Andrew Downing – Otterville – Self-Produced 2 CDs, 69:01 (Avail. as an MP3 download on Amazon) ***:

A questionable premise delivers questionable results.

(Andrew Downing – cello; Tara Davidson – alto saxophone; Michael Davidson – vibraphone; Christine Bougie – lap steel guitar; Paul Mathew – bass guitar; Nick Fraser – drums; Guests: Rebecca Hennessy – trumpet; William Carn – trombone)

One has to wonder why young musicians, who in today’s competitive music environment, put themselves and their questionable ideas on the line to gain an audience. This is especially relevant, where the concept is well beyond the mainstream. Composer/cellist Andrew Dowling, has done just that with his newest self-produced release entitled Otterville.

In this 2 CD set, with three exceptions, all of the compositions are by Andrew Dowling. The construct or conceit if you will, is that each piece contains a small excerpt from a jazz standard or the Great American Songbook, from which a unique new composition is built. In Mission Impossible terms, the challenge for you dear reader/listener, if you chose to accept it, is to find this snippet and determine how it fits within the new frame that Downing has built.

“This Year’s Fancies” which opens CD 1, comes from the fifth stanza of the Johnny Mercer/Jerome Kern hit I’m Old Fashioned which goes “This year’s fancies/Are passing fancies.” The instrumentation that Downing has pulled together for thus session, provides a unique soundscape, but the end result is an opaque composition. The genesis for underlying motif of “I’m No Good Without You” appears to come from the Gerald Marks/Seymour Simons number All Of Me made popular by Frank Sinatra, of which  the second line of the first stanza goes ”Can’t you see I’m no good without you.” The band captures some of the essence of the tune lead by vibraphonist Michael Davidson and the swooning lap steel guitar of Christine Bougie.

The only non-Downing composition on CD 1, is Tara Davidson’s “Family Portrait”. The provenance for this tune could be the Pink and Scott Storch number of the same name, written for Pink’s second album Missundaztood.  Davidson takes an alto solo but again it is the lap steel guitar of Christine Bougie that holds the piece together.

CD 2 opens with “Fall In Line” which alludes to George and Ira Gershwin’s Strike Up The Band. The precise link  is evasive despite the best efforts of the band.  The lap steel guitar of Christine Bougie is forefront and alto saxophonist Tara Davidson makes her own statement. It is hard to imagine what Billy Strayhorn would make of the band’s version of his classic “Take The ‘A’ Train” apart from rolling over in his grave. 

Dizzy Gillespie’s Con Alma is the reference point for “Observatory” and an attentive listening will pick out these few musical phrases. However, for the most part, the number is a mash-up of notes, chords and harmonics that can only make sense to the players, leaving the listener wondering where the piece is going.

At the end of the day, one has to ask one’s self, what has been accomplished with this release, apart from a Name That Tune narrative. If the purpose was to satisfy some inner desire by the musicians for self-congratulations, that may have been achieved. But if the intention was to have the release purchased and listened to by a wider audience not just family and friends, it leaves much to be desired.

TrackList:  CD1: This Year’s Fancies; Head Start; All Alone On The Mountain; I’m No Good Without You; Numbers You Know; A Pair Of Eyes; Family Portrait; Rhyme; CD2: Fall In Line; Parade; Mooning About; Take The ‘A’ Train; Observatory; Wish; Leaving Me With A Memory

—Pierre Giroux