Recording of the Week,
Kit Downes - Dreamlife of Debris
The austere sonority of the church organ isn’t something that would seem a natural fit with jazz (being better suited to the choppy sound of the Hammond), but it has been utilised to good effect in the past, notably by Keith Jarrett and Jan Garbarek. On Dreamlife of Debris pianist Kit Downes continues his exploration of the unique timbres the church organ can offer and has surrounded himself with a top-flight group of improvisers; Tom Challenger (tenor saxophone), Stian Westerhus (guitar), Lucy Railton (cello), Sebastian Rochford (drums). Downes has played in duo capacities with Challenger, Railton and Rochford over the years, and there is the unmistakable sense of all involved being perfectly at home in Downes’s idiom.
The initial inspiration for Downes’s organ projects was literary and arose from reading The Rings of Saturn, a novel detailing a walking tour across East Anglia that the German author W.G. Sebald undertook in the nineties and the historical allusions that the places he visited triggered in his mind. Having grown up in Norwich it's no wonder that Sebald's book should strike a chord with Downes. Inspired by Sebald's improvisational approach to writing, Downes (accompanied by Challenger) set off on a walking tour of his own between villages, in order to play a variety of church organs. This was first documented on the 2016 album Vyamanical, and further explored on his ECM debut, the largely solo project Obsidian. Having read The Rings of Saturn many years ago, I was impressed that something of the loneliness of Sebald’s odyssey has been captured in the fragility of Downes’s music; the ability to let a stray thought follow through to its natural conclusion.
The album opens with Sculptor, an ensemble piece that has an unmistakable Second Viennese School flavour - the melody feels like it’s conceived along the lines of Webern’s mirror forms (especially the Quartet Op. 22), before the textures thin out, the sonorities freezing, preparing us for the almost phantasmagorical tone of the rest of the record. The centrepiece of the album is the twelve-minute Bodes, which moves from gentle radiance towards increasingly menacing clusters and drones, petering out for a unsettled coda with Westerhus, Railton and Rochford creating barely audible whirring, clicking noises. The attention to detail and subtle weighing of each player’s contribution is meticulous, and rewards playback through a decent system late at night. For such quiet music Rochford’s percussive contributions are often more implied than heard, once again demonstrating just how sensitive a player he is. M7 finds Downes channelling the spectre of Messiaen, with some almost toy-like squeaky sonorities emitting through the organ pipes. On Sunflower Downes finds some truly ethereal organ timbres, almost hovering in the shadows as Railton weaves cello lines, augmented by Challenger towards the close, with Westerhus adding sparse low-register guitar figures.
Blackeye closes the album with a somewhat mischievous glint in its eye (I wonder if Downes is a closet Drexciya fan, as I could swear I heard traces of Vampire Island here), letting the light in, and acting as a logical bookend. The effect is to cleanse the palate, preparing us for another spin of this fascinating project.