Scots music fans were promised two for the price of one earlier this year when Paul Towndrow (alto saxophone) and Steve Hamilton (piano) entered recording studio to bring some solar power to the jazz duo format. The result is ‘We Shine The Sun’, an outstanding collection of rather romantic original compositions alongside neat arrangements of tunes by Ives, Bartok, Scofield and Jackie Mclean. The duo also tip their hat to the art of great songwriting with their version of While My Lady Sleeps, a Bronislaw Kaper composition from 1941 that Chet Baker popularized and featured lyrics by the great Gus Khan.
The title track opens the record and (like Anomaly Hospital later on) it throws off incendiary sparks without necessarily burning up all the oxygen in the room. Towndrow’s voice on saxophone is too cheerfully melodic in tone to flare up uncontrollably, while Hamilton articulates his phrases with ideas drawn from an enormously deep piano vocabulary. The notes come thick and fast, but the musical conversation is never incoherent or over-bearing. Indeed, they largely side-step any distracting cross-talk, perhaps to assure listeners that this is a work of clarity, meaning and purpose.
If The Moon Should Doubt is an early highlight and Hamilton’s sense of song is patently obvious. It may be that he is a ballad writer in waiting, but Towndrow offers interpretive flair that is really quite lovely. The saxophonist’s solo on a recent live performance with the SNJO of Billy Strayhorn’s ‘Blood Work’ still sticks in the mind, and his style flags up something quintessential about contemporary Scottish jazz. It has heart.
Such A long Time is similarly reflective, but perhaps less introspective in nature, with superb flowing piano from Hamilton that is suggestive of an eclectic musical outlook. Part-way through Towndrow decides to face east with a touch of Arabesque that is subsequently transported back to 52nd Street. The melodic inferences may be cosmopolitan, but jazz music is essentially an American artform and the album never seeks to deny that salient fact.
Hymn to the 45 is a heartfelt blues that grieves over lost causes old and new, and those perhaps yet to come. Towndrow agonizes mournfully before Hamilton places a musical arm of condolence around the melody and the two drown their sorrows in neat improvisations that express deep-seated frustrations. It’s a sophisticated arrangement that stays constantly in touch with a real gem of a tune. I refer you to the soundtrack of In The Heat of The Night for comparison, so that we may all better understand the spots that we’re hitting here.
Mclean’s juicy Little Melonae and Towndrow’s jolly Woodwork are attempts to cheer us up with bit of straight ahead jazz, but they retain all the expositional qualities you’d expect of two highly accomplished musicians. These tunes are included as thoughtful, mood-lifting interludes by players who understand how to paint contrasting colours into a pattern without going over the lines.
The Colour of Your Eyes, another Hamilton ballad, is like a four-minute romantic movie for your ears, and I have to say that the composition, and the sheer eloquence of the playing again sits up and begs the interest of cinema fans.
There’s another high water-mark in Towndrow and Hamilton’s ambulatory interpretation of Charles Ives’ Songs My Mother Taught Me. It’s a gentle stroll in memory’s garden with Hamilton’s piano tinkling away like coins in a fountain, and Towndrow almost humming the tune under his breath in places.
Ives’ melody has a funny little ragtime feel about it that reinforces the highly informed sense of musical history running through the album. Today’s jazzmen and women are an educated bunch, and folks who like to learn as they listen are reaping the rewards.
On Bela Bartok’s Mountain Horn Song Towndrow echoes some of the personal thinking he set out on Such A Long Time, and the influence of Garbarek seems to call back from an imagined point beyond the Arctic Circle. Yet Towndrow has a sweet way of his own with lingering notes that don’t seem to want to fade; and Hamilton’s beautifully paced playing sounds as if he’s catching them as they fall.
Paul Towndrow and Steve Hamilton are part of a generation of Scots musicians who have carried melodic thought-dreams they got while still in the cradle into their adulthood. It is almost a feature of contemporary jazz from Scotland that it is both emphatically internationalist and unashamedly homely.
However, it’s probably worth pointing out here that We Shine The Sun reflects back a lot of the light created by the more humane and empathetic burning sons of jazz. Their convivial interplay on John Scofield’s The Guinness Spot is a good example of that insofar as it comes across like two music-makers making music for the fun of it; and sounding like they don’t have a care in the world.
Then again, isn’t that how music is supposed to make you feel?
We Shine The Sun by Paul Towndrow and Steve Hamilton is out now on www.keyworkrecords.co.uk
Photo of Paul Towndrow by Gavin McLaughlin. Photo of Steve Hamilton courtesy of the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra