Friday 29 July 2016

Kit Downes and Tom Challenger at Manchester Jazz Festival

Vyamanikal, Manchester Jazz Festival, 28th July, 2016 

For the Vyamanikal project, Kit Downes and Tom Challenger decamped to rural Suffolk to explore the acoustic properties of old churches, with Kit Downes extemporising on pipe organ in a reedy sepulchral way, and Challenger responding with a minimal, keening saxophone. Singularly responsive to the spirit of place, the music was unique and full of character, and turned on the peculiarities of oft-neglected, wheezy old instruments. 

Extending the concept to historic St Ann’s Church in central Manchester is an interesting idea, though this sacred space is rich and ornate and the church organ is well maintained, with some original pipework from 1730, when it was built. Tantalisingly, Downes mentions that his father learned to play on the very same instrument. 

Downes is drawn to the subtleties of timbre and texture and extracts a thin, shifting sound; more misterioso than pomp. It’s music that evolves in a natural organic way, however, and these are just quiet beginnings. Challenger complements with plangent simplicity. A screen just behind the players shows visuals of eerie flat expanses and cornfields, presumably from the same Suffolk wilds. This invites comparison to the old BBC Christmas adaptions of M.R. James ghost stories, but it's all a bit literal: it seems a shame listeners can't be trusted to make the connection for themselves. 

Downes temporarily diverts to a small harmonium with very much the same tonal register. We’re told that the music is fully improvised and there is no reason to doubt it, but it seems very purposeful in its meditative way, and the interplay between the two players is confident. It hardly seems necessary to say that the sound is extremely haunting. Applause would only break the spell. 

Finally the organ regains some of its conventional power, and events take on a more grand guignol aspect, as if Count Magnus has arisen from the tomb. 

No, that’s a rather reductive characterisation (you see how sensational the unfettered imagination can be). Say rather that the music evokes the circle of life and death, and is more gratefully life-affirming than gloomy.

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