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Kit Downes

Dreamlife of Debris

by Ian Mann

January 21, 2020


It is a truly beautiful album, with a translucent, other worldly quality, but is simultaneously possessed of a musical depth and a seriousness of purpose that surpasses mere ‘prettiness’.

Kit Downes

“Dreamlife of Debris”

(ECM Records ECM 2632, Bar Code 02577 83755)

Kit Downes – piano, organ, Tom Challenger – tenor saxophone, Lucy Railton – cello, Stian Westerhus – guitar, Sebastian Rochford – drums

“Dreamlife of Debris” is the second album by the British pianist and organist Kit Downes for the prestigious German label ECM, a follow up to his label début “Obsidian”, released in 2018.

The “Obsidian” album was essentially a solo church organ recording, an extension of Downes’ Wedding Music and Vyamanikal projects, both being collaborations with saxophonist Tom Challenger.

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 subsequently made a number of spasmodic live appearances (both musicians were 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.

The project acquired fresh impetus when Downes and Challenger were invited to become part of Aldeburgh Festival’s 2014/15 “Open Space” residency programme. This saw them visiting and recording at five different churches in Suffolk, rural locations that brought back childhood memories for Downes who was raised in the neighbouring county of Norfolk.

The results were released as the album “Vyamanikal” which appeared on the Suffolk based boutique label Slip Records. Critically acclaimed this unusual, intriguing and strangely charming recording became something of a surprise success with Downes and Challenger subsequently returning to Aldeburgh in 2016 and also making a number of Jazz Festival appearances, with Downes playing harmonium if a suitable sacred space with a pipe organ was unavailable.

Vyamanikal was adopted as a band name and in 2016 Downes and Challenger recorded a follow up which Slip issued as the cassette only release “Black Shuck”. Featuring one improvisation on each side of the tape this was a darker, spookier recording than the bucolic “Vyamanikal”, with side one also featuring guest performers on strings and percussion and with the sounds further manipulated by electronics artist Alex Bonney. It was substantially different to its predecessor but no less impressive and certainly didn’t hinder Vyamanikal’s progress.

Over the years Downes has become one of the few British jazz musicians to acquire an international reputation. He first came to the attention of ECM supremo Manfred Eicher thanks to his work with the Norwegian drummer, composer and bandleader Thomas Stronen. Stronen is perhaps best known to British jazz audiences as one half of the Anglo-Norwegian duo Food, alongside the English saxophonist Iain Ballamy.
In 2014 Downes, playing piano, was part of an Anglo-Norwegian ensemble, that also included cellist Lucy Railton, put together by Stronen to perform “Time Is A Blind Guide”, a commission for the 2014 Cheltenham Jazz Festival. Again the title later became a band name and the music was recorded by ECM with Eicher producing.  However Eicher takes something of a back seat on Downes’  own ECM recordings, with both featuring Sun Chung in the producer’s chair and with Bonney also playing an important part in his role as recording engineer.

Like its immediate predecessor the album packaging for “Dreamlife of Debris” includes an introductory essay by Steve Lake, this time titled “In changing constellations”, the title coming from the fact that Downes has named the eight pieces on the record after those of galaxies.

Musically speaking Downes has announced that his plan for “Dreamlife of Debris” was to “put the organ in a broader context, to explore different ways it could blend with different types of instruments”.
He continues; “The organ has that ability to wrap up everyone’s sound into its own, and given the very stripped back nature of ‘Obsidian’ I wanted this to feel like the other side of the coin, texturally”.

Downes also features on piano, and this, in conjunction with the contributions of the other musicians, ensures that “Dreamlife of Debris” sounds less obviously like an ‘organ’ album than its predecessor. Nevertheless it is still a beautiful piece of work, richly atmospheric and possessed of the distinctly otherworldly qualities that have made Downes’ series of organ projects such a success.

The five musicians listed above rarely perform together as a quintet, instead they make vital and distinctive individual contributions to the individual tracks, with Lake viewing the album as “conveying a sense of a larger work, transformed and unfolding in the eight inter-linked movements” and the individual players as “a changing constellation of musicians”.

The album title comes from a phrase Downes encountered in film maker Grant Gee’s documentary “Patience”, a study of the life and work of the German born academic and writer W.G. Sebald (1944 -2001), who was a lecturer at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, Downes’ home city. Sebald’s wanderings through Suffolk inspired his book “The Rings of Saturn”, the title of which Downes borrowed for one of the pieces on the “Obsidian” album.

For Downes the phrase “Dreamlife of Debris” references “the way we can project emotion and character onto inanimate objects, to the point where it feels they have their own life, like a musician and his or her instrument, especially the organ, being the enormous, chaotic, collection of pipes, whistles and reeds that it is”.

Challenger plays a more central part in the music than he did on the “Obsidian” album, and in some respects this new recording can almost be considered as a duo project. The saxophonist plays a key role on the opening track, “Sculptor”, which begins with a piano and tenor saxophone duet, the mood of the music relaxed and lyrical, reflective perhaps of the tranquillity of the Suffolk countryside that inspired Sebald. It’s reminiscent at times of the duo recordings of pianist John Taylor and saxophonist Sulzmann, with whose Neon group Downes once played. As the piece progresses it becomes more solemn in mood, with the soft drone of church organ gradually taking over from the piano. The new album was recorded over a longer time-scale than “Obsidian” and makes more use of overdubbing. As a result piano and organ can be heard working together here as the changeover subtly takes place. The new album was recorded with Downes performing on two organs with which he was already familiar, at St. Paul’s Hall at the University of Huddersfield and at the church of St. John the Baptist, Snape, Suffolk.  Although the album brochure isn’t specific I suspect that the majority of the music was probably recorded in Huddersfield.

The meditative mood continues on “Circinus”, which I’m led to believe was recorded at Snape. Downes’ organ arpeggios underscore the long, textured melody lines of Challenger’s tenor sax and Railton’s cello. The overall feel is similar to that of a Philip Glass composition, although Downes has cited the French composer Olivier Messiaen as his main inspiration for his organ projects.

“Pinwheel” is introduced by a gentle passage of solo piano, with Downes later joined in duet by Railton, a former member of his quintet and his duo partner in the group Tricko. In effect this piece represents a reprise of the Tricko project, which released an album of the same name, credited solely to Downes, in 2015. Review here;
Essentially a piano /cello duet (I think I may have detected the almost subliminal sounds of Rochford’s brushes on cymbals too) this piece has a distinct chamber music quality about it, but is no less appealing for that.

At over twelve and a half minutes in length “Bodes” represents the centre piece of the album and sees Downes returning to the organ. Challenger also re-emerges, his softly piping, flute like tenor sax complementing the timbres of the organ. Downes is also heard on piano, his lyrical ruminations on the instrument maintaining the essentially reflective mood of the piece.
“Bodes” also features the guitar of the Norwegian musician Stian Westerhus, who has previously worked in a group with Alex Bonney.
“I’d liked Stian’s solo albums and felt he could bring something special to the recording” explains Downes.  He and Challenger recorded a series of organ / sax improvisations and sent them to Westerhus, “who overlaid some very nice things”. Subsequently the guitarist was invited to a session in Huddersfield where he improvised with Downes and Challenger and where his contributions were finally recorded. At times Westerhus is an almost subliminal presence, adding gently shimmering textures to the first half of the piece, but he comes more influential in the second as the mood of the piece becomes more threatening and dissonant, with the guitarist’s looped and layered textures part of an eerie, unsettling droning sonic soundscape that also includes organ, saxophone, cello and Rochford’s distant mallet rumbles.

The brief “Sunflower” maintains the eerie mood and almost sounds as if it could have been recorded in deep space, very much in keeping with the album’s “galaxies” theme. Gentle organ drones combine with Challenger’s sax meanderings and Rochford’s occasional percussive rumbles and interjections.

“M7” was composed by Downes’ wife, bassist Ruth Goller, who is probably best known for her work with the bands Acoustic Ladyland and Melt Yourself Down. The piece was originally written for detuned electric bass and multi-tracked voice but appears here as an unaccompanied organ performance. Downes regards it as “a kind of call-back to the ‘Obsidian’ record, or a progression from it, it feels to me like this album is in the same world”.  The broad range of sounds that Downes produces are a welcome reminder of the ‘orchestral’ possibilities of the organ, a quality that was an essential component in the success of the ‘Obsidian’ recording.

Recorded at Snape the piece “Twin” represents a welcome reminder of this project’s roots as a church organ / tenor sax duo collaboration. There’s a real ‘church’ feel about the music here that sees the duo making effective use of the space around them.  Downes’ deep organ sonorities are complemented by Challenger’s sparse but sensitive saxophone playing, while Rochford’s occasional percussion shadings add extra colour and depth.

The closing “Blackeye” is jointly credited to Downes and Challenger.  As Downes explains it the piece began its life as a solo organ improvisation originally intended for “Obsidian”.
“I transcribed it, thinking there was perhaps something more to be found in it. Then Tom and I explored it for a while as a long, loosely scored drone piece, and finally I wrote it to fit with Seb’s drum pulses”.
The recorded version includes a gently lyrical introduction featuring Downes on piano, subtly shadowed by by Challenger and Railton. Downes then switches to organ and Rochford sets up a groove on his toms, punctuated cymbal / gong splashes, around which the organ swirls in beguiling fashion, soaring dramatically up to the heavens. This passage is a reminder of the piano / drums duo of Downes and Rochford that played a superb gig at the 2012 Cheltenham Jazz festival, but sadly never got to make an album. This piece goes some way towards rectifying that disappointment. The album signs off with a short coda for solo church organ, gently bringing the listener back down to earth.

“Dreamlife of Debris” represents a worthy successor to “Obsidian” and is arguably the pick of Downes’  church organ recordings thus far. It maintains the spirit and feel of the project while successfully bringing other musicians into the fold, extending the textural and rhythmic possibilities of the music but remaining true to the overall aesthetic of the project. It is a truly beautiful album, with a translucent, other worldly quality,  but is simultaneously possessed of a musical depth and a seriousness of purpose that surpasses mere ‘prettiness’.

The quartet of Downes, Challenger, Railton and Rochford played a short series of UK gigs in late 2019 and I was sorry not to be able to make any of them as I had committed myself to covering other events. Unfortunately they don’t seem to have anything lined up for 2020, but hopefully that will change as the year progresses.

There have been other church organ / saxophone duos, notably Jan Garbarek and Kjell Johnsen and the British pairing of Dave Stapleton and Deri Roberts.  But nobody has gone as far at integrating the sound of the church organ into jazz and improvised music as Downes and I have no doubt that this fascinating musical journey is one that he (and the faithful Challenger) will continue.

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