by Ian Mann
February 07, 2023
Rochford and Downes have created a perfect mood piece that will resonate deeply with a broad array of listeners.
Sebastian Rochford / Kit Downes
“A Short Diary”
(ECM Records, ECM 2749 Bar Code 453 4944)
Sebastian Rochford – composition, drums
Kit Downes – piano
Here’s the album that I’ve been waiting more than a decade for - and it’s been well worth the wait.
At the 2012 Cheltenham Jazz Festival I saw the duo of drummer Sebastian Rochford and pianist Kit Downes play a brilliant concert at the Parabola Arts Centre, with a full house giving them a rapturous ovation. It was a remarkable performance and one of the best duo shows I have ever seen, matched only by the venerable pairing of vibraphonist Gary Burton and pianist Chick Corea at The Barbican some five years earlier.
The Rochford / Downes event featured a mix of compositions from both musicians and my account of that memorable late night performance can be found as part of my Festival coverage here;
Based upon the success of that live appearance it seemed to be only a matter of time until the duo recorded together, but somehow that moment passed by and the music remained essentially undocumented, perhaps as a consequence of the two musicians being so busy with other projects. That said a digital only recording of the pair live at The Vortex is available via the Loop Collective Bandcamp page, part of the “Upload Festival 2012 - day 2” recording.
Both Rochford and Downes have appeared on The Jazzmann web pages on multiple occasions, both as leaders of their own groups and as particularly prolific sidemen. Since 2012 they’ve also come to the attention of ECM supremo Manfred Eicher and Downes has already recorded three albums for the label, “Obsidian” (2018) and “Dreamlife of Debris” (2019), both extensions of his Vyamanikal project with saxophonist Tom Challenger, and the trio album “Vermillion” (2022), featuring his Enemy bandmates Petter Eldh (double bass) and James Maddren (drums). All three are reviewed elsewhere on the Jazzmann, along with much of Downes’ pre-ECM output.
Rochford first appeared on ECM back in 2012 as a member of the British saxophonist Andy Sheppard’s Trio Libero group, the line up completed by French bassist Michael Benita. Sheppard later expanded the group to a quartet with the addition of Norwegian guitarist Eyvind Aarset for the releases “Surrounded by Sea” (2015) and “Romaria” (2018), Rochford also contributes to Downes, “Dreamlife of Debris”.
Away from his ECM career Rochford is best known for his work as the drummer, leader and composer of the pioneering, twice Mercury nominated Polar Bear group and as the leader of other bands such as Fulborn Teversham and Pulled by Magnets. All of these projects have been comprehensively covered elsewhere on The Jazzmann. He is also a prolific sideman, having played for many years with saxophonist Pete Wareham’s Acoustic Ladyland as well as with rock artists such as Brett Anderson (Suede), Brian Eno and Yoko Ono.
As a drummer Rochford is possessed of an enormous technical facility, but it’s his ability as a composer that is even more impressive. As a writer his vision is remarkable, and also highly varied; Polar Bear, Fulborn Teversham and Pulled by Magnets are all very different, yet somehow unified by Rochford’s unique world view. The music can be sad, happy, gentle, whimsical or downright brutal, but it’s still recognisably Rochford.
Technically “A Short Diary” is a Sebastian Rochford solo album, and in some quarters will be credited as such. The recording is his concept and the compositions almost exclusively his, but after the magic of that Cheltenham performance I can’t think of Rochford and Downes as anything other than a duo, particularly as Downes’ piano is the main melody instrument. His contribution to the success of this album is of such significance that, to my mind, it deserves equal billing.
The music on the album was written following the death of Rochford’s father, the Aberdeen based poet Gerard Rochford (1932-2019). The full title of the album is “A Short Diary (of loss)” and Sebastian dedicates it to his father and to his family, describing it as “a sonic memory, created with love, out of need for comfort”.
Gerard was the father of ten siblings and most of the music was written shortly after his death. Sebastian recalls this period as follows;
“Music just seemed to come to me, sing inside me every day, sometimes even as I woke. Though initially I felt conflict in writing and hadn’t wanted to, in its coming, it realised in me a sense of comfort and also a way to sense physically what I was feeling. So in a musical way, it became my diary of this time.”
The album was recorded at Rochford’s childhood home, a house called Waverley in Aberdeen. It was written at the family piano, the instrument later played by Downes. Rochford explains his decision to record the album at the family home thus;
“As my parents always loved music being played at home and we would not be able to keep the house, I thought to record the music there, also as a sonic memory of where I grew up, played on my grandfather’s piano, gifted to us by my father’s brother, a tribute to the wonderful, kind hearted man I called my dad.”
Whilst composing the music Rochford also wrote words in a notebook, describing how the music made him feel, “making sure to record, in words, the details of atmosphere and ambiance that can’t be expressed through scores”.
These writings inform some of the tune titles and words also form an important part of the album packaging with two poems by Gerard Rochford, “My Father’s Hand” and “Palette”, included in the CD booklet. The musical programme also includes one composition by Gerard Rochford, “Even Now I Think Of Her”.
The Waverley performances were recorded by the estimable Alex Bonney and later sent to Munich to be mixed by ECM producer Manfred Eicher and engineer Michael Hinreiner. Rochford says of Eicher’s contribution to the finished recording;
“I feel Manfred understands how to concentrate and intensify what the artists he has chosen to work with are aiming to achieve, allowing them to bloom. Due to the circumstances of how this album came together and my previous experience of him, I felt he would understand and be sensitive to this music, as this was vital to me. Listening to Manfred’s mixes was like he was showing me what I had made and hearing the music for the first time. To be honest, I don’t even know how he made the music sound the way it does, but I felt he had intensified and brought into focus everything about it.”
Musically “A Short Diary” couldn’t be further away from “Rose Golden Doorways”, the 2020 album from Pulled by Magnets, Rochford’s previous release as a bandleader. The Magnets album is a dark, unsettling record with the sound of the leader’s drums, Wareham’s sax and Neil Charles’ electric bass swathed in washes of scary electronica. It may be challenging but it’s still a very rewarding listening experience. Review here; https://www.thejazzmann.com/reviews/review/rose-golden-doorways
The contrast between that release and this current record is a brilliant demonstration of Rochford’s versatility. Now the emphasis is on quiet rather than on noise, as befits the subject matter of this latest recording. Rochford explains;
“All the music has sheet music and as the tone is an important part of the feeling, Kit and I spoke about achieving certain dynamics, as I felt if the piano went past certain dynamics, the feeling was lost for me. The writing of the music was also a comfort for me at this time, so I wanted the music we recorded to reflect that.”
All the virtues that made that 2012 Cheltenham Jazz Festival performance are evident on “A Short Diary”. Rochford can hammer the hell out of a drum kit in other contexts, but here his role is that of colourist, texturalist and even melodicist. As at Cheltenham his drumming is delicate, understated, finally nuanced and innately musical, the very essence of ‘less is more’, even to the extent of sitting out on three of the eight tracks.
The album commences with the poignantly titled “This Tune Your Ears Will Never Hear”, to which Rochford jotted down the words; “Like a child calling out alone into an empty void”.There’s melody and spaciousness within the music with Rochford’s subtle drum and percussion shadings augmenting Downes’ sensitivity at the piano. There’s an austere beauty to the music that will surely touch those listeners, i.e. most of us, who have experienced similar feelings of loss.
The title of “Communal Decisions” reflects the theme of family, Sebastian being one of ten siblings. It’s a short piece, a little under two minutes in duration, and is played solo by Downes at the piano, his playing sensitive, delicate and unhurried. There’s a simple, fragile beauty about the music with Downes eschewing any temptation to add any sort of superfluous embellishment to Rochford’s sombre, but beautiful melody. It’s also typically selfless of Rochford to sit out entirely for this delightful miniature.
It’s something that Rochford also does on the more substantial “Night Of Quiet”, another piece played solo by Downes at the piano. Rochford sets the scene behind this composition thus;
“It was late. I could hear people speaking in the other room. I played the minimum, just to know the notes, very quietly.”
Again the focus is on mood and atmosphere rather than technique. There is nothing superfluous here and every note and phrase seems to just hang in the air. That sense of late night quietness is palpable. Of course, the ECM aesthetic is perfect for this type of music and Eicher is consistently able to bring out the melancholic beauty that informs Rochford’s writing throughout this record.
“Love You Grampa” is another piece written to emphasise the importance of family bonds – and of course the piano that features on this recording was once owned by Rochford’s grandfather. Like the opening track the piece is inspired by the hymns that Rochford heard as a child and the composer returns to the drum kit to give a delightfully understated performance as he supports Downes’ flowing lyricism at the piano. He even drops out again at the close, a more solemn solo piano coda.
The mood of sombre reflection continues into “Our Time is Still”, another beautiful solo piano performance.
The charming “Silver Light” is as gently luminous as its title suggests, initially played solo by Downes but with Rochford eventually joining to provide sensitive and delicately detailed brushed drum accompaniment.
The following “Ten Of Us” follows a similar arc, solo piano at first but with Rochford later adding typically sensitive and understated drum accompaniment. He’s a painter at the drum kit, using the most sparse and delicate of brush strokes. The title of this piece references the fact that Sebastian is just one of Gerard’s ten children and as the lengthiest piece on the album eventually begins to gather momentum it takes on something of an anthemic quality, a celebration of family ties.
The last word goes to Gerard himself with his composition “Even Now I Think Of Her”. Sebastian explains: “It’s a tune my dad had sung into his phone and sent me. I forwarded this to Kit. He listened, and then we started.”
The music is as wistful and reflective as the title might suggest, the core melody sparse but beautiful. It elicits a typically controlled and sensitive performance from Downes, with Sebastian adding tender drum and cymbal embellishments from behind the kit. Between them the pair pay sensitive and heartfelt homage to Gerard’s composition, and to his memory.
“A Short Diary” is informed as much by European classical music as it is by jazz and is sounds very different to much of Rochford’s other output with Polar Bear, Pulled by Magnets etc.
That said it is to be hoped that followers of those bands will also be drawn to this very different project. The beauty and comparative simplicity of the pieces on this album might also win Rochford a whole host of new admirers, particularly if the music gets airplay on programmes such as Late Junction and Night Tracks. It’s an album that if given enough exposure is capable of appealing to a broad listenership, much like Jan Garbarek’s ECM releases with the Hilliard Ensemble.
The fact that “A Short Diary” deals with universal emotions that virtually everyone will have to deal with at some point in their lives will ensure that the music resonates deeply with listeners. The emotions behind the music are obvious and by maintaining the overall feeling of grief and melancholy throughout this relatively concise album Rochford and Downes have created a perfect mood piece.
A word too for Downes, his sensitive interpretations of Rochford’s melodic ideas are vital to the album’s success and to my mind that makes this a true duo recording. As a long time collaborator he is totally attuned to Rochford’s vision throughout and completely on the same musical and emotional wavelength.
The duo are scheduled to tour the music in Europe, but there are only two UK dates, at Aberdeen Jazz Festival on March 18th 2023 and at London’s Café Oto on May 25th 2023.
‘A Short Diary’ on tour, 2023:
March 18, Queens Cross Church, Aberdeen, Scotland - Part of Aberdeen Jazz Festival
March 21 Cankarjevi Torki Ljubljana Slovenia
March 24 BAMClub Belgrade Serbia
March 25 BAMClub Belgrade Serbia
April 28 off Beat Festival Basel Switzerland
May 03 Jazzfest Bonn Germany
May 17 GEMS Jazzclub Singen Germany
May 19 Triskel Cork Ireland
May 21 Pijazzo Festival Bayreuth Germany
May 25 Café Oto London United Kingdom
June 17 Jazzclub Singen, Kulturzentrum Gems Singen Germany
All quotes sourced from the ECM Records website;
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