‘Vyamanikal’ – Kit Downes & Tom Challenger

Vyamanikal

ARISING from a 2015 Aldeburgh Music residency, keyboardist Kit Downes and tenor saxophonist Tom Challenger conceived this imaginative project under the title Vyamanikal (from an ancient Sanskrit term for ‘flying machines’ – Vaimānika Shāstra).

Seven improvisations, recorded across five Suffolk churches*, take advantage of pipe organs and converted harmoniums in widely differing acoustic environments. Some instruments are in a creatively intriguing state of disrepair, whilst others – such as Framlingham’s historic, opulently-decorated 17th Century Thamar organ – are presumably more likely to be heard sounding the triumphant strains of J B Dykes or Samuel Wesley.

As a church organist of many years, I declare a specific interest in the instrument’s myriad capabilities. But here, like some musical ‘horse whisperer’, Kit Downes discovers and teases out perhaps hitherto undiscovered hoots, wheezes and subterranean reverberations which are accordantly combined with tenor saxophone ‘plainsong’ and distant, natural bird calls (close to Suffolk’s wetlands).

The duo recently took their project to St Ann’s Church, Manchester, backed by continuous video projections of various hard and soft landscapes. Late at night, with Downes arched across four manuals and pedal board, the deep, 32′ acoustic bass frequencies remarkably shook and rattled the very back corridors and galleries of the 18th Century architecture; and Challenger’s dry, often hollow tenor echoed around the elegant, white-columned ceiling spaces, melding sympathetically with the windy or intense strains of Downes’ own improvisations.

Rural village church quietness is discernible in Apicha as chattering birdsong and variably-opened, train-whistle-like drawstops are underpinned by sustained chordal clusters, whilst tentative tenor melodies drift around; and Bdhak‘s repetitive engine-room bleeps and modulations provide an otherworldly canvas for Tom Challenger to roam (shades of Garbarek, but with loftier freedom). Tremulant, hurdy-gurdy-like Sa becomes extraordinarily industrial, Tromba stops blustering with incredible density (far removed from any hymnary) before floating heavenwards with harmonic tenor beauty; and moorhen cheeps and cawing ravens enhance the breathy textures of Vistri in a soundtrack for windswept wheat fields and marshlands.

The flapping organ resonances and tenor sax melancholy of one of the album’s longer movements, Jyotir, might suggest desolate, chilled panoramas as an impressive, sustained swell rises symphonically to imply the glorious warmth of sunrise… eventually returning to afterglow birdcall mimicry. Also suggesting midwinter solitude, Maar-ikar‘s de-tuned, fading registrations ebb and flow to a background of tweets and gravel-path treads (an organ solo, unless Challenger’s timbres are perfectly integrated); and Nya-aya‘s subtle, dark-sky drone closes the sequence with a peculiar sense of anticipation and apprehension.

As an improvisational experience, this is an offbeat yet distinctive recording which requires a clear mind and an open spirit. Turn the lights low and let your imagination take you……

Vyamanikal is available from Bandcamp.

Watch Aldeburgh Music’s video about the project.

 

Kit Downes organs
Tom Challenger saxophone

Recorded, mixed and mastered by Alex Bonney

*Recorded at:
• All Saints Church, Darsham
• Holy Trinity Church, Blythburgh
• St Michael’s Church, Framlingham
• St Edmund’s Church, Bromeswell
• St John’s Church, Snape

Wedding Music is also available

kitdownes.com/Vyamanikal
aldeburgh.co.uk

Slip Imprint – SLP042 (2016)

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‘Ornithophobia’ – Troyka

Ornithopobia

WITH two studio albums under their collective belt, in addition to 2014’s acclaimed live Troyk-estra big band recording, heteroclite jazz trio Troyka have always sought to use their combined creative genius to create something extraordinary.

As if to illustrate the point, following a resounding Kings Place Festival taster gig a few years ago, a chap in the row behind enthusiastically turned to his wife as the final applause subsided, asking, “What did you think of THAT?!”… only to prompt the deflating reply, as she rose to her feet to exit, “Uh, not MUCH”! Exactly the kind of divided and controversial response (electric guitarist Chris Montague gleefully explained to me later) that they thrive on. For Troyka are not just any old jazz combo, but rather a triumvirate of like-minded wizards who soak up all manner of genres and refashion them into their own unique, experimental sound worlds. For the uninitiated, this can initially be a pretty bumpy ride – but once attuned to the band’s ‘way of things’ (live, absolutely compelling), it’s easy to become engrossed in the heightened technical and creative intelligence on display here.

Recording for the first time on the Naim label, Montague and colleagues – Joshua Blackmore (drums), Kit Downes (keyboards and tuned percussion) – have upped their game still further with a musical outpouring inspired by the guitar man’s Hitchcockian fear of birds – Ornithophobia. And in a move which widens the scope of ‘the three’, they welcome renowned bassist Petter Eldh to add his considerable weight of experience to production/mixing and, for two numbers, composition.

Launching in typically intense character, Arcades crackles to the abrasive guitar/keys perambulations of Montague and Downes, with synthy prog backwash, before relaxing into a pleasingly retro, Keith Emerson-like rock beat. Key to Troyka’s success is the blurring of the scored, manipulated and improvised – and the groove of this opening number almost feels too short (perhaps a live extension is already in the bag!). Life was Transient undulates to an impossible Hammond rhythm, picked at by Montague until irregular synth melodies that Herbie Hancock would be proud of puncture the fluid, pulsating bass-driven momentum. Crunchy title track Ornithophobia thuds to Blackmore’s metallicised percussion, Montague’s rapidity on the fingerboard just extraordinary – and, at every twist and turn, something new arrives to excite the senses.

Magpies (black’n’white hysteria from writer Montague!) hits the trance button with a blistering saturation of sound, Kit Downes’ distorted keyboards reminiscent of National Health’s Dave Stewart – and the overall drive is hugely cinematic (movie editors take note). The concept of the album is realised in Thopter (faux newsreader suggesting the BBC’s Fiona Bruce may have been more convincing), rendering in sound the album art’s storyboard horror of the band transmogrifying into avian counterparts; with urgent, clamouring guitar, keys and drums, it results in another irresistible adventure. And sustained, contrasting miniature, Bamburgh (replete with seagull effects) implies the rugged, dune-swept coastal terrain of Northumberland in serene, Eno-suggested ambience.

Kit Downes’ The General fascinates with a riff which broods, then accelerates, into a wondrously bluesy lead guitar show from Montague (shades of Knopfler?) – and imagine the ’70s prog rock illuminati queuing up to employ Josh Blackmore! Troyka Smash mesmerises briefly with Eldh’s resampled titbits from Troyka’s catalogue until another impressionistic North Eastern landscape, Seahouses (with helicopter rescue overtones), crashes its waves to shore.

Released on 26 January 2015, and launching on 12 February at Rich Mix, London, Ornithophobia is available in CD, vinyl and digital formats. Dates of Troyka’s extensive national and international 2015 tour can be tracked here – New York, are you ready?!……

 

Chris Montague guitars
Joshua Blackmore drums, electronic drums
Kit Downes keyboards, organ, tuned percussion, piano

troyka.co.uk

Illustration/storyboard by Naiel Ibbarola

Naim Jazz Records – naimcd210 (2015)

‘China Lane’ – Alice Zawadzki

CDWalletCrescent_DW-WithSpineNew.pdf

FROM THE DELICATE opening riff of this debut release, singer, songwriter, violinist and pianist Alice Zawadzki has me enraptured. A number of years in gestation, China Lane offers a unique and pleasantly beguiling approach to jazz, folk (call it what you will) which is enduringly irresistible.

Comprised mostly of originals, this collection can be curious, unpredictable and maybe even eccentric – but it is this bold individuality which sets it apart. And, with the immense musicality of friends such as Kit Downes (Hammond), Alex Roth (guitar), Jon Scott (drums) and Andreas Lang (bass) on board, as well as strings and associate voices, this is a magical journey with a breadth that takes in stories of love, tenderness, desolation, discord and mischief. Zawadzki’s assured vocal delivery – heard also in Moss Freed’s excellent Moss Project (album review here) – is, for me, redolent of the invention of Annette Peacock and Björk, with a touch of the light, new-age folkiness of Sally Oldfield – yet it also possesses a rich and passionate depth which particularly comes to the fore in the two arrangements here of traditional Sephardic tunes.

The breathy, brushed, folksy opening number Ring of Fire, featuring Zawadzki’s clear lead vocal and mysterious violin melodies, is the perfect example of the twists and turns to be found in these entertaining fifty minutes. Kit Downes’ distinctive scratchy Hammond gradually nudges further into the proceedings against the sustained wash of Alex Roth’s guitar until, with rapid gear change, Andreas Lang’s double bass signals the glorious blues-jam conclusion, Downes and Roth underpinning Zawadzki’s playful scat-like vocal improvisations which, in the end, seemingly catch them out (to their audible amusement!). Cat is described by the composer as a modern fairytale in which “the ghost of a murdered feline finds its way into the body of a woman with excellent consequences”, the laboured push-pull rhythm provided by Jon Scott and sinewy effects from Downes and Roth – plus close, soulful harmonies – adding to the fantasy. Again, the mercurial nature of Zawadzki’s writing triumphs, Downes turning in a characteristically showy solo.

Indome Para Marsilia (arranged by Alex Roth) whirls and gyrates to its mesmeric folk melody, led by hard percussion and pulsating bass, giving Zawadzki the opportunity to reach vocal highs (Roth’s guitar a key element). Dicho Me Habían Dicho, the more introspective of these two traditional tunes, burns slowly and mystically, Shirley Smart’s typically gritty, wailing cello against Alex Roth’s harmonics enhancing Zawadzki’s brooding tones. The horizontal string-shimmering effect of Low Sun; Lovely Pink Light – with chromatically-climbing harmonies from Zawadzki, Emilia Mårtensson and Fini Bearman, plus Roth’s chorused guitar against Andreas Lang’s resonant bass – is heartstoppingly gorgeous, its rising, crescendoing impressions recalling a Danish winter sunrise. Emotional in other directions, nine-minute You As A Man reveals a tangible poignancy, Zawadzki’s lyricism perhaps at its height (“It’s like selling your feet to make money for shoes; using blood to wash your wounds”). The constant swell and diminuendo of Downes’ Hammond chords provide intrigue to this spiky and discomforting tale of obsessional love, and the whole band’s interpretation of Alice Zawadzki’s intentions match her dramatic vocal expression.

The urbanity of Manchester, including the buses which pass behind the stage of Matt & Phred’s jazz club, provide the subtle background ambience for the closing title track which reflects Zawadzki’s affection for and association with this northern city. Singing at the piano, accompanied by string sextet, she nostalgically paints images of the red sunset-tinged brick buildings of narrow China Lane in the album’s most commercially anthemic number.

As enchanting to experience ‘live’ as in this fine recording, Alice Zawadzki is most definitely one of contemporary’s jazz’s stars of the present and the future, possessing, as she does, remarkable musical dexterity and personality. A fine solo album debut.

Released on Whirlwind on 16 June 2014, further information and purchasing can be found here.

 

Alice Zawadzki voice, violin, piano
Alex Roth guitar
Andreas Lang double bass
Kit Downes Hammond organ
Jon Scott drums
Shirley Smart cello
Emilia Mårtensson voice
Fini Bearman voice
with
Eva Thorarinsdottir violin
Steve Proctor violin
Lucy Nolan viola
Tanah Stevens viola
Peggy Nolan cello
Rosie Toll cello

alicezmusic.com

Whirlwind Recordings – WR4647 (2014)

‘meets I Dig Monk, Tuned’ – ReDiviDeR

Redivider

AN INTRIGUING and, ultimately, satisfying second album from experimental Irish four-piece, ReDiviDeR, led by drummer and composer Matthew Jacobson.

The chordless (and palindromic) quartet have frequently trodden the festival trail of their homeland with an interesting mix of textures, grooves and samples, all melded by an innate jazz sensibility played out on alto sax, trombone, bass and drums. Citing such influences as Thelonius Monk, Charles Mingus and Tim Berne, this latest release reveals their sharp creativity to a wider audience. And, if your ears are responsive (as well as eyes open to one or two track/guest-name japes – though my guess is the ‘AleX’s were an anagram too far!), there is much here to savour. Following up 2012 debut ‘Never odd or eveN’, they are found here in collaborative vein as four established UK jazz musicians guest on tracks written specifically with them in mind (the anagram of ‘United Kingdom’ as album title ‘I Dig Monk, Tuned’ far too clever for me!).

Leaping straight to the centrepoint of the seven tracks (a couple of which are brief interludes), Bin Saved begins with a compelling descending pattern over which a resonant fretless electric bass with trombone, plus alto embellishment, invites guest cellist Ben Davis to improvise impassionedly into a solo spotlight. Nick Roth’s alto then takes the piece on a new, raunchier route, Davis and Derek Whyte sharing the rocky bassline, Jacobson snapping cleanly on drums. Concluding with mellower, more echoic trombone and bass, it’s quite a number!

Opener, Twin Kodes, features the now-almost-trademark abstract Rhodes wizardry of Kit Downes, followed by effective, trippy, post-produced trombone from Colm O’Hara; then… a twist into Downes’ ‘Troyka’ territory and a random-yet-structured trombone/sax dash to the finish. Animal Code sees Alex Bonney’s trumpet beefing-up the horns, a wild elephantine cacophony ensuing over stampeding drums and electronics.

The guitar of Alex Roth brings an altogether different timbre to Velvet Pouch, a dark, smouldering track of repeated riffs and effects against an intensifying bass and drum groove whilst, finally, May I Agree‘s semitone-clustered, cascading horn melodies tumble along to Jacobson’s pointed, snare-driven rhythm.

As members of touring initiative Match & Fuse, it’s easy to understand why ReDiViDeR are a popular live act – check out the links below for further information.


Matthew Jacobson
drums  matthewjacobsonmusic.com
Derek Whyte bass
Nick Roth alto sax
Colm O’Hara trombone
with
Kit Downes keys
Alex Roth guitar
Alex Bonney trumpet/electronics
Ben Davis cello

ReDiviDeR
Diatribe
Match & Fuse

Diatribe – DIACD016 (2013)

‘Live at the 2013 Cheltenham Jazz Festival’ – Troyk-estra

Troyk-estra

ONE OF THE MOST EXCITING and progressive trios to emerge in recent years has been Troyka, the members of which have also become key players in a host of other contemporary jazz and jazz/rock projects: Chris Montague (guitar, loops), Kit Downes (organ, keyboards) and Josh Blackmore (drums).

Their most recent album, ‘Moxxy’ (Edition Records, 2012), created a surge of interest for the band’s creative process of responding to an array of musical sources and influences to deliver their unique and heady mix of improvised jazz, rock, funk and electronics. Troyka’s live gigs are like no other, these three masters of their craft intuitively creating a mesmerising, sparky, sensory experience. So, with that same visionary spirit, how about augmenting the trio with the power and depth of a big band? Crazy? Well, what ensued was nothing short of a jazz sensation!

Montague, Downes and Blackmore assembled an 18-piece of brass, reeds, bass and vibes (personnel listed below, including familiar names such as Reuben Fowler, James Allsop and Mike Chillingworth) under the direction of Royal Academy of Music Head of Jazz, Nick Smart, who would bring a very different dimension to their music. To re-visit a sound originally built on a collective understanding between three, and widen its scope to a much larger ensemble, must have been something of a challenge – but the result, hearing it captured from the live setting of this year’s Cheltenham Jazz Festival (originally recorded for BBC Jazz On 3), is both exhilarating and enthralling (and difficult to categorise – though try to imagine a hybrid of Dave Holland, Matthew Herbert and Beats & Pieces plus Keith Emerson, Billy Cobham and Hendrix!).

Anagram antics are plentiful in the titles of some arrangements of existing pieces, so Dropsy changes to Dry Ops, Chaplin becomes Hip Clan, Zebra turns into Braze… but it’s the musical transformations, of course, that amaze, along with specially-written new pieces. Opener Dry Ops confirms straightaway the successful fusion: brass section able to echo the instantly-recognisable technique of Montague’s guitar/effects with similar spike and crackle, as well as combining with the reeds to fashion a tight NYC-sounding orchestration, whilst also allowing space for individual improvisation. The big band scoring of Gain Noon Soon sounds particularly demanding, but this ten-minute number really sparkles, Blackmore just astonishing with the complexity and rapidity of his drumming. Braze is such a fantastic development of the original trio piece, Downes impressing with signature firecracker organ/keyboards and Montague bristling on lead guitar, whilst incisive chordal stabs and mischievous vibes add peppy colour.

Misterioso Elegant Her‘s mournful, bluesy trumpet opening and slide guitar precede an increasingly urgent pace which eventually unfolds into a particularly BIG band sound and a great coda, Downes and Montague rocking (crank up the volume for a superb live feel!). Coley‘s funk-driven groove – led by the Troyka trio, bassist Louis Van Der Westhuizen and Ralph Wyld on vibes – is so gripping, featuring great organ, trombone and tenor soloing. The spacial Hip Clan – a ‘Moxxy’ favourite featuring Chris Montague’s atmospheric Floydian guitar lead – takes on a different timbre as sustained brass and reeds, with vibes, seemingly float it beyond the clouds. Finally, the cryptically-titled 80 Neon Births teases with big band swing, only to develop into an enveloping electronic haze against Blackmore’s percussive power before a blazing, full-on finale.

Those present at Cheltenham’s Parabola hailed Troyk-estra’s performance as “unforgettable”, “stupendous”, “jaw-droppingly amazing” – and, with this closely-recorded and remixed live account, we now have the opportunity to enjoy much of that magic for ourselves. Launching at London Jazz Festival on 23 November 2013 (Purcell Room, Southbank Centre at 3pm), with a general release date of 2 December 2013, this remarkable debut album is available from Impossible Ark at BandCamp. Prepare to be dazzled!


Chris Montague
guitar, loops  chrismontague.com
Kit Downes organ, keyboards  kitdownes.com
Josh Blackmore drums  joshuablackmore.com

Nick Smart conductor
Reuben Fowler trumpet
Alex Bonney trumpet
Noel Langley trumpet
Imogen Hancock trumpet
Kieran Stickle McLeod trombone
Patrick Hayes trombone
Tom Green trombone
Courtney Brown bass trombone
Mike Chillingworth alto saxophone
Nadim Teimoori alto saxophone
Sam Miles tenor saxophone
James Allsop tenor saxophone
Sam Rapley bass clarinet, baritone saxophone
Louis Van Der Westhuizen bass
Ralph Wyld vibes

Troyk-estra

Impossible Ark Records (2013)