Joe Downard ‘Seven Japanese Tales’ CD (Ubuntu Music) 4/5

Inspired by the deep and lyrical collection of short stories by writer Junichiro Tanizaki, UK bassist Joe Downard makes his debut as composer and band-leader with this refreshingly innovative album. The music features a range of moods and dynamics, supported by soundscapes, analogue electronics and an energised acoustic septet featuring the composer on bass, Alex Hitchcock on sax, James Copus on trumpet, Will Barry on piano, Rupert Cox on synths, and Felix Ambach on drums.

Junichiro Tanizaki was a masterful storyteller and was awarded Japan’s imperial prize in literature in 1949. His collected stories “Seven Japanese Tales” explore themes along the lines of love becoming self-annihilation, contemplation of beauty that gives way to fetishism, and where tradition becomes an instrument of voluptuous cruelty. Heavy subject matter it may be, but it’s always written in a meticulous and poetic way. It’s easy to see how this Japanese writer could have influenced Downard’s musical adventures, and the composer’s “Seven Japanese Tales” stand up on their own as highly imaginative musical tales.

Downard’s compositions are distinctive and intriguing. There’s energy, excitement, joy and reflection all rolled into these seven tracks. Although each piece was conceptualised and penned by the bassist, the actual session was very much a collaborative process between all of the musicians. Downard wrote the tunes with the specific musicians in mind so that when the time came to record he would have known that an intuitive and collaborative effort should enhance the pieces, bringing new ideas and a collective spirit to the proceedings. And it certainly worked, with the whole album being recorded in a day ready for post-production, the results are at times startlingly good.

Apart from the book itself, Downard also took inspiration from many musical avenues, including Radiohead, James Blake, Messiaen and Ambrose Akinmusire. Downard’s music is as diverse as those names might suggest, with genuine originality coursing through each of the tracks presented here. The composer’s music is overflowing with creativity and colour, and none more so than on the album opener “A portrait of Shunkin”. A heady mix of acoustic piano, subtle electronics, heightened drums and bass and enigmatic sax and trumpet firing out the melody can’t fail to impress. In some ways, I’m reminded of Brian Blade’s Fellowship, or even Joe Zawinul, with such a cool vibe and rousing moments sparking fresh emotions as the tune progresses. “Terror” is one of the most lyrical pieces on the album, almost anthemic in its cascading brilliance. The Zen-like “Bridge Of Dreams” offers thoughtful contemplation. Meditative in nature, it delves and it toys, delivering a multi-layered subtle beauty. “The Tattooist” has an epic filmic quality to it, imaginatively working its way through time like a jazz-infused best of Morricone set. Reflective yet alluring, “Aguri” features some tropically wonderful acoustic soloing, luxuriating in the presence of a synth-laden atmosphere. “The Thief” gives all the band members the opportunity to stretch out in style, and “A Blind Man’s Tale” evokes a frenzy of thought as it crashes and burns, before rising again with an optimistic omnipresence. The short but sweet “My dreams are all in black and white” closes the album like a gatecrashed Donald Byrd vocal-led piece from a time gone by.

“Seven Japanese Tales” is a mesmerising debut from Joe Downard. On this evidence, he has to be one to watch for the future. His music is fresh and inspiring, with a free creative spirit that one hopes will continue to flourish in the years ahead.

Mike Gates