Mike Downes: Root Structure
Root Structure might be an all-Canadian affair, but the playing on the date is world class. Performed by bassist Mike Downes (acoustic and electric), pianist Robi Botos, guitarist Ted Quinlan, and drummer Larnell Lewis, the album presents ten wide-ranging compositions primarily written by Downes and executed with exceptional musicality by the quartet. Great tunes plus great playing makes for a terrific result.
A highly regarded fixture in Canadian jazz circles, Downes has established himself since the ‘80s as a bassist, composer, and educator, and has performed with top Canadian figures such as Oliver Jones, Renee Rosnes, and Don Thompson and visiting artists such as Pat Metheny, Chris Potter, Dave Liebman, and Jack DeJohnette. Downes has released a number of albums, among them 2013's JUNO Award-winning Ripple Effect and 2014's In the Current, which features pieces written for a twelve-piece chamber jazz ensemble, and has led various incarnations of his quartet since the mid-‘90s; apart from performing, he's also the Bass Department Head at Humber College in Toronto. His partners on the new release, which the four recorded at Humber College Studio over two days in August 2016, are distinguished players in their own right: like Downes, Botos is a JUNO award winner (2016), while Quinlan was nominated for one in 2003; for his part, the remarkably inventive Lewis won a Grammy award with Snarky Puppy in 2017.
Throughout the album, Downes' playing is marked by an unerring and versatile technique, the kind of bass playing that's never static yet nevertheless establishes a firm foundation. The quartet format also appears ideally suited to his music. Separation between the four players is clearly defined, plus the quartet setup affords each participant ample space within which to operate; further to that, his compositions are melodically rooted yet effectively structured to accommodate improvisation, as exemplified by the fiercely freewheeling and at times tumultuous “Moving Mountains,” for instance. Aside from the performances, one of the most appealing things about the release is the stylistic ground covered, with ballads, swing, blues, funk, and even classical all part of the mix.
“Momentum” inaugurates the album with a breezy scene-setter that speaks highly on behalf of the leader's writing gifts and the musicians' handling of the material he's given them to work with. The four segue between restrained episodes and energized swing with ease, and strong solos by Downes, Botos, and Quinlan and drumming of power and invention by Lewis elevate the tune. Downes' ballad side is wonderfully captured in the lyrical setting “Heart of the Matter,” with an acoustic Quinlan voicing delicate, Metheny-esque melodies and Botos brightening the performance with a soothing electric piano solo; the quieter dynamics also allows the leader's graceful counterpoint to the guitarist to be appreciated. Written by Botos, “Pre-Prelude” introduces the Chopin-Downes composition “Prelude & Variations,” a sombre setting of uncommon poise whose compositional style and bass playing call to mind a prototypical Charlie Haden piece like “Silence.”In addition to the classic blues-jazz swing of “The Raven,” “Miles” sees the four digging into a raw blues-funk cut one could imagine John Scofield coveting, especially when Quinlan seemingly channels a lick or two from the US guitarist, and the tight funk groove generated by the bassist and drummer in the title cut is so engrossing it might not initially register that the tune features the two only. Root Structure is, as stated, a world class recording from beginning to end. Downes might not have the international profile of a Dave Holland, say, but this latest collection shows that his musicianship is at a comparatively high level.