Somnambule - Writing About Music

Chris Bowden ~ Slightly Askew

Six years. Six long years since Time Capsule. That album was all angular strings, methodical bass, Rhodes, even a beatific choir at one point, a mixture of longform and brief pieces: Bowden played great solos, but wasn’t audible on every track, it had a funky cover design and was released on Soul Jazz. Time Capsule still comes on like a never-released recording date from an alternative 1973.

What happened between then and now? I heard occasional things, his wonderful 12” collaboration with 4Hero, much too brief appearances on their 2 Pages and Creating Patterns albums (which left me wanting much more). He made a pop-oriented album called Square Window which I haven’t heard and he’s been playing with the likes of Jessica Lauren and the Herbaliser. That’s the extent of my knowledge.

And now Slightly Askew crashes in (almost literally!) Only Angst’s wind arrangement comes on like an angry squall when you didn’t pack a mac and you’re nowhere near any shelter – you’re soaked in seconds flat. Then just to confuse you the rain stops as suddenly as it started, the sun comes out: Bowden’s sax is inching and forming shapes as the drums walk him and you along. You’re beginning to dry out and along comes another squall. You’re buffeted by loads of things borne by that wind: organ, trumpet, saxes, piano. Drums are nervous, metallic, edgy, there’s no taking anything for granted: when things quiet down you have to prepare yourself for that cacophonous onslaught returning: best not to stand near any steep drops when listening to Only Angst. 14 minutes on from pressing the play button and I’m worn out. What a way to come back! Why’s he been away so long?

Crockers and Killers eases up a little bit, still those metallic drums, strings weaving in and out, but the bass is more to the fore and married with a woman’s voice and piano the impression is lyrical. Zoo Zoo is more funky, strident, with gloriously angular (or askew?) string and wind arrangements. The first two and a half minutes of W’p De F’ N’ Doo is a duet between Bowden’s sax and Tom Gordon’s drums until strings, bass and piano join and add a cushioning warmth.

My first impression of this album was that the sound seemed to be strangely not of this time. I couldn’t put my finger on what it was until I read an interview with Chris Bowden in Straight, No Chaser where he states that he’s aware of the studio as instrument thing, but prefers to concentrate his attention on orchestration. There’s a hell of a lot happening on Slightly Askew’s four tracks: many different episodes, musical details;it’s not a blowing session, solos are part of a bigger picture and occur where the logic of the music dictates. This is jazz where the zz’s of the word are the teeth of a saw, at times cutting smoothly, at times rasping through knots. It’s ambitious, thinking music not afraid of expressing feeling. This is not polite dinner jazz, thank goodness.

Chris Bowden is one of the UK’s great altoists and composers; Slightly Askew underlines this. Pleeeeeease don’t take so long next time Mr Bowden.
Colin Buttimer
June 2002
Published by the BBC