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by Ian Mann

April 27, 2009


A series of elegant and eloquent piano duets. Cawley and Downes have created a quiet masterpiece

The latest release on Tom Cawley’s Impure record label sees him moonlighting from his regular band Curios to record an album of piano duets with rising star Kit Downes.

Downes has already made a major impact on the British jazz scene as a one time member of the much feted Empirical. Like Cawley he is constantly busy and is also involved in numerous other projects, among them the saxophonist James Allsopp’s Golden Age Of Steam group and the jazz power trio Troyka, which features Downes on electric keyboards.

Cawley is a versatile player, equally at home on acoustic piano with Curios or electric keyboards as a former member of Acoustic Ladyland. He is also in demand as an excellent accompanist, particularly for singers such as Gwyneth Herbert and Trudy Kerr.

Amazingly Downes is still completing his studies at the Royal Academy of Music where this album was recorded. Cawley, only marginally older, is one of his tutors but this album is very much a meeting of equals. The composing credits are shared equally with each pianist contributing four pieces to the recording. Curios and Troyka drummer Josh Blackmore, something of a wunderkind himself, contributes incidental percussion to two of the tracks.

“Homely” is an apt title, presumably chosen to reflect the pastoral and conversational quality of much of the music. The Cawley/Downes duet is less spiky and sparky than the T’N'T duo of Stan Tracey and Keith Tippett and less intense and dramatic than the recent Joachim Kuhn/Michael Wollny collaboration.

Nevertheless there is much good music to enjoy here. Each piece is relatively short, around the five minute mark, and the duo never allow themselves to lapse into self indulgence.

The title track is a Downes composition and opens the record. Full of delightful interlocking patterns the music reveals the player’s classical influences (they mention Debussy and Bartok) with Brad Mehldau a clear reference from a jazz viewpoint.

Cawley’s “Knuckle The Lizard” is altogether more playful and lively with a dash of Thelonious Monk thrown into the pot. The interplay between the two pianists is dazzling.

“Golden”, another offering from Downes, is more impressionistic and loosely structured than what has gone before and features Blackmore’s low key percussion shadings.

Cawley’s “The Wait” is initially spare, elegant and lyrical. It builds gradually, the players spiralling around each other before finishing as quietly as it began.

Downe’s “Fireplace” finds the composer essaying rhythmic patterns on what sounds like a prepared piano as Cawley solos around him. It may well be that they switch roles mid- tune but as other commentators have suggested the best thing is to simply to sit back and enjoy the music. The use of this distinctive sound source helps to spice up the programme and prevent it from becoming overly homogenised. 

Cawley’s lyrical “Mrs” flows beautifully and is appropriately the album’s most overtly romantic cut.

The same writer’s “To Be Sure” is hewn from the same rock as his earlier “Knuckle The Lizard”. Quirky and playful it finds the two pianists sparring above Blackmore’s brushed snare drum undertow. 

Finally we hear Downes’ gently lyrical “Madame” which closes the album on an elegiac note.

“Homely” is a quietly beautiful album that tempers it’s romantic tendencies with a dash of the kind of humour and playfulness that Cawley brings to his Curios trio. This helps to provide a balanced programme on an album that can function both as gently relaxing background music or as a serious listen. If approached in the spirit of the latter there are plenty of interesting things going on and the standard of the playing is remarkably high.

This duet may not be as attention grabbing as some of the protagonists’ other projects but in their own sweet way Cawley and Downes have created a quiet masterpiece. The pair list Keith Jarrett among their varied influences and certainly admirers of Jarrett’s music will find much to enjoy here.

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