REVIEW: Lewis Wright and Kit Downes at Pizza Express Jazz Club (Duets launch gig)

Lewis Wright
Smartphone picture by John L. Walters ©️2018

Lewis Wright – Duets album launch
(Pizza Express, Dean Street, London, 9 April 2018. Review by John L. Walters)

Lewis Wright’s new album Duets (Signum Classics) reinforces his claim to be a very serious international musician. If you already thought as much – on the evidence of his exemplary vibes work with Empirical – then Duets adds a further seven case studies of exquisite chamber jazz, beautifully recorded at Air Studios.

Kit Downes and Lewis Wright
Smartphone pictures by John L. Walters ©️2018
The set-up appears simple: vibraphone and grand piano (Kit Downes) in a sympathetic space, with enough amplification to get the air molecules moving. But heard live, the seven compositions are even more overwhelming and intense than on record. To be in a small club while Downes and Wright hammer out the convoluted hocketing parts of Fortuna – like Louis Andriessen with jazz chords – is to experience a highly pleasurable sensory overload.

The compositions are finely crafted, juxtaposing long, through-composed sections with solos within well conceived structures. Wright is a jazz composer who knows how to write tunes that are both launch pad and docking station for improvisation. And he has a true composer’s sense of when less is more: note the chiming, descending, eight-chord sequence that forms a restrained coda to Sati.

Wright is not afraid to embrace sentimentality, as in the melody of Kintamani, which would make a good movie theme. The influence of Gary Burton and Chick Corea’s Crystal Silence lurks behind any such instrumental coupling, and Wright graciously acknowledges when introducing Tokyo 81, which he dedicates to the famous duo. He recalls owning a VHS of Burton and Corea’s famous Japanese concert, which he watched repeatedly as a Norfolk schoolboy.

Though Wright has established an approach to vibes playing that is notably different to Burton’s, the influence of Corea, Steve Swallow and Mike Gibbs (all of whom contributed tunes to the Crystal Silence duo), surfaces in Wright’s writing from time to time. And tunes such as Fire And Flow and An Absence Of Heart are terrific vehicles for Wright’s dazzling, unabashed virtuosity. Which is what we all still need from jazz, as well as good tunes.

What Downes (a childhood friend, also from Norfolk) and Wright do is less American, less folksy, more European than Corea and Burton. The vibes/piano sound is both intimate and cool, and there’s an emotional depth to the music you only get from players who have reached a degree of instrumental mastery and ventured beyond. This extra dimension is demonstrated by Ono No Komachi, a song named after the legendary ninth-century Japanese poet. Downes’s contribution to the duo is generous, yet self-effacing: Duets is very much Wright’s turn in the spotlight.

For their encore, having played the entire repertoire from the Duets album, Downes and Wright return to raise the roof with a playful, almost Baroque version of Thelonious Monk’s Reflections. After an evening of original composition, the very familiarity of Monk’s tune acts as a sort of Rorschach test, telling us something about the obsessively detailed way that Wright and Downes make and remodel the music. This is beautifully executed chamber jazz of the highest order.

LINK: Patrick Hadfield's CD review of Duets 

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