With the only notable exception of Spanish Plain, composition included in Elastic Jazz -
an anthology of contemporary British Jazz (Auditorium, 2005, CD + book)
- silence had fallen on Bob Downes, one of the most eclectic provocateurs on the British scene, between Sixties and Seventies. Then, in 2007, Vocalion’s Mike Dutton reprinted Diversions (1971), masterpiece of “open” jazz where Spanish Plain first had appeared, and followed suit with two other important items in this jazzman’s discography: Episodes at 4 AM (1974) and Hells Angels (1975).
Finally, in december 2008, Mike King’s Reel Recording provided the
icing on the cake: a previously unissued 1974 recording of the Bob
Downes Open Music collective, titled Crossing Borders, in which
Downes can be heard in the company of Barry Guy, Brian Godding, Paul
Rutherford, John Stevens and others. A cultivated musician, adept of
musical cross-breeding, a virtuoso of the flute (he’s able to play more
than 25 instruments) and a composer for theatre and modern dance
companies, Bob Downes has been active in music for over forty,
tumultuous years. After starting out with the John Barry 7 in the early
Sixties, he worked with Mike Westbrook, Keith Tippett, Ray Russell,
John Stevens, Barre Phillips, Linsday Cooper, Julie Driscoll etc before
launching, in the early Seventies, his own Open Music, one of the most
fertile and advanced musical collectives of its times, on a level with
the Sponteneous Music Ensemble or the AMM of Eddie Prévost and Keith
Rowe. In the Eighties he has performed as a highlight on Poet festivals
in Europe with poets like William S. Burroughs, Gregory Corso and
Lawrence Ferlinghetti and in his most recent production we find him
exploring new musical universes, composing melodies more and more
rarefied and meditative.
Let’s start talking about your last release Crossing Borders
recorded in the Seventies. Can you briefly tell the genesis of this
unpublished work (till now) which involves many musicians from the
British Jazz area as Brian Godding, Paul Rutherford, Barry Guy, John
Stevens and others? How did you get in touch with them?
I was inspired to write Crossing Borders
after an amazing 6 week tour of South America. But don't expect to
hear a "latin jazz" album, that was far from my intention. Barry Guy I
met at a jam session at the Old Place and was instantly "blown away"
with his playing and right away felt that he was going to be a bassist
that would contribute superbly to my ideas. On some tracks of Crossing Borders
I use two bassists which I've often done if the opportunity arose. It
ensures that the "groove " isn't lost when one of them takes a solo.
Rutherford and Stevens I met in the Royal Air Force Music School. Only
briefly, because I was considered good enough to be posted almost
straight away to one of the bands, which was good news as it meant I
didn't have to stay in the school and learn all those dreaded music
scales. But bad news, as I wasn't to meet up with these guys again for
another 3 years. Even whilst I was waiting to be sent to another camp,
Stevens and I only got together twice for a jam. The first time to
"blow" on the theme of Monk's Straight no chaser. As I just got
started into my solo we were stopped by a sergeant. That really left a
feeling of being castrated. He was telling us that playing jazz was
forbidden. A laugh really as the jazz musicians were the only ones that
were capable of playing their instruments in these bands. The second
time we managed to get together for a session in the canteen, but again
we were ordered to stop after about 10 mins. All those years of being
in a military band felt like a punishment to me for a crime I hadn't
done. To keep my sanity I used the immense volume of the military band
as a backing for secret jazz improvisations on parades. The first time
I met Godding was on a gig with Mike Westbrook. I immediately
recognised that this guy had "something to say". Brian mentioned to me
recently that playing with me always made him feel like being "thrown
in the deep end". But he always proved himself to be a very good
swimmer. That fact is very noticable of his playing on Crossing Borders.
Musically speaking is Crossing Borders an evolution of your multicultural jazz trademark stated in Diversions, your seminal work recorded in 1971 for your own label Openian?
course the cd title is not only stipulating that I have literally
crossed countless frontiers of South America, but the experiences and
atmospheres that I encountered in this vast continent allowed me to
continue to cross my own cultural borders and to put them into a
How did you develop your personal style of playing? I mean you
started playing with John Barry 7 and with pop singers/combo like Chris
Andrews and Manfred Mann’s Earth Band but, I think you wanted quickly
to move to “high culture” jazz and avantgarde territory...
think much of my personal style is partly due to never having really
exersised music scales and arpeggios which can be detected in most jazz
musician's playing. I abhor them! Kathy Berberian's unorthodox use of
the voice of whom I saw “live” a couple of times in London, inspired me
to use my voice in a similar way but simultaniously playing the flute.
I also like to sing and hum whilst playing, not just in unison, but in
harmony above or below the tones that I play, or hold a tone with the
voice and play various tones on the flute at the same time and vica
versa. But I like it all to have some meaning and not just effect. I
think the flute more than any other instrument can give a person the
opportunity for a vast exploration of expression. Recently I made an
adaption to the bassflute by replacing the foot joint with the "U" bend
of my contrabassflute and putting a cork in the end.This produces a
tone far below the usual range.Then I did the same with the
contrabassflute. You won't believe what the result of that is! Of
course with changing the flutes in this way I'm missing several tones
which are usually there, but it hasn't turned out to be a problem that
I can't overcome. I can well understand, if from what I've just said,
you might think that what I play sound very abstract and experimental,
but on the contrary, it is very jazzy, rhythmic, blues like and
sometimes "straight ahead". Now, regarding the pop scene. It was most
enjoyable playing with the "John Barry 7". I liked the themes and
arrangements. The “front line up” was trumpet, tenor sax and bari sax,
a nice texture and colour combination. It was fun also working with
Chris Andrews because Chris sang the blues real good. But what we
played "live" was very much different to what the record buying public
knew him for. We'd get his pop hit Yesterday Man over with
early in the performance to satisfy the fans and then get "down to it".
Almost every piece we played was based on a 12 bar blues and very riff
like..and I had ample opportunity for solos…
"The Earth Band"
wasn't my scene, I dug Manfred's playing, but that mindless predictable
rigid drumming bored me. My heart of course had belonged to jazz from
the very first moment I began playing tenor sax. I had no previous
knowledge of music but started improvising and composing with the sax
from "day one" and even made up my own notation for the first week or
so until I got down to learning to read music. Anyway I felt like a
break was needed from the pop scene and actually went into the night
club scene for a couple of years working in 2 different venues nightly,
6 days a week from 9 pm - 4.30 am with just a 1 hour pause. Sometimes
we even played at a hotel on a Sunday but only at these gigs for
something like two 1 hour spots. It felt like being on holiday compared
to the night club gig. My "big break" came unexpected with a commission
from the Ballet Rambert. From then on I was able to concentrate totally
on my musical activities and so I was able to pack up the night club
scene. The year was 1969.
In the Seventies you have been always interested in many
different kind of music: jazz, rock, contemporary, classical,
electronic, oriental and so on. It seems that you have always tried to
expand your spectrum of influences. Can you speak about your main
sources of inspiration (Ornette Coleman, Severino Gazzelloni, Roland
Miles Davis lp's of the late 50's were a big
inspiration to me. I paid more attention to what he was “putting down”
even though Coltrane was on the same album. I liked the Stan Kenton
Orchestra but one day, I was only about 19 years of age at the time and
living at home, my mother mentioned how the music depressed her, so
rather than be tempted to play them while she was in earshot. I threw
them all in the dustbin. I liked Ornette's playing but all of my
jazzfan friends didn't, making stupid comments as to how he couldn't
play, but that didn't deter me. At this time I heard Sonny Rollins'
tune Doxy which was on an ep record. I was "caught". A few
years later I heard Kirk on record and loved that nose whistle he blew
at the end of his solo statements. Compositionally perfect! In contrast
I liked listening to composers such as Petrassi, Debussy and
Penderecki. By the way it was John Stevens who called by with a
Gazzelloni lp for me to listen to. And I did! Fascinating!
Despite your various collaborations with a lot of musicians and
composers of the British scene (Guy, Tippett, Westbrook, Russell etc.)
you have always preferred to stay a bit apart from the emerging British
jazz circuit and to follow your own way. Do you agree?
scene at the time fell pretty much into two categories. Bands that
either played only “standards” or only “free jazz”. I was outside both
of them. I don't dislike standards, in fact I admire most of them,
especially remembering my mother singing Body and Soul, The man I love, Summertime
and many others. But I don't like to be "controled" with improvising on
AABA-formats.What annoys me is that jazz groups first state the theme
and then ramble off into improvisations that bear no connection with it
any further. Of course there are elements of free jazz in my music
also. There were people that would ask me how much was improvisation
and how much was composition in my solos. I like to think of what I do,
when playing as "instant composition".
Have you ever played at the Old Place in London or at the Little Theatre Club in London?
a few times, but I needed to be apart from it and delve more into what
I was searching for and not get “side tracked” by other forms of music
that was going on.
How do you look to your first works as Electric City and Deep Down Heavy, quirky jazz mixed with a clear heavy rock approach? And what about Rock Workshop experience with guitarist Ray Russell?
When Vertigo records asked me to do an album it just hit the right time to allow me to "let the steam off". So Electric City
was born. They requested that I keep the tracks relatively short, as
they obviously wanted to release a single from one of them. So there
was no possibility to give players like Kenny Wheeler, Harold Beckett
and Ian Carr any solos which I would have dearly loved to have done.
But this would have turned it into a jazz album which was not required.
It was also the first time that I was to work together with a lyricist.
I believe that most of the pieces were approached by me writing first a
bass guitar line followed by a theme and then Bob Cockburn with the
lyrics. Before the recording sessions I requested Ray Russell, whose
name is an artist name which I incidentally invented for him back in
the "John Barry 7" days, to bring his 12-string guitar. But he didn't.
I often wonder how different the album would have sounded if he had,
because I really like the sound of that instrument. I love the sound of
octaves. For instance tenor sax and trumpet in unison, you can't beat
it! Here's a story for you: I have a Chinese musician friend in London
that used to rehearse with his Chinese band members in his basement,
and as you may know, Chinese music is all played in unison. When I had
a flute with me I'd join in with improvisation and I can tell you, I'd
get some strange looks from them. Where were we? Oh yeah! As one of the
trumpet players was leaving the studio after the last session of Electric City, I noticed that the back of his shirt was soaking wet from sweat.
likely from all those high A's and E-flats, which occur quite often in
the arrangements which I can assure you were not "looped". Seeing him
in that condition made me feel guilty, so I called him back and paid
him something extra out of my own money. Kenny Wheeler missed out on
that, as he had already left the studio. Sorry about that Kenny!
Deep Down Heavy was recorded soon after Electric City.
Some of the pieces were recorded of me playing on buses and the
underground which attracted me to the project in the first place. The
others were mostly recorded at the Caxton Hall in London, a place
mainly used for recordings of classical music. For the "heavy stuff "
we were putting down, the excellent acoustic properties were a bit too
echo-like. Hearing each other and even ourselves was difficult. I
suggested that we form a circle, which helped a lot. No editing was
done on either of the albums, which would have been nigh on impossible
to do with the recording of Deep Down Heavy because of the 3 to
4 secs. reverb in the room. Now regarding Ray Russell's Rock Workshop:
It was a "total gas" being involved in that album. Alex Harvey sang on
the album also - wonderful! The recording was done in two days of non
stop raving and I had a feeling of sadness when it was all over and
"put in the can". It felt like a breaking up of a family. I could have
played on and on and on!
What’s the most interesting/valuable collaboration in your long career?
with modern dance. I was given such a “free hand”. It astounded me to
see what a choreographer would do with what I had composed.
And what’s the best musician/composer you have ever met or played with?
never had favourites with anything. I feel it would only limit me.
There are countless players whose playing I love. Having said that,
Barre Philips playing vibrated through my whole system when he was the
Bass man of my Open Music Trio playing my jazz score Diversions
on the London Contemporary Dance Theatre tour in Paris and Berlin.
Barry Guy's arco playing always "knocked me out". In the making of the Diversions
lp I gave him a lot of opportunity to use the bow. I wanted people to
hear what he is able to do, as jazz bassists on the whole were not very
good at arco. Barry could "lay down" a good groove as well. I've always
enjoyed playing with drummer Denis Smith, a man that has a great
knowledge of many styles of music. We "cooked" nicely together. He
never plays too loud, very important for with flute accompaniment. I
remember during an interval on one gig I was a trifle angry with Denis,
asking him why for Heavens' sake he had stopped playing for a while
during a "number". "I was listening to you" he answered. This is
typical for Denis, no matter who Denis plays with he really listens to
what is going on and integrates beautifully his ideas to make it all
work. Denis and I first made jazz music with each other back in our
home town Plymouth around 1956 when we took up playing a musical
instrument at the same time. You could say we "grew" together musically.
Why did you decide in the late Sixties to create your own
independent label Openian? Many others jazz composers followed your
example like Graham Collier (Mosaic) or Hazel Miller (Ogun).
Well, I had recorded Diversions and Hells Angels for
Philips Records which was to be a double album. They wanted me to get
them published which I didn't want. It would have given me the feeling
of parting with some of my soul. As a consequence they refused to
release the album. My negative reaction towards them probably came
during the recordings as they said they would pay me 15 pounds
arrangement fee for each title and therefore felt cheated and got angry
when only paid that amount for the Hells Angels track which was 18 and half minutes duration.
I failed to realise at the time was, that the record company and the
publishers were one and the same thing and quite naturally they wanted
to get some money back via radio plays etc. I bought the tapes off them
for next to nothing, you could say for nothing, as they had forgotten
that they had already paid me a producer fee for the recordings. Being
no longer with Philips Records gave me the idea to create my own label
Openian on which the first production was 2000 LP's of Diversions.
But selling them proved to be difficult, as the major record companies
warned the distributors not to take Openian lp's or otherwise they
would get into trouble with them.
Your first lp Dream Journey (1969) was a commission for
music to accompany dance by the Ballet Rambert. Your relationship with
dance has always been very strong and in your career you have composed
pieces for many ballet companies or contemporary dance groups. Can you
explain the origins of this interest?
It all goes back to when I
was 4 years of age and used to sneak into a cinema, find myself an
empty seat in the darkness. The films were meant for adults only, very
dramatic and so was the music, which had a great impact on me. It
lasted into my adulthood. Later being involved in modern dance it was I
who was creating the "sound track" to the dramatic "pictures" taking
place on stage. My first score for modern ballet came about because I
happened to know a classical percussionist. who was called Derek Hogg
until he asked me to find a better name for him. He became Derek
Davison and "oh boy" could he make the timpani roar. Derek worked with
the Ballet Rambert. Derek came around to my “pad” for a visit curious
to know what I was doing musically. I played him a recent 2 ½ min. solo
flute composition of mine. He suggested that I orchestrate it and
extend the length to suit a modern dance work. I saw this as an
interesting challenge, went ahead, composed it in two movements and it
ended up about 26 mins. The 1st movement for 2 flutes and 3 percussionists: Davison, Stevens and Smith. The 2nd
movement I added 2 tenor saxes, bari sax, 3 trumpets, which included
Kenny Wheeler punching out the high notes and a contrabassist who was
required to play an ostinato in 3/8 time for 14 mins. I'm glad that I
didn't have to undertake this task. One time it was Harry Miller
another occasion Daryl Runswick who was Ray Russell's regular bass
guitarist. Also at this time I met Wendy Benka, who later worked with
me as a musician. Now, Wendy knew a choreographer with the “Rambert”
who was desperately looking for something new and different. So, with
the recommendation of Wendy and Derek, a meeting was arranged with the
choreographer. Hence out of that came Dream Journey.
Did you also play "live" with dance companies? Could you speak about these “live” experiences?
I was commissioned to create music for tape which was music concrete.
The recording was used for the performance and when the dance, costume
and lighting had been made to it, I would then add new sounds and play
“live” to what I saw before me and improvise freshly at each
performance. Mostly with percussion, as I had many gongs, various kinds
of Chinese cymbals and self made instruments of dry bones, snail
shells, bamboo sticks and anything I could find, making an interesting
sound texture. Composing and of course playing live for dance is
fascinating, for it makes you experience your music within a totally
different media. You live in the idea of the stage production and
complete and widen it with your own musical creativity. When we played Diversions
with The London Contemporary Dance Theatre my Open Music Trio was even
part of the stage set. There were certain passages in the music that
had to be played to correspond with the dance, but there was also ample
opportunity to improvise. The work was 45 mins duration and sometimes
when the performance was over, we were so high that when we got back to
the dressing room we would continue jamming together.
Another big area of interest is poetry. You write poems and you
performed in poet festivals with poets like William Burroughs, Gregory
Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Could you tell us something about that?
they took place in Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Paris and Rome. I was quoted
as poet and was the only one who at the same time combined it with
music. On one of the festivals I sang a song of mine which contained
the words "Coke…some people sniff it ..burns your brain away". Gregory
Corso was in the audience and screamed out "No it fuckin' don't man, no
it fuckin' don't". Gregory was a very lovable guy. I also was on a Poet
festival in Rome situated in a park of the Villa Borghese with several
thousand people in the audience sitting on the grass. At one point
whilst Steve Lacy was setting up his soprano sax stand on stage, I went
to the back of the audience and, in my "West Side Story" voice called
out "Maria"!!! and as I expected it, hundreds of female heads turned to
see who was calling them.
In the late Seventies you moved to Germany where you’re living
now. And you also changed your artistic directions: no more jazz but
meditative and ambient music. Why?
It could have had something
to do with all of a sudden living quite isolated in the countryside
after having lived for almost 20 years in London. One day my wife came
into my studio and suggested to think of a work with "Stonehenge" in
mind. At that time I had a bassflute made in ex East Germany. It was
particulary good in the overtones, which I used in the composition to
bring out the magic side of the 5000 year old Stone circle. Also I'm
sometimes asked to compose music in communication of paintings and
sculptures. One time at an Art Exhibition, Tina came out with the
suggestion to play along with a recording of some tibetan monks,
singing the "OM" heard over the speakers at the venue while I was
"setting up" my "horns". The result was that in the following 3 years I
produced 3 cd's with this OM, on which I play tenor, alto and soprano
sax. Concerflute, altoflute, bassflute, contrabassflute, Japanese
bambooflute, ocarina and glass flute. The glass flute I played at a
concert one time and someone in the audience called out that he didn't
believe it was made of glass. I said Oh yeah? I 'll hit it against the
mike stand and if it doesn't break you get a thousand euro, but if it
does smash to pieces, then you give me a thousand euro. He curled up in
his seat and remained silent. Mind you, I would not have been happy to
have won the bet if I had been taken on.
Is there anything unreleased in the archive? Do you have any new projects in the pipeline?
you should ask that, as at any moment the postman will be dropping in
my letterbox, tapes of my Open Music Trio in concert, that were
recorded by a fan of mine back in the good old 70's.
As far as new
projects are concerned, I'm busy working on new compositions for my
flutes with the appendages. I've also re-shaped all my sax mouthpieces
recently and discovering a fresh approach to my playing.
Translation of introduction by Marco Bertoli