Kit Downes – Obsidian (CD Review)

Kit Downes - Obsidian

Obsidian
Kit Downes, organ and composer; Tom Challenger, tenor saxophone
ECM Records

Prior to this recording, Kit Downes was primarily known as a pianist in jazz settings, notably leading his own trio and quintet. Obsidian is his debut CD as a leader for ECM Records; he previously appeared on the label as part of the Time is a Blind Guide release in 2015. However, Downes has a substantial background as an organist as well. The program on this recording consists primarily of his own works for organ, but there is also a noteworthy folk arrangement and engaging duet with tenor saxophonist Tom Challenger.

The organs employed on Obsidian are all in England, two in Suffolk at the Snape Church of John the Baptist and Bromeswell St Edmund Church, and Union Chapel Church in Islington, London. Instruments from different eras and in very different spaces, they inspire Downes to explore a host of imaginative timbres and approaches. Over an undulating ostinato, skittering solo passages impart a buoyant character to the album opener “Kings.” An evocative arrangement of the folk song “Black is the Colour” pits piccolo piping against ancient sounding harmonies in the flutes and bagpipe-flavored mixtures. “Rings of Saturn” is perhaps the most unorthodox of Downes’s pieces, filled with altissimo sustained notes and rife with airblown glissandos, an effect that is not found in conventional organ repertoire. The piece is well-titled, as it has an otherworldly ambience. Pitch bends populate “The Bone Gambler” as well, while vibrato and frolicsome filigrees animate “Flying Foxes.” “Seeing Things” is a joyous effusion of burbling arpeggios and the more usual fingered glissandos, demonstrating an almost bebop sensibility. Suitably titled, on “The Last Leviathan” Downes brings to bear considerable sonic power – with hints of whale song in some of the textures – and fluent musical grandeur.

Although some of the release seems inimitable, closely linked to Downes’s improvisatory and textural explorations, other pieces cry out for transcription; one could see other organists giving them a wider currency. “Modern Gods” is an exercise in modally tinged dissonant counterpoint, while “Ruth’s Song for the Sea” and the folk-inflected “The Gift” possess the stately quality of preludes.

The duet with Challenger is a tour de force, in which each adroitly anticipates and responds to the other’s gestures and even notes, as the fantastic simultaneities that occur at structural points in the piece attest. Once again, there is a supple jazz influence at work. While Downes provides room for Challenger’s solos, he also challenges him with formidable passages of his own. Obsidian contains much textural subtlety and fleet-footed music, but it is also gratifying to hear Downes and Challenger celebrating the power of their respective instruments. Heartily recommended.

Anders Jormin – “Trees of Light”

Trees of Light

ECM Records

Lena Willemark voice, fiddle and viola
Anders Jormin double bass
Karin Nakagawa 25-string koto

Out this week on ECM Records, Trees of Light brings together traditional music-making from Sweden and Japan with jazz bass improvisations. This seemingly unlikely fusion works beautifully. Each member of the trio retains their own stylistic signatures and technical approach, yet the resulting colloquy finds many musical meeting places.

On “Lyöstraini,” a propulsive bass groove, diaphanous glissandos from the koto, and Willemark’s gently undulating singing craft a beguiling ambience. Partway through, roles reverse, Jormin takes a forceful solo, leaving the rhythm to be handled by koto and pizzicato fiddle. When Willemark’s singing returns, it is energized, full throated, and ebullient. “Dröm” begins with Willemark singing solo. Only gradually does the instrumental tapestry which surrounds her emerge. Eminently and memorably tuneful, Willemark’s vocals are abetted by shimmering strummed chords and a lithe solo by Nakagawa. Jormin combines walked lines with deftly employed plucked harmonics. “Urbanus” shows a more experimental side of the trio, with howls, whispers, shouts, and dolphin-cry glissandos pitted against dissonant breaks in the midst of a walking line from Jormin.

While this trio could be a single album experiment, the wide range of sonic combinations they display on the material here makes one hope that Trees of Light is just the beginning of this collaboration.

Matt Mitchell – Fiction

File Under Best of 2013

Matt Mitchell

Fiction

Matt Mitchell, piano; Ches Smith, drums and percussion

Pi Recordings

The pieces on Fiction, pianist Matt Mitchell’s debut recording as a leader, began as etudes. Composed by the pianist in an attempt to integrate his notated composing and his considerable prowess as an improvisor, they soon took on a life of their own as creative work well beyond exercises or technical craftsmanship. Add energetic percussionist Ches Smith into the mix and you now have a combustible duo creating some of the best ‘out’ music of 2013.

Mitchell has played with some of the greats in modern and experimental jazz, from Dave Douglas to Tim Berne. Smith has an even more diverse pedigree, working with rock and pop artists as well as jazz musicians. Going head to head on Fiction, one can readily hear why Mitchell and Smith are so in demand. It isn’t just chops, though both have them aplenty and for days; it is the creative mindset with which they approach and embrace music-making. It leaves one with the impression that the album is a fully embodied, eminently expressive, and original statement – no mean feat when you consider that it is also challenging fare that requires a great deal from its listeners. Recommended.