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by Ian Mann

June 24, 2016


A refreshing new slant on the concept of the church organ / saxophone duo.

Kit Downes & Tom Challenger


(Slip Records)

“Vyamanikal” is the second album release by the duo of organist Kit Downes and saxophonist Tom Challenger.

Downes has been a regular presence on the Jazzmann web pages for a number of years mainly as a pianist, both leading his own groups and as a prolific collaborator and sideman with leading jazz musicians from the UK and mainland Europe. A supremely adaptable and versatile musician he is also a skilled organist and has exhibited this side of his talent with bands such as the co-operative trio Troyka and saxophonist James Allsopp’s group Golden Age Of Steam.

Those bands featured Downes playing electric keyboards but in his duo with Challenger (Brass Mask, Ma, Dice Factory etc.) he focusses on the sound of the church organ. The duo’s début, the digital only release, “Wedding Music”, was recorded in 2012 with Downes playing the organ of Huddersfield University’s St. Paul’s Church. The pair have since made a number of spasmodic live appearances, both musicians are relentlessly busy on other projects, including the “Pull Out The Stops” festival which celebrated the refurbishment of the organ at London’s Royal Festival Hall.

“Vyamanikal”, also the newly adopted group name of the duo, came about when Downes and Challenger were invited to become part of Aldeburgh Festival’s 2014/15 “Open Space” residency programme. The project saw them visiting five different churches in Suffolk, locations that brought back childhood memories for Downes who was raised in the neighbouring county of Norfolk.

The five churches featured on this album are Darsham All Saints, Blytheburgh Holy tTinity, Framlingham St. Michael, Bromeswell St. Edmond and Snape St. John. In his album notes Downes describes the recording process as;
“Retracing steps made when I was younger. Finding new acoustics and instruments. Improvising in the space. Building structures around their environment, then moving on to the next. Some organs in disrepair or forgotten, but each themselves”.
He has described the instruments as ranging from “converted harmoniums to century old three manual organs like Framlingham’s Thamar”.

Unfortunately the album packaging doesn’t specify the exact location of the recording of each of the album’s seven pieces. However it does explain that the tune titles are derived from “Vaimanika”, an early 20th century Sanskrit text that makes the claim that the ‘vimanas’ mentioned in ancient Sanskrit epics were actually advanced aerodynamic flying vehicles.

The duo commence with the brief “Apicha” as flute like organ and breathy, tentative saxophone merge with the sound of birdsong to suggest the influence of Oliver Messiaen. Occasionally more fulsome harmonic swells threaten to overwhelm the fragile atmosphere that the duo have created but Downes manages to hold himself in check. These contrasts, however add depth, colour and interest to the music.

“Bdhak” begins with the sound of delicately probing tenor saxophone before Challenger is joined by Downes, the latter again deploying a delicate flute like organ sound, his alternating arpeggios and drones now hinting at the influence of minimalist composers such as Terry Riley.  As Tim Owen pointed out in his favourable review of the album on the Dalston Sound website the music is refreshingly free of bombast and is performed with an admirable degree of subtlety and mutual interaction.

“Sa” follows almost as a segue and finds Downes deploying deeper, more powerful sonorities as the duo move away from the prettiness of the opening two tracks to produce music that is darker and more unsettling. At times Downes introduces a more conventional church organ sound, at others he produces ethereal textures and shimmering atmospherics that suggest that the music is headed for deep space, something encouraged by Challenger’s sparse but complementary multiphonics.

The brief “Vistri” is one of several pieces to include bird song, further evidence that these are very much field recordings (in this case almost literally!), captured in real time and without extraneous posthumous editing. Freely structured, and at times almost subliminal, this piece is very much about the pure sounds of the instruments involved, a good exemplar of Downes’ phrase in the album notes “the organ breathes slow and deep”. 

Meanwhile the following “Jyotir”, adds credence to the second half of Downes’ comment - “the saxophone (breathes) fast and light” - as Challenger skips softly and airily around Downes’ layered keyboard sustains. Subsequently the piece enters more ambient territory as Downes’ gentle organ drones gradually ebb away.

The mood is maintained throughout the following “Maar-ikar” with birdsong being heard throughout the track. One of the most fascinating aspects of the “Vyamanikal” recording are the unintentional or ‘found sounds’, not only birdsong but the mechanisms of the organs themselves, not all of them in a state of good repair. “Vyamanikal” is obviously pared down from several hours of recordings but still has a natural, almost rustic feel despite the avant garde and ambient aspects. The acoustics of the buildings themselves plus more controllable elements such as the positioning of microphones all have their part to play in the creation of this fascinating and unique music.

The album concludes with the brief “Nya-aya” which finds Downe’s low key, ambient organ drones augmented by unidentifiable sounds that probably emanate from the interior workings of the instrument but which might just be the mechanisms of a church clock. Sometimes the speculation about the provenance of these ‘additional noises’ is part of the fun.

The music to be heard on “Vyamanikal” is very much about the spaces it was recorded in and offers a refreshing new slant on the concept of the church organ / saxophone duo,  not a particularly common instrumental configuration but hardly one without precedent either - “Aftenland” by Jan Garbarek and Kjel Johnsen and the less well known “Conway Suite” by Dave Stapleton and Deri Roberts come to mind. However it’s Keith Jarrett’s solo set of organ improvisations “Hymns, Sphers” that is perhaps closest to the spirit of this recording.

However all those albums were made in a single location and it’s the variety of the instruments and their settings that helps to mark “Vyamanikal” out as different. It’s also that lack of bombast, of which Tim Owen spoke, as Downes and Challenger absorb themselves in their bucolic surroundings and let the beauties of the East Anglian countryside shape their music. This is also an album for the listener to absorb themselves in, it won’t be for everybody but this is music with an off centre charm that is very much its own, superficially ambient and restful but with plenty of fine, sometimes unintentional, detail to reward deeper listening. It’s the kind of music that is likely to be appreciated by the Late Junction audience. 

Downes and Challenger have just performed at some of these locations as part of the 2016 Aldeburgh Festival. If you missed them, and I’m sure that a live concert is probably the best way to appreciate their music, they will be appearing at St. Anns Church as part of Manchester Jazz Festival on Thursday July 28th 2016 and at the Organ Day in Stavanger, Norway on 19th November.

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