The Dowland Project: Night Sessions (ECM New Series 2018)

Night Sessions

The Dowland Project
Night Sessions

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.

Monika Mauch/Nigel North: Musical Banquet (ECM New Series 1938)

Musical Banquet

Musical Banquet

Monika Mauch soprano
Nigel North lute
Recorded May 2005, Propstei St. Gerold
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Named for an anthology of lute songs compiled in 1610 by Robert Dowland (1586-1641), son of John (1563-1626), Musical Banquet offers up exactly that. Lutenist Nigel North joins soprano Monika Mauch in an expert dovetailing of musicality, detail, and, above all, emotive power. Performing such songs is no small task. The separation of lutenist from the voice that must once have issued from the same—the result of a long recital tradition—means that singer and accompanist must balance poetry and setting with poise. One hears both throughout this spaciously engineered recording, which is to say that Mauch and North bring the precise intonation of classical rigor in harmony with the raw affect of the words.

To that end, Mauch’s diction is so crisp and finely scored that, were one to snap it anywhere, it would break off in cleanest lines. Whether bound by the tenderness of “Passava Amor su arco desarmado” (Love walked by unarmed) or freed by the self-pity of “Far from triumphing court,” respectively the program’s opening and closing songs, Mauch navigates a veritable maze of lovelorn dimensions with gorgeous uplift. North’s cogent luting is equally alluring, a pleasure to behold in its adaptive variety. Between their covers flip beautiful pages—some tattered, others gilded—dripping with sentiment.

In addition to French and English songs, the repertoire includes more from Italy by Giulio Caccini (1551-1618), as well as a handful of anonymous examples from Spain. Each stream has its own quality. The French songs are like necklaces, beads held true by strings of regard. The English, especially those by Father Dowland (Robert avoided inclusion of his own), weave contradictory tapestries. The lyrics might at one moment invite with a flirtatious lilt (“Lady, if you so spite me”), while at the next steep the narrative voice in claustrophobia. In the latter vein, consider your ears fortunate should you ever encounter a more heartrending rendition of his timeless “In darkness let me dwell.”

As for the Italian, and especially the ever-popular “Amarilli mia bella” (My fair Amaryllis), they tend to favor brevity, exerting all the more inertia for it. The Spanish encompass Mauch’s depth of range, making full use of her dynamic control. Furthermore, they challenge North to maintain intrigue by switching one backdrop after another in a gallery of rhythms and styles. Such colors nuance every mystery behind the words. Throughout them all, a peppering of lute solos by John Dowland is the glue that binds. Each is a gorgeous, multifaceted thing, carved with the geometrical precision of a Celtic knot.

Not only is the music of this collection brimming with allure; it also comes to us by the art of two peerless early music interpreters. Mauch’s singing combines the innocence of an Emma Kirkby with the passion of an Arianna Savall into something uniquely her own. North, for his part, looks longingly in the mirror and draws messages from the past. All it requires is a cadence or snatch of melody, and our hand has already been taken, led through a landscape where bodies once danced before they were buried to nourish the trees that to this day grow in their place.

The Dowland Project: Romaria (ECM New Series 1970)


The Dowland Project

John Potter tenor
Miloš Valent violin, viola
John Surman soprano saxophone, bass clarinet, tenor and bass recorders
Stephen Stubbs baroque guitar, vihuela
Recorded January 2006 at Propstei St. Gerold
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The atmosphere of Romaria, the Dowland Project’s third album for ECM, is exactly like its cover: monochromatic, with a splash of cloud over a stretch of scored earth. Stripping down its ethos to barest elements, the Project takes up plainchant, anonymous monody from the Carmina Burana manuscript, and Iberian folk songs, spinning from them a lush improvisatory world sprinkled with troubadour songs and motets from, among others, Orlando di Lasso and Josquin Desprez. The new addition of Slovak violinist Miloš Valent makes for a sustained and burrowing sound that blends uncannily with Stephen Stubb’s strings.

Got schepfer aller dingen starts us off with a brood, setting the tone for a somber yet somehow vigorous album. Where this vigor comes from is hard to say. Could it be in John Surman’s hopeful bass clarinet in Veris dulcis? Or perhaps in Stubb’s plucked accompaniment in Ora pro nobis? Yet further in John Potter’s aching vulnerability in Lá lume? Whatever the source, it’s clear that the versatility and depth of songcraft here is as delicate as a moth’s wing in a lantern’s flame.

Potter, it must be said, is the heartbeat of this album, drawing out from the instrumental surroundings a most thorough vocal line. The instruments seem to grow from his soil, particularly in Dulce solum, seeming to constitute the touch of breath through lips and mind. Similarly, Der oben swebt sways like the wind in the barley, carrying up in its wisps of recollection the promise of a lively day.

Much of the album is free-flowing and at times so organically realized (note, for example, In flagellis) that one wonders if the original melodies didn’t also arise in this unscripted fashion.The instrumental Saudade is another highlight that showcases the inspiring talents of Surman, whose soprano enlivens the darkest corners of Kyrie Jesus autem transiens and Ein iberisch Postambel to mesmerizing effect. Sometimes, the instruments recede just slightly, as in O beata infantia, allowing for Potter’s voice to carve its own tracks.

Listening to an album like this, one realizes the potency of the songs chosen, existing either in fragments or thicker sketches. Freedom is given to the performer, allowing new voices to come through. Each is but a drop in a larger body of water, necessary yet invisible in its surroundings.

The Dowland Project/John Potter: Care-charming sleep (ECM New Series 1803)




The Dowland Project
John Potter
Care-charming sleep

John Potter voice
Stephen Stubbs chitarrone, baroque guitar
Maya Homburger violin
John Surman soprano saxophone, bass clarinet
Barry Guy double-bass
Recorded 2001 at Propstei St. Gerold
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

With In Darkness Let Me Dwell, ex-Hilliard Ensemble tenor John Potter did something very special for the early Baroque, for what at first seemed a wild reconfiguration of songs and motives from John Dowland and his contemporaries was instead an act of deference to the improvisatory spirit that moved the music’s inception. The song- and partbooks of Dowland’s time were never meant to be prescriptive, but to function as stepping-stones for musicians’ creative interpretations. Here this concept is taken to task, and the result is music that carries itself across great divides with fluency and, dare I say, charming care. The inclusion of reedman John Surman and bassist Barry Guy is therefore an easy one to digest in what may look on paper to be a potentially disastrous experiment but which is, in fact, a program of awesome originality, which is saying something in a market flooded with early music interpretations of varying quality.

The project has also become an appropriate venue for the music of lutenist Stephen Stubbs, who contributes four plaintive Refrains to the proceedings. The first of these begins the program and weaves an elastic and chromatic net for all that follows. Its biggest catch is without a doubt the title song by Jacobean composer Robert Johnson (1583-1634). It is presented to us in two versions. The first of these takes advantage of the entire ensemble, spinning on the edge of Maya Homburger’s tremulous violin. Potter leaps into falsetto territory against a backdrop of harmonics, even as the entrance of Surman’s soprano adds further dimension and scope. Not unlike Jan Garbarek’s work with the Hilliards, Surman feeds off the infrastructure of the music at hand, spinning from it a weave at once respectful and innovative. An interlude provides Surman room for an enchanting rumination before Potter returns to the fold. In its reprisal, Johnson’s venerable number comes to us as we might expect it: through the familiar strains of lute and voice alone. Johnson’s aching moods wash over us again in two more songs, of which “As I walked forth” is wrought with due restraint and commentary from Homburger.

The often-played “Accenti queruli” of Giovanni Felice Sances (c. 1600-1679) provides some relief from the heavy pool of sentiments in which it finds itself. The tune plays like a jam session and best exemplifies the spontaneity behind the project’s concept. The regretful note on which it ends dovetails smoothly into “Weep, weep, mine eyes.” This mournful ballad by John Wilbye (1574-1638) draws out the program’s splintered relationship to love, and expresses through its saxophonic lines a suitable harmony of word and context. Surman likewise proves himself a defining presence in “Angela siete” by Cherubino Busatti (1600-1644), for here woodwind and throat swap roles like ribbons around a maypole.

Benedetto Ferrari (c. 1603-1681) was a new name to me, and his “Già più volte tremante” is a stunning piece of notecraft. Though brief, its unexpected minor shifts and Monteverdian phrasing make for a heart-stilling monologue.Yet while this album is rich with such luscious music, a single tune by Cipriano da Rore (c. 1515-1565) is for me its flashpoint. We encounter his “Ancor che col partire” also in two versions, once with lute and violin and again with vocals. The latter ends the program with a slow flourish that descends into the crypt from which it sprang in search of sunshine.

Nothing about the Dowland Project cries gimmick. This is not a mere ploy to capitalize on overdone material, but an offering of sounds already so rich with implication that the musicians cannot help but explore those sounds for all they’re worth. Anyone wary of approaching albums like Officium may want to ease into this rewarding ECM niche with Care-charming sleep.

John Dowland: In Darkness Let Me Dwell (ECM New Series 1697)


John Dowland
In Darkness Let Me Dwell

John Potter tenor
Maya Homburger baroque violin
Stephen Stubbs lute
John Surman soprano saxophone and bass clarinet
Barry Guy double-bass
Recorded January 1999, Forde Abbey, Dorset
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Weep you no more, sad fountains;
What need you flow so fast?

So begins ECM’s first foray into the sounds and songs of John Dowland (1563-1626), Renaissance lutenist and a songwriter for all ages. While many have captures the dance of voice and strings by which he set his chisel to the lathe of courtly melancholia, the group of musicians assembled on this disc manages to carve something refreshingly immediate. Explains tenor John Potter, creative director of what would come to be known as the Dowland Project, “This is the first time anyone’s approached Dowland not from an ‘early music’ angle, but simply as music. We’re working with Dowland as though he were still with us.” The present recording foregrounds early music’s malleability and upholds Dowland as a great improviser. It is precisely this spirit that coheres Potter and his rogues-in-arms. Stephen Stubbs provides the requisite lute, and with it a boundless cache of creative energy for all to share. It was at the suggestion of producer Manfred Eicher that double-bassist Barry Guy and Baroque violinist Maya Homburger were brought on board. Yet the most seemingly incongruous instrumental addition was that of jazz reedman John Surman, who actually ends up being the most conservative of the instrumentalists, providing a steady bass clarinet continuo and smooth saxophonic lines throughout.

For this collection of ayres and other curios, Potter and company have hand picked a fine array for our auditory pleasure. The disc’s crowning highlights come from the First Book of Songs. “Come Again” synthesizes the melodic relay between Potter and Surman with the utmost respect, as do the visceral “Now, O Now I Needs Must Part” and “Come, Heavy Sleep.” Guy delights us with his palpable lyricism in “Go Crystal Tears,” a song in which Surman also succeeds to astonishingly brilliant effect. From the Second Book of Songs, we get two polar opposites. The mournful “Flow My Tears” flows like honey from a wilting hive and makes two appearances on the album. Fine Knacks For Ladies is a more whimsical number. Potter’s quiet refrain of “the heart is true” resounds with genuine delight. The Third Book of Songs gives up two tearful ghosts of its own, of which The Lowest Trees Have Tops walks the most precarious line between laughter and lamentation. Surman’s bass clarinet infuses the title song, taken from A Pilgrimes Solace, and acts like a fulcrum of emotional balance. Potter is at his finest here, caressing every word with ceremonial urgency. Rounding out the program are three selections from Dowland’s Lachrimae, a book of pavanes based on Flow My Tears. Two of these are instrumentals that go straight for the heart, while the final track, “Lachrimae Amantis,” finds Potter slipping into countertenor on a pure and open Ah.

While perhaps not as cohesive as the project’s later albums (those with perfect pitch may stumble here and there in this darkness), In Darkness succeeds with no small humility in looking beyond Dowland’s enchanting, affected veneer and into the vivacious and melodious heart within. All in all, this is an emotionally satisfying start to an intriguing New Series project.