Tenor John Potter, late of the Hilliard Ensemble, formed the Dowland Project in 2003 ostensibly to record the music of Medieval English composer John Dowland (1563-1626). Dowland has several modern benefactors, including Paul O'Dette, Jakob Lindberg and Nigel North. These artists have concentrated on the letter of Dowland, making faithful reproductions of his music with sensitivity toward period music practices. With an eye to the past, Potter and group proceed forward, allowing for an airy creative freedom promoting improvisation within the confines of the "classical" tradition.
Much of Dowland's output exists only in sketchy vocal lines. Potter and his medieval specialists take this wisp of a melody and improvise about it, freely exploring the musical relationships between voice, melody and instrument. Romaria is the group's third release on ECM, the previous two being: In Darkness let me dwell (ECM, 1999) and Care-charming Sleep (ECM, 2003). With improvisation or not, this is rarified music, the smell of highland air and the sweet dampness of the English glen and valley.
Having made so much of Dowland, there is none present here, except in spirit. Potter chose alte Musik - ancient music. Potter selects Gregorian Chants, "O beata infantia" in fragment and complete forms. This typically a cappella style is as old as the Sixth Century. Potter casts these pieces against the Baroque guitar of Stephen Stubbs and the continuo viola of Milo' Valent. Rising out of this stark landscape is John Surman's reeds; his soprano saxophone rises like smoke from a peat chimney in the second setting of the beata.
It is Surman who most broadly exercises improvisation. His recorder sound vaguely Native American on "Der oben swebt" where the wooden wind rises like a mist over a medieval fair. "Dulci solum" is one of two settings from the 13th Century German manuscript Carmina Burana, the same source that made Carl Orff famous. Potter's well-balanced tenor is well suited for the songs chosen for this recital. It is as essential to the integrity of the music as the presence of Valent's continuo.
Romaria is an ethereal listening experience. Its bold improvisatory elements make this recording well suited for the jazz enthusiast who is looking for a little something different.
Personnel: John Potter: tenor; John Surman: soprano saxophone, bass clarinet, tenor and bass recorders; Milo? Valent:
violin and viola; Stephen Stubbs: baroque guitar and vihuela.