Pursuing his self-styled Open Music route, multi-instrumentalist Bob Downes treads a very thin and courageous line between written jazz and total improvisation. Of his many recordings, some funky jazz rock, others wholly extemporized, there are several which involve organised pieces evolving into often lengthy improvisations. It's A Mystery (not to be confused with the pop song by punk star Toyah Willcox) contains archival previously unreleased recordings spanning the length of his career from the early 1970s onwards.
The gongs and cymbals of the opening short title track segue seamlessly into the Ballet Rambert commissioned "Dream Journey." At nearly 25 minutes this is by far the longest piece on the album. This is an alternate take to the cut lasting the whole of the first side of Downes's Open Music recorded for Philips in 1970. Underpinned by dramatic drums, timpani and obligato bass, Downes's flute and screeching vocals dominate the session, occasionally punctuated by an uncredited horn ensemble.
"Imminent Danger" is a film noir-ish six minute piece that is both engaging and hypnotic and held together by a colossal wind orchestra over which Downes solos on flute. "Predator" is a short mood piece recorded in a shower room situated within a thermal bath. "Floating Shapes," a short library music track, was recorded at around the time of Open Music in 1970 and is in the same vein as "Dream Journey."
Downes is accompanied by his erstwhile alphorn compatriots on "Night Fear," a lugubrious piece, redolent of the 2015 album Bob Downes And The Alphorn Brothers. The short "You Leave Me Breathless" previously appeared as an extra track on the CD re-release of Episodes At 4am accompanying Downes reciting his poem "The Wind Upon The Moor." Here it appears without the verse and employs flute pads and breath sounds to create echoey atmospherics. On "Barker," recorded live in 1971, Downes deploys flute, alto flute, wind gong, Chinese cymbal, foot stamping and sound poetry and at a little over six minutes, perfectly demonstrates both his versatility and seemingly boundless imagination.
"Coming Together" juxtaposes Chinese and Turkish cymbals in an exercise to evince their different acoustic properties. "Spaced Out," recorded in 1971, uses alto flute and an egg slicer recorded at 7½ ips but played back at 3¾ ips. The effect is eerie and marginally discombobulating. "Suprise Encounters" is an improvisation recorded in 1976 with Downes on flute and Timothy Kramer on cello. Downes had previously engaged the cellist to play on a score he had been commissioned to write for the London Contemporary Dance Theatre. The final number, "Voodoo Man" is a one minute percussion extravaganza featuring amongst other instruments a home-made "quiero" fashioned out of a large cow bone over which the bone of a deer is lightly rolled.
This miscellany of recordings provides an excellent insight into the thought-provoking career of one of jazz's most creative innovators. The inclusion of the lengthy "Dream Journey" earmarks it as highly significant within the canon of Downes's works.
It's A Mystery; Dream Journey; Imminent Danger; Predator; Floating Shapes; Night
Fear; You Leave Me Breathless; Barker; Coming Together; Spaced Out; Surprise
Encounters; Voodoo Man.