Paul Towndrow – Outwith The Circle
(Keywork Records KWRCD015 – CD review by Mark McKergow)
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After 2021’s epic large-group work Deepening The River, saxophonist, composer and arranger Paul Towndrow is back with another collection of original material. He has clearly not been letting the grass grow under his feet; co-founding crossover group Atlantic Road Trip with Chicago based trumpeter Chad McCullough and Slovakian vibraphonist Miro Herak, touring with long-term friends The Fratellis and appearing as part of the Celtic Connections Big Band at their huge gala concert last month.
Outwith The Circle sees Towndrow slimming down musically to perhaps the bare minimum, an organ trio. Organist and keyboard player Pete Johnstone is becoming a regular and welcome presence on the Scottish scene, recently touring the UK with Helena Kay, while Alyn Cosker is unchallenged on the drum stool in recent years. Together they present eight tracks with a variety of top-line guests adding cameos and variety along the way.
The album opens dramatically with radio crackling and a terse distorted voice saying “Everything’s OK… wait a minute!”, with shades of Richard Burton in Where Eagles Dare or something out of 1970s BBC sci-fear show Doomwatch. It turns out that it’s Towndrow himself creating the ambiance, credited with ‘whistlings and mutterings’ on the sleeve. The opening title track opens into a majestic theme of the kind Towndrow is so adept in creating with Alyn Cosker adding colour with drums and cymbals, developing into a shuffling lope with alto sax solo followed by a typically engaging Johnstone section on organ.
As I have observed here before, Pete Johnstone’s style is to start gradually, finding an opening phrase and then follow his nose into (and then out of) a growing maelstrom. I enjoy it very much in the unfolding and emergence. Long-time Towndrow colleague Steve Hamilton adds effective synth pads and backing as the 11-minute track grows to a climax, with Eddie Reader adding vocal textures and Michael Owers bringing the brass. The track subsides into more radio garble and closes; a bold musical statement.
K C Point/ Arthur’s Seat has the feel of a traditional Scots tune with piping maestro Ross Ainslie adding his beautiful low whistle into the mix. Wrong Party changes the mood completely with a funky rare-groove feel and guitar virtuoso Davie Dunsmuir adding crisp solo lines. Cutting Bracken / Buain Na Rainich, a traditional tune, sees Towndrow move to flute before Eddie Reader sings the mournful Gaelic vocal line over a subtle organ drone – beautiful. The album leaps on with The Middle Cut (perhaps nominatively deterministic in its halfway-through appearance?), rollicking groover with solo space for all three protagonists.
The CD so far is a treat but in some ways the best is yet to come. Aniva starts with sonar effects before urging forward into a one-in-the-bar driving workout with some really fine playing from Towndrow and a solo spot (at last!) for Cosker. Split The Difference has a rolling organ bass line which would be a great feature of a live show. The album closes with The Only Source Of Knowledge, a haunting theme on Highland pipes (Ross Ainslie again) joined by Towndrow and the ensemble.
This album is another fine piece of work from one of the UK’s most versatile and all-round talented musicians. I hope we’ll have a chance to see this trio live around the country over the coming months.