by Ian Mann
December 21, 2016
Despite its relative brevity this recording contains some of the best and most effective music that Downes and Challenger have produced in this format.
Kit Downes / Tom Challenger
The supremely versatile keyboard player Kit Downes and the equally adaptable saxophonist Tom Challenger came together as a duo in 2012 to explore the musical possibilities of the relatively rare instrumental combination of church organ and saxophone.
Initially they played under the name “Wedding Music” and released a digital only album of that name in 2012 which featured Downes playing the organ of Huddersfield University’s St. Paul’s Church.
With both musicians consistently busy with other projects, both as leaders and as permanently in demand collaborators/sidemen, the duo has been necessarily intermittent and their live appearances spasmodic.
However the duo project was granted a new lease of life when Downes and Challenger were invited to become part of Aldeburgh Festival’s 2014/15 “Open Space” residency programme. The project saw them visiting and recording at five different churches in Suffolk, locations that brought back childhood memories for Downes who was raised in the neighbouring county of Norfolk.
The results of the duo’s improvised performances were subsequently released as the album “Vyamanikal” by the Suffolk based boutique label Slip Records established by Tom Rose, Laurie Tomkins and Suze Waites. This unusual, intriguing and strangely charming recording received universally positive reviews and was something of an unexpected success. Among those to write favourably about the album were Tim Owen on his Dalston Sound website and myself elsewhere on The Jazzmann. My review of the “Vyamanikal” recording can be read here;
The success of “Vyamanikal” saw the duo adopting the album title as a group name and playing a number of live shows during 2016 including the “Pull Out The Stops” festival which celebrated the refurbishment of the organ at London’s Royal Festival Hall. They also returned to Suffolk to perform at some of the churches featured on the “Vyamanikal” album as part of the 2016 Aldeburgh Festival. In addition there was a performance at St. Ann’s Church as part of the 2016 Manchester Jazz Festival.
In November Downes and Challenger performed as one half of a double bill with the innovative Swiss piano trio Plaistow as part of the 2016 EFG London Jazz Festival. This event took place at Kings Place ( I suspect that a suitable ecclesiastical location was unavailable) and featured Downes deploying two Indian classical harmoniums to approximate the drones, textures and sonics of the organ. Suitably intrigued by the “Vyamanikal” recording I was in attendance and thoroughly enjoyed the performances of both acts. With this being a Match & Fuse event Vyamanikal and Plaistow performed together at the end of the concert delivering a seamless improvisation with a strong narrative arc that almost sounded as if it could have been pre-composed.
After the Kings Place performance I spoke with Kit Downes who was kind enough to provide me with a copy of his and Challenger’s latest release for the Slip imprint, a recording titled “Black Shuck”. The title refers to a ghostly black dog, possessed of a fearsome howl and reputed to be a harbinger of doom, that features in the folklore and legends of eastern England - a kind of East Anglian ‘Hound of the Baskervilles” if you will. Available only as a digital download or as a limited edition cassette the recording features only two tracks, simply titled “One” and “Two”, each piece taking up one side of the cassette.
“One” was recorded at Snape Maltings in Suffolk and Features Downes, here credited on piano, and Challenger as part of a septet that also includes Daniel Bradley on percussion plus the string players Lucy Railton (cello), Emma Smith (violin) and Liam Byrne (viol) with Alex Bonney on electronics subtly manipulating the sound of the entire group. Railton and Downes have previously collaborated as the duo Tricko, releasing an excellent album under that name in 2015.
“Two” features the core duo of Downes and Challenger with the former this time playing the organ of St. Paul’s Church in Huddersfield. Whether the duo returned to the location to make a fresh recording or whether the piece is a leftover from the “Wedding Music” sessions isn’t made clear in the album packaging.
I still have a working cassette player ( plus hundreds of tapes dating back a quarter of a century or more mouldering in the loft) but I think this must be the first time I’ve ever slotted a cassette into place in order to write a review for The Jazzmann.
The varying instrumentation on the two pieces might suggest that they will sound very different to each other but that isn’t really the case. At the Kings Place performance the emphasis was very much placed on the concept of “atmosphere”, a quality that was further enhanced by the subtle dimming of the lighting as the duo played.
The “atmosphere” of the “Vyamanikal” record was often gentle and bucolic, drawing inspiration from the rural locations in which it was recorded. At other times it was spacey and ethereal, but with an air of fragile beauty always constant.
“Black Shuck” is no less atmospheric and as such fits right in with the aesthetic established on “Vyamanikal”, but this time round the ambience is darker, spookier and more unsettling, qualities that are reflected in the choice of the album title. Even the press release for “Black Shuck” describes the music as being “dusty and claustrophobic”.
Although Downes’ is credited with playing piano on “One” the piece still has the same feel and aesthetic as the earlier organ works with Bonney’s electronics shaping the sound of the entire septet. Besides his role as a sound-scaper Bonney was also involved in the engineering process and designed the artwork, so in a sense this album is almost as much his as it is Downes’ and Challenger’s. In many respects Bonney is the most important presence on “One” as he shapes the sounds of the other instruments, neither the strings nor the percussion, nor even Downes’ piano, sound remotely conventional as Bonney melds them together to create something akin to the sonics of an organ, the drones and textures drawing on the Gothic grandeur of church music while also being reminiscent of musique concrete. The plaintive piping of Challenger’s saxophone adds a vital humanising element to a piece that is very different from, yet still as one with, the music on “Vyamanikal”.
“Two” maintains the vaguely threatening atmosphere established on its companion piece. Featuring the core duo on church organ and saxophone it evokes a sense of place, much as the pieces on “Vyamanikal” did. I’ve never visited any of the churches in which Downes and Challenger have recorded yet I’d surmise that St. Paul’s, Huddersfield is much larger than the rural churches in Suffolk that featured on “Vyamanikal”. The music on “Two” sounds vast and echoic with Downes’ cavernous, doom laden organ drones offset by Challenger’s wispy, wistful, gently probing sax melodies. As on “Vyamanikal” extraneous sounds are allowed to remain in the final mix, adding to the fascination. I fancy that I heard footsteps, sonic glitches within the organ mechanism itself, and maybe even the sound of the church bells.
Like that of “Vyamanikal” the music on “Black Shuck” is utterly distinctive and often strangely beautiful, although this time round in a more austere and slightly discomfiting way. The two recordings share the same aesthetic, with “atmosphere” a key component of both, yet they sound very different and deliver contrasting emotional effects, further evidence of the potential of a project that appears to have plenty more mileage left in it.
I’ve referred to “Black Shuck” throughout as an album but with each improvisation clocking in at around the ten minute mark it’s probably more correct to think of it as an EP. Despite its relative brevity the recording contains some of the best and most effective music that Downes and Challenger have produced in this format and as such it is highly recommended.
“Black Shuck” is available from;
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