JJ 10/70: British Jazzmen No. 4 – Bob Downes

Fifty years ago, Martin C. King didn't agree that the British experimentalist, sometime collaborator with Mike Westbrook and Ballet Rambert, was just interested in sound. First published in Jazz Journal October 1970


‘Music is all around us, if only we had ears. There would be no need for concert halls if man could only learn to enjoy the sounds which envelop him.’ This statement, by John Cage, pioneer figure of the American avant-garde, though provocatively extremist, nevertheless demonstrates contemporary music’s preoccupa­tion with sounds. Currently working in similar areas is Bob Downes (‘I embark on new sounds and ideas every day’), and credit must be given to him for bringing a fresh approach to British jazz, although Downes refuses, in fact, to cate­gorise his music as ‘jazz’. He calls his groups Bob Downes Open Music’ and is receptive to all influences particularly from modern ‘classical’ music, Eastern music, Severino Gazzelioni, the Italian flute virtuoso, rhythm and blues, Sonny Rollins.

‘In Man, there is the continual search and excitement for the unknown, to reach the summit or horizon in our life’

He plays a wide range of instruments: concert, alto and bamboo flutes, alto and tenor saxes. On his flutes he produces a rich, full tone (he is at present studying flute under Harold Clark at Trinity College), though at times he aims for particular effects: ‘I experiment with different techniques on the flute and saxophone to establish new sounds, and the addition of voice and breath lends an extra dimension and texture to the music’. Already one can see the wide choice of sounds Bob has at his disposal, yet he does not restrict himself to these instruments but will incorporate anything else (sax mouthpieces, bells, tam-tams, and even acetate paper have all been used) to give the interpretation he wants. It was such unconventional procedure that caused Ron Brown, in his review of Downes’ first LP (Jazz Journal, June 1970), to suggest that ‘Mr Downes is obsessed by sound rather than music’.

I don’t agree. For although Downes is clearly concerned with sound as such, his compositions reveal an ability to write pieces which are musically satisfying, and his playing often shows his skill in constructing a fluent, swinging solo. Admittedly, he rarely opens out like this on the LP, but I’ve witnessed some great moments at The Crucible and on some of his radio broadcasts when he’s got into a groove that’s somewhere between Ornette and Rollins, and the ideas have been pouring out.

Mention here should be made of Bob’s drummer Dennis Smith who, sensing every change in tempo, mood and direction, provides an ex­tremely successful, empathetic accompaniment for his leader. The fact that Downes doesn’t always sound like the two saxophonists just mentioned is not due to any lack of ability, but to his concern to explore new fields rather than settling down into one particular style: ‘We must always be in the future, we must progress, we’ve got to search all the time’. Bob’s search has already taken him far, and a number of uncharted areas have been examined.

Since leaving the RAF, where he played saxo­phone, and working on the commercial scene, he has formed his own groups, composed a ballet score, improvised music with dancers, played in an Italian Art gallery, performed with poet/author Bob Cockburn, and made three LPs, two of which have been realeased so far. And all this within the last twelve months. The first LP (Philips SBL 7922) is worth dis­cussing in some detail since it is at present the only opportunity many readers will have of getting to know the full scope of Bob’s work, and since, with all respect to Ron Brown, I do not think that his review did justice to the record.

Downes’ second LP (‘Electric City’, Vertigo 6360 005) only demonstrates one aspect of his music and, to me, says little more than the track of the same name on the Philips record. Both versions, however, succeed in cap­turing the feeling of life in our high-speed, chromium-plated, space-age cities. On the liner note to his first LP, Downes suggests playing ‘City’ at 16 rpm: ‘another dimension and approach is then understood’. It is a revealing experience. Then sounds of the city become a hideous cry from the jungle – despite all the trappings of civilisation which surround us, man’s basic nature has not changed since we were living in the trees.

The main work on the record, however, is Dream Journey, Bob’s score for the Ballet Rambert’s ‘Blind Sight’. It is a highly impres­sionistic piece, beginning with atmospheric night music played on two flutes (Downes and Jim Gregory), gently punctuated from time to time by a chiming vibes chord, ‘a bell striking through the night’. A percussive nightmare section follows, eventually to be released by the flutes and a tam-tam (‘thousands of screaming white doves soaring skywards in search of free­dom’). It is not till the second section, which features Downes soloing above a fast 3/8 bass vamp, that the work, up to this point more classical in its feeling and structure, takes on jazz characteristics. Also in this part is an exciting build-up of reeds and brass to an amazing, climatic chord. The work ends as it began, with the two flutes quietly reflecting in the night, time slowly passing with the chime of the vibes.

Of the other tracks, ‘Integration’ is of particular interest, this being played on the bamboo flute. With one of its holes covered by an onion skin, Downes gets a beautiful tone, at once mellow and reedy, from this instrument. It is hand made, and engraved with Chinese charac­ters, the meaning of which Bob explained to me. It tells of its maker and his family, des­cribes the sounds it produces (‘this hole makes the sound of a bird’) and, at the bottom, proudly announces, ‘Made by a member of the Chinese Communist Party’.

With regard to his future, Bob has ambitious plans. He intends to use flutter-echo techniques in his live performances, wants to make greater use of his voice, and to expand his experience with electronics. The Vertigo LP shows what he has done so far in this field, though he would really like to get a Moog synthesizer. If his single, ‘No Time Like The Present’ (Philips), is a success, this could be possible. Other plans for the new year include another ballet, com­missioned by the Cologne State Opera, and a multi-media production at Oxford.

Whatever happens, Bob Downes will be a man to listen to for many years to come, for like every true artist, he is perpetually searching to find out more, not only about his art, but about life itself: ‘In Man, there is the continual search and excitement for the unknown, to reach the summit or horizon in our life’.

Recommended record: Bob Downes Open Music Philips SBL 7922