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The Dowland Project: Night Sessions
First descent [1:17]
Menino Jesus à Lappa [7:07]
Recercar (Joan Ambrosio Dalza) [1:13]
Can vei la lauzeta mover [6:51]
First triage (Bernart de Ventadorn) [6:58]
Man in the moon [7:30]
Corpus Christi [2:54]
Whistling in the dark [5:24]
Swart mekerd smethes [5:03]
Fumeux fume (Solage) [3:23]
Hortus ignotus [4:11]
Mystery play [3:40]
I sing of a maiden [3:57]
Theoleptus 22 [5:53]
Second descent [0:30]
Second triage [5:23]
Prelude (Pierre Attaignant) [1:05]
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)
rec. September 2001, January 2006, Propstei St Gerold.
ECM NEW SERIES 2018 [72:29]

Drawing on musicians already known as part of the ECM stable, John Potter’s Dowland Project bases its musical creativity on numerous traditions, inevitably including a strong element of early music, but also on improvisation and tracks built up from pieces which have survived in the barest of outlines and just a small amount of notation. The Romaria album has been reviewed here, and those acquainted with these kinds of programme will already have some idea of what to expect.
The use of saxophone, in this case used with subtle brushstrokes of sound as played by John Surman, calls up associations with the Jan Garbarek/Hilliard Ensemble with albums such as Officium Novum, but with instruments having a central role there is also a relation to the work or Rolf Lislevand, though John Potter’s musical choices are typically less fun and more reflective in nature.
John Potter’s booklet notes explain something of the background to these recordings: “We’d finished recording and were celebrating a very creative couple of days working on the album that became  Care-charming sleep. Sometime after midnight, after a very convivial evening, Manfred Eicher suddenly said, ‘let’s go back into the church and record some more ...’. … we had run out of music, [but] as it happened, I had some medieval poems with me, so we decided to see what we could do with those.” Released from the inhibitions of planned recording sessions, the results were spontaneous and surprising, and there are indeed some lovely moments here, from the lively dancing of the First Triage to the ‘jazz-sprechstimme’ improvisation of Man in the Moon and the sustained lamenting sounds of the Portuguese pilgrim’s song Menino Jesus à Lappa.
There is much which is admirable in these late-night single-take creations, with the musicians attuned to each other and to the direction in which each number takes them. The whole thing has the feeling of a voyage of discovery, and while not every moment in every piece is equally convincing, there are in fact very few places where a phrase or note could be argued as out of place.
Whether you like this or not is really whether you have already ‘bought into’ the ECM ethos, or at least, into that part which is strong on experiment. The results are very fine sounding, but for me the whole is a bit too much of a good thing. I do unreservedly admire Manfred Eicher’s pioneering spirit, and this is very much part of ECM’s unique sound and philosophy, but in the end I can’t help feeling that this is comparable to the intensive mining of an increasingly narrow seam. There is beauty here, but I don’t find much which is really moving - to me this is more a collection of fascinating B-sides than something really transcendent. There is improvisation, but nothing which really goes beyond well-established conventions in either jazz or early music. There are the sonorities of the new placed against the old: timeless voice and strings both plucked and bowed against modern reeds and jazzy bass, but we’ve heard all of these before. It’s all very nice and I’m not seriously against ‘more of same’, but as with the Garbarek/Hilliard best-selling formula I find myself becoming restless for development and growth into something which makes me say ‘wow’ and ‘I wish I’d thought of that …’
Dominy Clements