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Josienne Clarke & Kit Downes Josienne Clarke & Kit Downes
Album: Such A Sky (EP)
Label: Self Released
Tracks: 5

This new release came out of nowhere! I’m still reeling from the impact of Josienne’s latest magnificent duo album with Ben Walker, Overnight, which was one of my top albums of 2016, and here she has discovered a new vehicle for her commanding expressive range by pursuing a different muse in partnership with London-based pianist (and organist and composer) Kit Downes. Kit is known for his trio work with the dynamic collective Enemy and recent collaborations with saxophonist Tom Challenger and cellist Lucy Railton. As you might expect, Kit brings something of a jazz sensibility to this duo project with Josienne – incidentally enhancing and pointing the jazzier shadings and inflections of her delivery. But there’s much more to the collaboration than that, for here Kit seems as much to embody take on the role – and therefore importance – of both the jazz and the classical (lieder) accompanists, notably in the way his playing echoes, responds to and sympathises with Josienne’s voice, her special personal expression of the essence and development of each lyric.

She’s an expert in conveying acute melancholy, and this quality might be felt to pervade her three compositions on the EP. Its opener Out Of View is arguably the most complex of these, at least in respect of its questing, far-reaching melody line to which the broken, hesitant figures of its airy yet insistent, almost Satie-esque piano rhythms provide a curiously effective foil before employing the device of fadeout (and ethereal distant vocal) to audibly illustrate the song’s title. The next track, Beyond The Green, finds Kit’s music setting Josienne’s cathartic lyric; here both the melody line and the chord progression feel distinctly Sandy Denny-like, but for Josienne’s florid decoration on the word “lark”, and there’s a slight sense of timeless unease due to the presence of some almost subliminal harmonium chords echoing the piano part. Undo, the last of Josienne’s compositions here, bears the strongest resemblance to a classical Lied, but the outcome of its regretful lyric is succeeded by a wheezy coda played (I think) on a pipe-organ, conveying a mood of strange antiquity, where (one might say) the present is informed by, but cannot undo, the past.

The remaining pair of tracks might be considered musical curveballs, in that they’re both astoundingly compelling interpretations of songs that you’d not expect to find in a folk singer’s repertoire. First there’s Who Will Buy? (from the Lionel Bart musical Oliver), a delicately voiced, movingly yearning account by Josienne that’s counterpointed by Kit’s brilliant underscoring of those key emotions with inventive improvisation; an interpretation of real understanding that knocks the blowsy soundtrack version into oblivion IMHO. Josienne then turns her tonsils to Mozart, an aria sung by the character Susanna during the final act of his celebrated opera buffa Le Nozze Di Figaro – Deh Vieni, Non Tardar (meaning Come Now, Do Not Delay), which is sung here in an English translation – in an outstanding display of refreshingly non-showy vocal technique and an entirely natural, unforced dramatic expression of the text’s simple entreaty; using minimal ornamentation, yet with a confident handling of register and flowing line, ably supported by Kit’s unassuming piano transcription. What next, then? – an album of standards? Now I’d imagine that would be something! But for now, the unique, timeless sonorities and responses of voice and piano have scarcely been more persuasively explored in the non-classical, non-art-song context than on this gem of an EP by Josienne and Kit. I do hope that this release is not just a one-off collaboration with Kit, as much that it doesn’t signify an end to Josienne’s ongoing award-winning partnership with guitarist Ben Walker.

David Kidman