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Paul Towndrow

Outwith The Circle

by Ian Mann

March 31, 2023


A recording that confirms Towndrow’s position as one of the most important figures on the Scottish jazz scene. The standard of the playing and the writing is superlative throughout.

Paul Towndrow

“Outwith The Circle”

(Keywork Records KWRCD015)

Paul Towndrow – alto & soprano saxophones, flutes, whistles, duduk, synths, vocals, Pete Johnstone – organ, Alyn Cosker – drums, percussion
with guests; Eddi Reader – vocals, Steve Hamilton – synth, Ross Ainslie – whistle, Highland pipes, Davie Dunsmuir – guitar, Michael Owers – vocals, cornet, trombone, bass trombone

I first heard the playing of the Scottish alto saxophonist Paul Towndrow nearly twenty years ago when he performed with his quartet on the much missed Stroller Programme at the 2004 Brecon Jazz Festival.

At that time he was performing music from his début album “Colours”, a remarkably mature release that confirmed his ability as a player and also exhibited his potential as a composer.

By 2006 Towndrow had established his own Keywork record label for the release of his second album, the excellent “Out Of Town”. This is reviewed elsewhere on The Jazzmann and my account contains the following observation about the Brecon gig;

“Towndrow played a brilliant, barnstorming set in the packed back room of the Castle Hotel that for me was undoubtedly THE gig of that years Stroller ticket. The precocious and outrageously youthful looking Towndrow exhibited total control of his instrument and played with a confidence and exuberance belying his tender years. With the equally young and talented Gwilym Simcock guesting on piano there was no doubt we were watching two stars of the future at work”.

Prescient, or what?

In the intervening years Simcock has gone on to become an international jazz star thanks in part to his tenure with Pat Metheny. Meanwhile Towndrow has progressed from precocious young hopeful to become one of the cornerstones of the Scottish jazz scene, following in the footsteps of his one time mentor Tommy Smith.

Towndrow has continued to record steadily and in 2007 expanded his group to a sextet for another excellent album, “Six by Six”.  Meanwhile 2009’s “Newology” featured a seven piece group that included two keyboard players.

His next two releases featured smaller line ups, beginning with 2013’s “Paul Towndrow Trio”, an EP featuring his alto in an ‘organ trio’ setting with Pete Johnstone on keys and Towndrow’s long time drummer, Alyn Cosker, behind the kit. 2016’s “We Shine The Sun” was an intimate duo recording made with pianist Steve Hamilton, another long time collaborator.

2021’s acclaimed “Deepening The River” featured Towndrow’s writing for large ensemble and featured his sax and flute as part of a twenty four strong line up featuring a veritable ‘who’s who’ of Scottish jazz and folk musicians. The influence of traditional music has always formed a distinctive component of Scottish jazz and has informed the music of many Scottish jazz musicians, among them trumpeter Colin Steele, pianist Dave Milligan and drummer Tom Bancroft. It’s something that also informs Towndrow’s latest release as his ‘organ trio’ is joined by a list of illustrious guests including vocalist Eddi Reader (of Fairground Attraction fame) and the remarkable multi-instrumentalist Ross Ainslie.

But before immersing ourselves in the music of “Outwith The Circle” let us also recall other aspects of Towndrow’ s career to date, including a lengthy tenure with the reeds/brass quartet Brass Jaw, which yielded a series of excellent albums in addition to some astonishing live performances.

Towndrow has also been a key member of the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra for many years and has also performed with the Grit Orchestra, the European Colours Jazz Orchestra,  the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and Ireland’s RTE Concert Orchestra. He has also written for orchestra and for TV and radio.

He has also worked prolifically as a session player, recording and touring with a wide variety of rock and pop artists, many of them fellow Scots. Towndrow is also an acclaimed jazz educator and has held teaching posts at The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, and RCS Junior Conservatoire.

In 2022, Towndrow co-founded the international group, Atlantic Road Trip, with Chicago based trumpeter Chad McCullough and Slovakian vibraphonist Miro Herak. The trio toured in Europe but is yet to record. It’s a particularly intriguing line up so let’s hope they get the opportunity to do so.

Turning now to this latest album which commences with the elven minute title track, this featuring contributions from guests Reader, Hamilton and Owers. The piece emerges out of a murmur of vocal ‘mutterings’ to embrace a dramatic organ fanfare, this joined by the incisive wail of the leader’s alto sax and the thunderous rumble of Cosker’s drums. The tumult temporarily subsides before Johnstone’s low register keyboard rumblings introduce a sax led theme that resembles an updating of the spiritual jazz of John Coltrane for the 21st century. Towndrow then stretches out more expansively, soloing with his customary fluency and inventiveness before handing over to the impressive Johnstone. The organist adopts an almost orchestral approach to his instrument and his solo probes searchingly above Cosker’s implacable drum grooves, before Towndrow returns to pick up the reins once more. The guests provide extra colour and texture and the leader adds a smattering of flute as the music becomes increasingly layered, powerful and grandiose – symphonic even. The piece then ends as it began with the sound of sampled voices within an ambient soundscape. Taken as a whole the piece represents a dramatic and highly impressive introduction to the album as a whole.

“K C Point / Arthur’s Reel” is a two part composition that begins as a jazz ballad with Cosker deploying brushes, before undertaking a change in style as the delightful sound of Ainslie’s low whistle steers the music in a more folk orientated direction.

Davie Dunsmuir guests on “Wrong Party”, a piece that signals a complete change in direction as the trio establish a funky, urban groove that places the music more firmly in organ combo territory. Towndrow takes the first solo on alto, followed by the fiery Dunsmuir on guitar.

The only piece on the album not written by Towndrow is the traditional folk tune “Buaian Na Rainich” (or “Cutting Bracken), which begins in atmospheric fashion with Towndrow’s flute swirling around Johnstone’s organ drones and Cosker’s mallet rumbles and cymbal splashes. Reader joins the trio to add ethereal vocal lines, the lyrics sung in Gaelic. One can almost sense the dampness of the Celtic mists.

The listener is quickly awoken their reverie as “The Middle Cut” crashes in abruptly, returning us to the grittier territory of the earlier “Wrong Party”. This time it’s a hard grooving outing for the core trio, the whole thing driven along by Cosker’s dynamic drumming. The forcefulness of his playing prompts powerful but articulate solos from Towndrow and Johnstone. The hard hitting Cosker also enjoys his own volcanic drum feature. This is an exciting, high powered performance and the piece must go down a storm at the trio’s live shows.

We’re back into epic territory again with the near ten and a half minute “Aniva”, which this time d is entirely the work of the core trio. The plaintive cry of Towndrow’s alto on the atmospheric intro owes something to both Coltrane and Jan Garbarek before the music shifts into more conventional organ trio territory, complete with Johnstone’s pedal driven bass lines as he embarks on the first solo. It should also be noted that Johnstone is also a highly accomplished pianist, although it’s his Hammond skills that seem to have been more in demand lately. Towndrow follows on alto, his playing lithe and fluent and ably supported by both Johnstone and Cosker. The brilliant drummer, also a band leader and composer in his own right, also enjoys a concise but dynamic drum feature before the piece concludes with a return to the atmospherics of the intro.

“Split The Difference” also features the core line up and is another excursion into recognisable organ trio territory with Johnstone again providing pedal bass lines as Towndrow solos incisively, probing deeply. Johnstone follows on organ, exploring the full sonic capabilities of the instrument.
Cosker, in the engine room, remains an unstoppable force and again features strongly.

The album concludes with a return to Celtic folk territory with the estimable Ross Ainslie appearing on Highland pipes, the skirl of his instrument complemented by the ululations of Towndrow’s soprano sax and the drone of the organ, the three instruments coalescing in a mighty Celtic vortex of sound underpinned by Cosker’s drums and percussion. With a smattering of sampled speech at the end it’s a dramatic and evocative way to end an excellent album.

Drawing on both jazz and folk influences “Outwith The Circle” is far more than just an ‘organ trio’ album. With the help of Johnstone, Cosker and the various guests Towndrow takes the concept of the ‘organ trio’ into previously uncharted territory, updating the sound, introducing new elements and giving it a whole new contemporary relevance that is unmistakably Scottish.

It’s a recording that confirms Towndrow’s position as one of the most important figures on the Scottish jazz scene and the standard of the playing and the writing is superlative throughout. The sheer diversity of the music, within a potentially limiting format, is remarkable and the way in which the tracks segue in and out of each other demands the listener’s attention. There may be some who find it all a little too eclectic and wide ranging but there will be many others, including myself, who will delight in the variety, scope and ambition of Towndrow’s music.

Even without the contributions of the guests this is still a hugely impressive trio and one imagines that their live performances will be hugely exciting affairs as they expand the boundaries of the ‘organ trio’ in the 21st century.

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