CD review

Paul Towndrow – ‘Deepening The River’

Paul Towndrow – Deepening The River
(Paul Towndrow’s Bandcamp. CD review by Mark McKergow)

This hour-long suite for an extended big band line-up marks alto saxophonist Paul Towndrow’s elevation to a major voice on the international jazz scene.  The music is riveting, varied, thoughtful and exhilarating, packed with influences and styles and superbly performed by a top-class ensemble packed with leading young Scottish musicians from jazz, folk, Indian and classical traditions.

Paul Towndrow’s youthful looks belie the extent and depth of his experience: he has been a member of the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra for more than two decades; he is a band leader, composer and educator; he has released five small-group albums over the years and has had a varied sideman career with the likes of Hue & Cry, Sharleen Spiteri, and Martha and the Vandellas.

A successful commission for double-big-band to celebrate the Glasgow Commonwealth Games of 2014 led to an invitation to create Deepening The River, initially for the Glasgow Festival of 2018 and a subsequent performance at Celtic Connections in 2019.  The 24 musicians were in the studio the following day, and it has taken two years and a deal of time, money and support in lockdown to prepare the material for release.

Deepening The River works on a number of levels.  The river in question is the Clyde, and the deepening refers to the dredging operations carried out over the centuries to maintain and improve access for ever-larger ships and greater trade.  On a more metaphorical level this deepening is about greater communication, exchange, cultural influence and openness.  The album follows a programmatic approach taking us on a voyage from Glasgow to the tropics of India and Africa, thence to the United States and finally home to Scotland again.  This scheme gives plenty of opportunity for different musical traditions to come to the fore on the journey as well as at the destinations.

The mix is immediately apparent from the off.  The opening Emergo has the journey starting with confident brassy chords which subside into a pattering tabla rhythm from Sodhi over which calls a traditional folk-style fiddle tune.  The tune is taken up enthusiastically by the brass before softening into a flute and string theme, with the fiddles engaging in a contemporary music-type atonal passage.  The band swings into action, seeming to channel Oliver Nelson’s cop-show arranging style before a super trumpet solo from Tom Walsh, picked up on tenor saxophone by Helena Kay.  In a democratic sweep, Towndrow has ensured that every member of the ensemble gets some solo space. This has two advantages; no room for prima-donnas here, and the solos are kept concise so that the music can move along. Fortunately Towndrow has included a ‘river map’ identifying all the soloists, otherwise navigating the musicians would be very difficult indeed.

That’s the first track of eleven.  Each piece is packed with invention and evolution so it’s impossible to describe it all here. A few of the many highlights to look out for are Ross Ainslie’s contributions on pipes and whistles – his Border pipes solo on The Deepening is hauntingly beautiful.  The fiddles come to the fore on Wildfire with a stirring tune and Laura Wilkie going the full Jean-Luc Ponty.  Hamsadhwani is a lovely Indian-influenced raga style section with Towndrow’s flute joining Adam Sutherland’s violin for some intertwining.  Bunce Island, named after a notorious slave-trading centre, steams along with vibes from Miro HerakSteve Hamilton’s piano and Rachael Cohen’s alto sax adding to the pace.

The scene moves across the Atlantic to New Orleans for Second Line For Rick with gutbucket trombones, shuffling snares, hoe-downs and Rick Taylor and Sean Gibbs bringing some brassy interjections.  As the journey home starts we pass the Tontine Heads (named for a Glasgow collection of grotesque sculptures dating from the 1740s), where Paul Towndrow finally takes the chance to step forward and really take centre stage for a moment, his alto sax gyrating and spiralling in the beating breeze.  The music takes a reflective turn with Deeper Still, before we arrive home for The Long RecoveryRoss Ainslie finally breaking out the Highland bagpipes for a celebratory arrival.  And what we hear is amazingly fast-moving and precise skill on this instrument, imbued with all its deep and atavistic associations.

When I review music for LJN I normally start by sticking the album on in the background, and see what jumps out at me.  With Deepening The River there was so much jumping out, it was abundantly clear that I needed to stop what I was doing, and listen and focus.  In a review like this it’s impossible adequately to convey all the writing, musicianship, soloing and creativity – the best thing is to listen on Paul Towndrow’s Bandcamp page (link below).  Definitely an early contender for CD of the year.

LINK: Full information, stream and purchase at Deepening the River on Bandcamp  

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