Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019

by Ian Mann

February 24, 2022


The writing is consistently intelligent and it's interesting to compare & contrast the differing styles of Downes & Eldh within the overall ‘chamber music’ aesthetic that informs this particular CD.

Kit Downes / Petter Eldh / James Maddren


(ECM Records ECM 2721 Bar Code 338001)

Kit Downes – piano, Petter Eldh – double bass, James Maddren – drums

“Vermillion” is the first album for ECM by this Anglo-Swedish trio, the group previously / also known as Enemy.

The band made their recorded début under the Enemy name in 2018 with the release of an eponymous album for the British label Edition Records. At this time Enemy was a hard driving fiercely interactive unit, reminiscent perhaps of label mates Phronesis, and had already gained an impressive reputation for the quality of their exciting live shows. I was lucky enough to catch Enemy live at the 2018 Cheltenham Jazz Festival, where they played a short but energetic set, and to review the album later in the year. Album review here;

Downes’ association with ECM began in 2014 when he was was part of an Anglo-Norwegian ensemble, that also included cellist Lucy Railton, put together by drummer Thomas Stronen to perform “Time Is A Blind Guide”, a commission for the 2014 Cheltenham Jazz Festival.  The title later became a band name and the music was later recorded by ECM under Stronen’s name with Manfred Eicher producing.

Eicher was evidently impressed by Downes’ contribution and subsequently signed him as a solo artist. He was particularly intrigued by Downes’ Vyamanikal project, a church organ / tenor saxophone duo with Tom Challenger.

Vyamanikal, itself a continuation of the duo’s earlier ‘Wedding Music’ project, recorded two albums for the Suffolk based boutique album Slip Records and made a number of acclaimed live performances, often in sacred spaces. All in all the project was a huge success, reaching out to a wider listening constituency than the rather ‘niche’ nature of the music might have suggested.

Downes subsequently recorded the albums “Obsidian” (2018) and “Dreamlife of Debris” (2020) for ECM, both released under his own name. Both concentrate on Downes in his role as an organist and “Obsidian” is essentially a solo project, recorded at various English churches, with Challenger appearing on just one track. The saxophonist makes a more substantial contribution to “Dreamlife” as part of an ensemble that also includes Railton, guitarist Stian Westerhus and drummer Sebastian Rochford. Downes features on both organ and piano but the album is still very much in the spirit of Vyamanikal. Reviews of both these albums can be found elsewhere on this site.

Both “Obsidian” and “Dreamlife…” were recorded with Sun Chung producing. “Vermillion” finds Downes, Eldh and Maddren working with ECM founder Eicher himself. The fact that the album is credited to the individual members of the group, rather than ‘Enemy’ with its overtones of ‘gang mentality’ signals a change of musical approach, while still signifying that this is very much a trio of equals.

It was perhaps inevitable that Downes eventually be invited to make a piano trio album for ECM, particularly as two of his formative musical influences, Keith Jarrett and the late John Taylor also recorded for the label.

The trio see the new album as a collaboration with Eicher, the producer essentially becoming the group’s fourth member. “We pushed ourselves into a new area we haven’t played before” explains Downes, “which is a more chamber music orientated sound. The complex rhythmic component is still kept intact, but it’s wrapped in a different aesthetic.”

The trio emphasise how much they enjoyed working with Eicher, ranging from his deployment of the famous ECM reverb to the way in which he encouraged them to focus and to cut out any extraneous “musical waffle”. As a producer Eicher also encouraged them to experiment, prompting amendments to arrangements with comments along the lines of “try this” or “what if?..”. The trio members clearly valued his opinions and this is reflected in the music.

“Vermillion” is very obviously an ‘ECM album’ and sounds very different to the “Enemy” recording.  However as Downes has said “whether we are playing in an aggressive way or a very quiet romantic way the ethos is one of connection”. Thus “Vermillion” showcases another side of the trio, one refracted through the prism of Eicher and the ECM aesthetic. Both approaches are equally valid.

The new album was recorded at Auditoro Stelio Molo RSI in Lugano, Switzerland with Stefano Amerio engineering. Like most of Eicher’s productions the album was recorded in two days with a third day set aside for mixing. I still find it astonishing that records that sound so perfect can be completed so quickly, which is a tribute to Eicher’s skill and efficiency. “It was when we all met up in the studio working with Manfred that we realised how much influence he actually has – in a good way” states Eldh.

The material features five compositions from Downes, a further five from Eldh and a remarkable interpretation of “Castles Made of Sand” by Jimi Hendrix.

The album commences with Downes’ “Minus Monks”, which combines beguiling melodic motifs with complex harmonies and understated rhythmic accompaniment. The melodic theme hints at church and gospel origins, a reminder of Downes’ youthful experiences as an organ scholar and of the later Vyamanikal project.

Also by Downes “Sister, Sister” is written for two people that the composer describes as “my god sisters”. It’s a particularly beautiful piece, one that borrows melodically from Ravel, but is also influenced by Ornette Coleman. Downes’ piano extemporisations are sympathetically mirrored by Eldh and Maddren, the latter providing some delicate and immaculate brush work. Maddren can be a dynamic and explosive drummer, but he is equally capable of playing with great sensitivity, as this piece amply demonstrates.

Downes’ “Seceda” commences with gently rippling peals of unaccompanied piano, the piece later gaining momentum with the addition of bass and drums. Eldh emerges as a soloist for the first time with a melodic double bass feature. Like Maddren he can be a highly powerful and physical player, this album shows him revealing another side of his talent.

Eldh’s bass is more prominent on his own “Plus Puls”, introduced by the resonant, unaccompanied sound of the composer’s instrument. The piece ranges widely during its four minute duration, but remains true to the ‘chamber jazz’ aesthetic of the album as a whole, even in its more animated moments.

Downes’ “Rolling Thunder” is a two and a half minute vignette featuring crystalline piano simulating the sound of raindrops, accompanied by Maddren’s exquisite, shimmering cymbal work. The drummer excels in his role of colourist in a performance tailor made for Eicher’s recording techniques and that celebrated ECM reverb, with each note of the piano and tick of the cymbal seeming to hang on the air.

Eldh’s “Sandilands” is written for the part of South London in which Maddren lives. It’s a piece that has previously been played live, and more aggressively, by the trio in their Enemy incarnation, but which has been adapted specifically for this project. Nevertheless, it’s easily the most dynamic piece thus far with Downes stretching out more expansively above the sounds of Eldh’s subtly propulsive bass and Maddren’s neatly energetic drumming. Nevertheless, despite the increase in energy levels it still fits within the overall ‘chamber jazz’ aesthetic of the album as a whole.

“Waders” continues a run of Eldh compositions, the writer’s bass again playing a prominent role in a piece that explores a rich variety of rhythms and tempos during its relatively brief (three and a half minutes) duration. Downes plays fleeting melodic motifs, while Maddren gives a typically nuanced performance behind the drums, combining complexity with subtlety.

Also by Eldh “Class Fails” is the lengthiest track on the album at a little over six minutes and was first presented to the other members of the trio at the recording session. Introduced by Maddren at the drums with a carefully constructed brushed drum feature it unfolds slowly and organically.
“Its bass line may sound like it’s free, but it’s actually in quite specific time. As we started playing the song it turned into what sounds like an organized rubato” comments Downes on the ECM website. Subtly infused with gospel flavourings there are times when the piece embraces a groove that could almost be described as ‘funky’, but in a suitably sophisticated way.

It’s back to Downes’ pen for the delightful “Bobbi’s Song”, which frames a folkish piano melody,  another melodic bass solo from Eldh and a finely detailed drum commentary from Maddren.

Eldh leads from the bass on the introduction to his own “Math Amager”, later handing over to Downes, his flowing solo embellished by Maddren’s chiming cymbal work.

Finally we hear the trio’s gentle deconstruction of Hendrix’s “Castle Made of Sand”. The threesome bring a flowing lyricism to the tune, with Downes’ fluent solo supported by subtly nuanced bass and drums.

As a long time admirer of all three musicians I’m highly impressed with “Vermillion”, which represents something new and different for all of them. The writing is consistently intelligent and it’s interesting to compare and contrast the differing styles of Downes and Eldh within the overall ‘chamber music’ aesthetic that informs this particular album.

The presence of Manfred Eicher in the studio is a huge factor in the sound of the finished product and as previously stated this very much an ‘ECM record’. The label’s detractors may decry Eicher’s input, claiming that he has moulded Enemy’s music to fit the ECM template, but Downes, Eldh and Maddren appear to be more than happy with his involvement, these creative and highly versatile musicians are not the kind of artists who would be happy to put out an “Enemy – Part Two”. Instead they have channelled their talents to create a very different piano trio album, one with a wholly different aesthetic. Both the Enemy and Downes / Eldh / Maddren approaches are equally valid, and in their own different ways both albums are highly recommended. It will now be interesting to see which collective musical persona the trio adapt for their live performances – possibly a mixture of both?

Downes, Eldh and Maddren are musicians with their individual followings and fans of all three will doubtless find much to enjoy about this recording. Fans of the ECM sound in general will also love this record and this is a piano trio album that ranks up there alongside the label’s best.

“Vermillion” is an album that distils the sound of Downes, Eldh and Maddren into something pure and concentrated, subtle and adventurous, and very much in the spirit of both the individual musicians and of Manfred Eicher and his esteemed label.



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