Mike Downes

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Mike Downes plucks the strings of change - Toronto Star article

        Things are looking up for Mike Downes. The bassist, one of the leaders in a city jam-packed with talented pluckers of this instrument, has a terrific new CD out in The Winds of Change (Topfrog Records) and has published a much-praised jazz book for bass wannabes and pros. Downes is in action tonight at The Rex from 6:30. You can hear him for free in the trio he has come to prefer, accompanied by pianist David Braid and drummer Ted Warren. On the disc, Dave Restivo has the piano chair.

It's a well-constructed album with 13 tracks including the leader's five-part Suite for S.A. (the initials are for his wife Sanja) and its components include versions of a Yugoslav folk song with a beautiful bass intro. His bandmates each contribute a tune and are elegant foils for Downes' nimble-fingered playing with a big, clear sturdy sound, precise intonation and pulsing energy. There's never any doubt that Downes is calling the shots in this talented threesome.

His father Grant played bass in hometown Winnipeg, and his home was full of assorted instruments, he said in an interview. "I played trombone in school bands and it helped me to play by ear but I played in rock bands, big bands and on television and radio locally. Then I did two years at St. Francis-Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S. on scholarships to study piano and bass, but I transferred to McGill in Montreal, where there was more happening. I graduated in music there."

Downes came to Toronto in 1990 after studying in New York with Dave Holland and John Clayton. He has played in a host of Hogtown groups, performing and recording with almost all Canada's top guns and with visiting stars. His interests are diverse, including being a regular in R&B diva Molly Johnson's band. "It's not mainstream jazz," he says, "though I've written jazz songs for her. I like her music, the band's still evolving, a group sound is developing, we play together a lot. Face it, there aren't many bands these days that stay together." He plays in drummer Warren's band, with saxophonist Kirk MacDonald and guitarist Lorne Lofsky, visited Iceland with vocalist Martha Brooks and Japan to work with the Yamaha company to help develop a portable electric upright bass. (Travelling with a bass is hard, he notes.) "Lately I've been touring so much (five trips to Europe last year) and teaching so much that I haven't played a lot around town for the past couple of years, so I'm hoping that the new trio record will help me tour summer festivals here. We've had a long history backing instrumentalists and singers worldwide. "

Downes, who is pleased that he can be more choosy and more specific about projects he takes on, is writing prolifically. "I really enjoy it. Being creative is part of what I want to do, ever since my first CD (Forces with Phil Dwyer, Restivo and Warren in 1997). I've already completed a lot of work to suit a quintet and I'm planning a duo disc with Winnipeg guitarist Larry Roy."

As for his sound, he says he respects history in the form of late masters like Ray Brown, Jimmy Blanton and Scott LaFaro. "I like the acoustic sound. I see myself as an extension of them if a little more modern. There are so many ways of playing bass. It's in the mind as well as the hands, and although it can be dynamic played live on CD, you can be more subtle and really shape the sound." As for The Jazz Bass Line Book (Advance Music), he says it teaches ways to articulate things players and arrangers need to do. "There's very few books about the bass but lots about sax, It's full of transcriptions — I wish I had it when I was younger!"

GEOFF CHAPMAN
JAZZ