Kit Downes and Tom Challenger ‘Vyamanikal’ CD (Slip) 4/5

kit-downes-tom-challenger“Vyamanikal” is the Slip debut of organist Kit Downes and tenor saxophonist Tom Challenger. Recorded in five Suffolk churches during 2015, the duo explore the native nuances of the instruments, combining an ethereal contemplative approach with the unique atmosphere of their surroundings. Named after the ancient Sanskrit term for flying machines: Vaimanika Shastra- this album is the pair’s follow up to 2012’s “Wedding Music”. Whereas their first release appeared to be focussed on melody, this recording is most definitely more left-field, celebrating music-making at its most meditative and transient. It’s impossible to listen to this music without visualising the surroundings in which it was performed and recorded. The natural ambience and acoustics created within the churches enable Downes and Challenger to use the spaces they work in to sketch intimate improvisations around a theme or musical thought, thereby capturing a perfect balance between the three main ingredients; the room, the instrument, and the performer. The results are often spellbinding, with Downes teasing seemingly ancient or scarcely heard sounds from the organs, and Challenger zoning in on the feel and mood of the sound, creating pastoral and subtly innovative soundscapes that embellish and further open up the textural heart of the music being created.

The music on “Vyamanikal” takes on an almost spiritual reverence. On the opening two numbers, “Apicha” and Bdhak”, it’s as if the musicians are feeling their way in, taking on board the depth, history and possible meaning of where they are and what they are doing there. The sounds are minimal, with low organ drones, swirling pumps and dissonant noises being coaxed from every sinew of the instrument. Reflective in nature, the listener can hear bird-song in the distance and at times it is difficult to identify which sound is coming from which instrument. Yet all of this adds to the coherent and rewarding experience one gets from simply listening with an open mind, allowing the colours and textures of the music to flow effortlessly through the body, shimmering, glowing and constantly changing. There is little pattern or form here, it just is what it is. A somewhat darker mood ensues with “Sa”, with deeper, more powerful sounds being coerced out of the organ by Downes. Challenger responds accordingly with the gift of intuitive thought emanating a spacial awareness as his sax melds time and space with sound. These themes of thoughtful interaction continue on “Vistri” and “Jyotir”, the latter benefitting from some wonderful sustain from the organ as Challenger’s sax deftly skips a quiet, mesmeric dance of its own. “Maar-ikar” heralds the return of bird-song, thoughtfully mixed into the living, breathing universe of the internal mechanisms and workings of the organ itself. The duo signs off with “Nya-aya”, which once again focusses the mind on the subtleties of sound, thought-provoking and mesmeric in its own splendid acoustic setting, almost ambivalently solemn, yet with an undercurrent of sincerity and an elusive, profound meaning.

Downes and Challenger take their innovative approach to making music to Manchester on Thursday 28th July 2016. As part of the Manchester Jazz Festival, they will be performing live at St. Ann’s Church. I truly wish I could be there, as I would imagine hearing their music performed in such a setting will be a beautiful thing to behold.

Mike Gates