It’s fairly safe to say that some songs are for the few, while some songs are for the many. Every now and again though you come across artists who don’t recognize that distinction.
On Such A Sky, singer Josienne Clarke and pianist Kit Downes have collaborated on melodic forms that set expectations to one side, and manage to combine introspection with broad appeal.
In a contrary age of solitude misunderstood and contrived gregariousness it’s quite an accomplishment to create music that we can all relate to, but speaks to one listener at a time.
Downes’ opening chords to Josienne Clarke’s Out of View are suggestive of space to think, and offer a precious few minutes to examine inner thoughts, feelings and anxieties.
It’s a song that invites you to empty your mind of clutter by imagining a music room, bare of furniture except for a piano, where time and care have been stopped in their tracks. It also beautifully sets a meticulously constructed scene for the kind of music lover who likes to listen closely and feel themselves part of the project.
It’s this propensity for immediate, intimate connectivity that makes Clarke and Downes stand out in their respective fields of folk and jazz. In many ways, they go beyond empathy and into a kind of communal soul-searching that leaves you listening over and over again for things you might have missed.
This short set of five songs explores the art of singing as much as the creative art of original song writing. Clarke seems set on a journey to find out what her voice can do, having long ago accepted the challenge of writing new songs that are individual, particular and perspicacious.
Once more she turns to the uses a lexicon of longing for lyrical inspiration, although the imagery she is drawn to – the sky, the sun, the moon, the lark, the rose and the solitary shore – makes her something of a latter-day nature poet.
Listening to Such A Sky we can almost take the eclecticism of this charming musical box for granted. What else would you expect to find in such a casket but delightful distractions and unexpected surprises?
The eighteen-minute EP opens with Out of View and ends with Undo, two Clarke originals that take her thoughtful songwriting a little further out from the safe harbour of her folk music origins. Aside from experimenting with overlooked notes, oddly seductive intonation and crumbling emotions, it’s possible also to hear the ambition, aspiration and resolve in her work.
Of the two, it is Undo that is particularly absorbing, for you find yourself not just listening again, but re-listening in order to better understand what you thought you just heard. Relatively few songwriters dare to be quite this different, but given the resurgent diversity in contemporary jazz song there is reason to believe that audiences are learning to love differentness.
A good example is Beyond the Green, a tune by Downes with a lyric by Clarke that reads and sounds like an extract from a dark country diary, written one sleepless night in a cottage overlooking the Cornish cliffs. Melodically, it is essentially a sophisticated piece of popular song with jazz credentials, but it’s interpreted by Clarke as an educated piece of frank self-analysis that is very much of our times.
There is a touch of collegiate fellowship too about Downes’ flowing musicianship that distinguishes his contribution from mere accompaniment. He is recognized widely as one of the leading jazz pianists of his generation, and here his gifts are on display as breathtaking adornments in gracious playing that casts Clarke’s singing in a new and affecting light. This is particularly evident in a sweetly engaging performance of Lionel Bart’s Who Will Buy from the musical Oliver, and Do Not Delay, a contemporary arrangement of Mozart’s Suzanna’s Aria.
The diversity and disparity in these selections are neither cryptic nor cavalier.Neither are they a product of (or for) the formality of the recital room; there is too much humanity in Clarke’s versatile voice and Downes lovingly caressed keys for that to be the case. What you get from their music is a very satisfying reward for giving them your undivided attention.
Josienne Clarke herself declares with disarming honesty that she is little bewildered by the work she’s created with Kit Downes, and struggles to describe it, but we ought to pronounce Such A Sky a great success. That’s because it describes itself beautifully as a rare opportunity to eavesdrop on a conversation between two gifted and thoughtful musicians exploring the deep vocabulary and rich language of song.