Monday 30 April 2018

Marking International Day of Jazz With Mike Downes

WATERLOO Ont., (April 30, 2018) --- I can not let the International Day of Jazz go past without a blog post about Mike Downes and his award-winning CD called Root Structure.

Downes is a bassist, composer, recording artist, college instructor and busy-gigging artist out of Toronto.  He is among the most prominent jazz players in the country. 

Root Structure won Jazz Album of the Year: Solo at the Juno Awards recently.  The Junos are Canada's music awards.  What's important here is the CD, not the award. This collection of original music by Downes is about as close to perfect as it gets. Inventive, lyrical, fresh, fun and spontaneous.

Joining the Toronto-based composer on this CD is Robi Botos on piano, Larnell Lewis of Snarky Puppy fame on drums, and Ted Quinlan on guitar.  All are leading artists on the Canadian jazz scene. All of them teach in Humber College's vaunted jazz program.

"Recording with these guys is like a breeze," says Downes.  "So we did a couple takes of everything.  A lot of the stuff is like first take.  So yeah, it's great, we are very happy with it."

The title track is a duet. Downes on bass and Lewis on drums.  Very catchy and funky.

"It's pretty cool," says Downes.

There is a tribute to Miles Davis' electric era called Miles. It features Quinlan's guitar. In all, there are 10 tracks on the CD, all of the material is primarily written by Downes.

It includes a beautiful jazz arrangement of Chopin's Opus 28 No. 20.

"I have many musical influences and I love the music of Chopin," says Downes.  "And I have always wanted to do this piece. It is a prelude in C Minor. It is such a beautiful piece."

Downes had the great pleasure of performing with the legendary American jazz guitarist and composer Pat Metheny at Koerner Hall in Toronto.  It was a great night that inspired Downes to compose the track called Flow.

"Yeah, it was very good," says Downes of performing with Metheny.  "And Pat is a hero of mine, and this tune is somewhat inspired by his melodicism."

There is a track called Raven that was inspired by an Edgar Allen Poe's famous poem.

"It's actually not that dark a tune," says Downes.  "It is a very dark poem."

Root Structure was recorded in the Humber College studios in two sessions in August 2016. It was not released until the winter of 2017. The range of the compositions, and the unbridled musicality of the quartet will have you listening to this CD over and over.  Steve Bellamy was the engineer.

"He is so good, it was so easy," says Downes.

Downes plays a 160-year-old bass made in France.  Just before taking the quartet into the studio to record Root Structure, the beautiful instrument started buzzing.

"My  bass had a major buzz going on for like a week before," says Downes.  "I kept bringing it in, trying to get it fixed.  And the day before the recording I got it fixed.  It was totally cool. Then the night before we were going to record it started buzzing again, and I was like: 'Oh my God.'"

He ended up putting a belt around the bass for the studio session.

"It's pretty funny, it worked okay.  It was just ridiculous," says Downes.

The buzzing disappeared after Downes bought a second dehumidifier for his house.

"Basses are crazy, yeah, basses are crazy," says Downes.

If you already listen to Downes music, you will love this CD.  He is a creative and vital composer.  His 2014 CD Ripple Effect, which also won a Juno Award, features a beautiful track called Bell Park, which is on the shores of Ramsey Lake in Sudbury. 

After playing the Sudbury Jazz Festival, Downes walked through the beautiful, lake-side park and was inspired to write this gorgeous tune.  That track joins a pantheon of Canadian jazz tunes inspired by the emotional connections of composers to places.  Think Oscar Peterson's Place St. Henri, or Joe Sealey's Inverness.

If you did not know today was the International Day of Jazz, that's cool. Most people don't.   But know it is a thing, so declared by UNESCO.  This year's ambassador for the day is Herbie Hancock. The official celebration is in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Instead of lamenting what you missed in St. Petersburg, tomorrow, you can buy Root Structure to mark the day, and support a great jazz artist.

I learned about International Jazz Day by reading my weekly newsletter from SmallsLIVE/Mezzrow that Spike Wilner writes.  As usual when it comes to all things jazz, Spike nails it.

"I remember being invited to the concert a few years back when the U.N. when this day was first created.  I found it remarkable that the United Nations would do something like this --- to celebrate our music in this way.  And yet, what could be more appropriate for a unifying vision of the world?  I've said it over and over again --- Jazz is the international music for peace. It is a true 'world' music -- open to everyone with ears that can hear it," writes Spike.

"Hopefully the great message of Jazz --- the beauty and joy and feel of this music can permeate the entire world and bring us together like nothing else.  Happy Jazz Day!" says Spike's newsletter.

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