravitating to a harsher electronic soundscape humanised by Ambach’s dynamic drumming and Barry’s pounding acoustic piano. It’s the piano that then ushers us into more pastoral acoustic terrain, featuring brushed drums and the warm, woody melodic sound of Downard’s bass. And it’s that powerfully plucked bass that ushers in the next section of this roller coaster ride, the music rapidly gathering momentum before easing back on the throttle once more. Barry then takes over for an acoustic piano solo that first embraces a fluent and expansive lyricism and later a torrential outpouring of ideas. Barry’s solos sometimes remind me of the acoustic piano excursions of the late, great Lyle Mays. The horns then combine with the dynamic rhythm section to power the music to new heights, before the piece resolves itself with a gentle coda, still featuring the sound of Barry at the piano.
“Seven Japanese Tales” represents an impressive début from Downard. It’s a highly mature musical statement that establishes his credentials as a composer of considerable ability and imagination. It’s obvious that a great deal of thought has gone into the album with the spontaneity of live performance being skilfully combined with inventive and meticulous post production techniques to create something unique and interesting.
The blend of acoustic and electric sounds with field recordings and post production is consistently fascinating and the playing from all concerned is excellent throughout. Downard also avoids the usual ‘Japanese’ clichés of gongs, kotos, shakuhachi flute, etc.
Instead he uses the influence of 20th century Japanese literature to create an exciting brand of contemporary jazz that has its stylistic roots in the cities of London and New York.
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