Dylan Howe: Subterranean- New Designs On Bowie’s Berlin

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It was my birthday the other week and I requested a copy of Ted Gioia’s The Jazz Standards- A Guide to The Repertoire. It is an excellent reference book and one that I will dip into with regularity.

In his introduction Gioia considers why he has felt unable to include very few recent compositions amongst the 250 plus tunes that he identifies for his opus. He concludes that: “The jazz repertoire is not as fluid as it once was and the same process of codification that has resulted in works such as The Real Book (a compendium of sheet music for widely recognised jazz tunes, or ‘heads’ as they are known in the trade) has also made it difficult for newer songs to enter the standard repertoire.”

I don’t suppose I’m alone in experiencing irritation when a classic 50’s or 60’s jazz album moves from a track that really has something to say to yet another hoary Broadway number (thank heavens John Coltrane never got round to recording a version of You’ll Never Walk Alone!). Occasionally a jazz artist will have a go with a modern popular song but mostly they draw on the standards.

So, I was intrigued when I read of Dylan Howe’s recording of tunes from David Bowie’s Berlin period. It was a nailed down certainty for my latest look at a contemporary jazz set.

I can remember listening to Low, fresh from the shops and in the possession of a mate who is the biggest Bowie fan I’ve ever met. The songs were great but it was the instrumentals on Side 2 that were so incredibly refreshing and different. There was a stark bleak beauty to them and we dived fathoms deep as we pondered their significance next to Buzzcocks, The Pistols and The Clash. There was a further selection of instrumentals on Heroes, while Lodger was a part of Bowie’s Berlin trilogy, but is sadly, short on instrumental pieces.

This recording was a labour of love for Howe and he raised the money to undertake his project through a Kickstarter crowdfunding effort, which you can read about here.

So to the music. I’ve followed the song title with Bowie album that the original appeared on.

The album opens with Subterraneans (Low) and it is immediately apparent that this is going to be an exceptional recording, initially with Mark Hodgson’s wonderfully rendered double bass to the fore before Ross Stanley adds piano to the underlying layer of syths. Weeping Wall (Low) is as bleak and dolorous as the original before a tasteful piano solo that eases and offers hope, followed by a percussive break that reintroduces tension.

All Saints was a bonus track that did not appear on the original release of Low. This one is like Bowie meets the great quartet of John Coltrane. Julian Siegal and Brandon Allen’s saxophone work is exemplary, with Allen taking the solos. Some Are was recorded by Bowie during the Low sessions but didn’t make the cut for the original album either. It is another minor key piece with a subdued regal feel to it. The saxophonists join in at the midpoint.

The first of two takes on NeuKoln, NeuKoln- Night (Heroes) is next up and takes me in my imagination to the centre of a scurrying and bustling city centre that is unfamiliar and slightly menacing, where there may be danger down those side streets.

Art Decade (Low) seems to convey a sense of ennui and loss. In its long fade out it moves towards a meditative state of calm. Warszawa (Low) could be used as a soundtrack for a film of the aftermath of some destructive action until it takes on a jauntiness and swings out, bringing hope where Bowie left us with none.

Neukoln- Day (Heroes) is lighter than its cousin but it still conjures up an image of a grey, drizzly day, while Moss Garden (Heroes), ever a track I’ve returned to listen to, has obvious attractions for a drummer/percussionist and features Dylan Howe’s famous dad on koto, which is a stringed dulcimer-like instrument.

I’ve enjoyed repeated listens to Subterranean and recommend it strongly. I’m hoping that in due course, the Bowie fan I referred to above may give us a second opinion (I’ve sent him a copy).

Dylan Howe is presenting a series of performances in the UK in September featuring the great Andy Sheppard on tenor saxophone, so you are likely to get my opinion on how this comes over live, in a while.

The following short promo gives a flavour of some of the tracks and publicises the tour. To watch, click or touch the arrow.

The band etc: Dylan Howe (drums); Mark Hodgson (double bass); Ross Stanley (piano, synths); Julienne Siegal (saxophone); Brandon Allen (saxophone); Nick Pini (double bass: Neukoln night & day); Adrian Utley (guitar: Warazawa); Steve Howe (koto- Moss Garden). Released 2014. Recorded: Eastcote Studio, Motorik Studios, Pipe Dream Studios. Produced and Directed: Dylan Howe. Graphic Design: Sleeve photos Zoe Howe, Dylan Howe, Victoria Harley. Issued as Motorik MR1004

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