The Dowland Project
John Potter tenor
John Surman saxophones, bass clarinet, percussion
Stephen Stubbs lute, chitarrone, baroque guitar, vihuela
Maya Homburger violin
Miloš Valent violin, viola
Barry Guy double bass
Recorded September 2001 and January 2006, Propstei St. Gerold
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher
The Dowland Project was the brainchild of former Hilliard Ensemble tenor John Potter, and had before this album’s release lulled listeners over the course of three traversals: In Darkness Let Me Dwell, Care-charming sleep, and Romaria. As the story goes, after shedding its light in the middle recording, the Project returned to the studio at producer Manfred Eicher’s unexpected behest. Thus the night sessions documented herein were born, in and of the moment.
With Potter are reedist John Surman, lutenist Stephen Stubbs, violinists Maya Homburger and Miloš Valent (by turns), and bassist Barry Guy. Together they forge a sigil of such intuitive, adaptive power that the texts treated here come alive in new and evocative ways. Of those texts, Potter selected a wide assortment, reading them aloud to the group before giving each a onetime go. Improvising around both familiar and adlibbed tunes, the musicians drew their individual lines with such openness that only a bold stripe of unrepeatable music making was left behind. Following that line as listeners after the fact is half the fun. Imagining what it might have been like to be a fly on the wall at Austria’s Monastery of Sankt Gerold, where the sounds were captured for posterity, is the other.
The songs span a range of eras and moods, but all with a twinge of heart that only a troubadour’s pen can elucidate. In that vein, the 12th-century “Can vei la lauzeta mover” by Bernart de Ventadorn yields some of the album’s richest musical textures. Although Potter is the focus, Guy (especially when in conversation with Homburger) proves to be another defining voice. Potter’s own is the horizon line between extremes, while Surman’s soprano saxophone is achingly present, a trail of firefly light running through the darkness.
Sources run the gamut from Portuguese pilgrim song (“Menino Jesus à Lappa”) to Byzantine chant (“Theoleptus 22”). Whether cracking like parchment in the Middle English lyric of “Man in the moon,” clanging like the blacksmith’s hammer in the anonymous 15th-century “Swart mekerd smethes,” or luxuriating in the delicate unabashed descriptiveness of “Whistling in the dark,” Potter navigates all of it with a conscious comfort and playfulness of spirit. Notables include the early 16th-century carol “Corpus Christi” and the 14th-century “Fumeux fume,” the latter by the recherché French composer Solage. Both pair Potter with Surman’s bass clarinet, while the second adds Guy’s upright. Also intriguing are “Mystery play,” in which Potter occupies a back corner of the studio, and “I sing of a maiden,” another Middle English lyric that is by far the most haunting on the album.
Instrumental pieces sprinkled throughout lend reflective prowess to the program’s flow. Two improvised “triages” make contrasts of dance and shadow, while the rest put the lute of Stubbs to full effect, whether in his own improvisations or in the works of Joan Ambrosio Dalza (fl. 1508) and Pierre Attaignant (1494-1551/52). His soloing provides anchorage for the more complex spider’s filament strung between. He also ends the album as tenderly as he begins, with Attaignant’s “Prelude”: an indication of things yet to come, of dreams yet to be dreamed.
It must be said that every musician of Night Sessions is as much a singer as Potter’s voice is an instrument. They’re all storytellers, finding order in chaos, plucking pearls from historical oysters, forgotten in oceans long unswum.