Drummer Dylan Howe is the eldest son of Yes guitarist Steve Howe. He’s recorded and toured in a wide range of contexts since the late ’80s, including the Blockheads (both before and after frontman Ian Dury‘s death); backing former Dr. Feelgood guitarist Wilko Johnson; and performing with his father. He’s also led multiple jazz groups, and worked as a house drummer in nightclubs and on TV.
His new album Subterranean: New Designs On Bowie’s Berlin is composed entirely of jazz arrangements of the instrumentals from David Bowie‘s Low and “Heroes”. It includes adaptations of “Warszawa,” “Art Decade,” “Weeping Wall,” “Subterraneans,” “Moss Garden,” “Neuköln” (in “Day” and “Night” versions), and “All Saints” and “Some Are,” which were not on Low originally but appeared as bonus tracks on the 1991 Rykodisc reissue.
The band includes two tenor saxophonists (Brandon Allen and Julian Siegel); Ross Stanley on piano and synths; Mark Hodgson on upright bass (joined by Nick Pini on the two versions of “Neuköln”); Portishead guitarist Adrian Utley on “Warszawa”; and Steve Howe playing koto on “Moss Garden,” the album closer.
The album begins with “Subterraneans,” from Low. Synthesizers hum and ooze around Howe’s gently brushed drums, as a melancholy piano line emerges in the center of it all. A heavily reverbed saxophone begins to emit notes—it’s too slow and too minimal at first to call it a melody, and so smooth in the unfurling of its sound that it’s hard to imagine a human being possessing the patience to play it this way. When the piano and saxophone line up, only then does the piece truly reveal itself; Hodgson’s upright bass begins to thrum, and Howe’s drumming shifts from sedate to martial. The piece has the quality of an invocation, a summoning; it calls the album to order.
By contrast, the next track, “Weeping Wall,” is much more active, and much jazzier. The zinging synths are the primary carriers of the melody, with Howe’s drumming subtly active, including some restrained rolls in the background. When the saxophone comes in, at the four-minute mark of a seven-minute piece, it trades fanfare-ish fours with Howe, who then embarks on a drum solo. The melody, ornamented with vibraphone-ish sounds, returns in the final minute.
The original instrumentals were fairly minimal and sketchy, with few chords or harmonies to play around with. Consequently, what improvisation there is must focus on melody and tone. The third and most adventurous piece, an 11-minute take on “All Saints,” exemplifies this; it begins with a nearly two-minute bass solo, then expands with layers of keyboards that are more Weather Report than Brian Eno. But suddenly, at the 2:45 mark, the piece shifts completely and becomes straightahead post-bop, with one of the two saxophonists taking a solo that’s send-the-estate-a-check indebted to John Coltrane circa 1964, as Hodgson and Howe chop up the beat behind him. This happens again and again—a brief keyboard interlude, followed by a very tradition-aware burst of hardcore jazz (Stanley’s piano solo is equally flagrant in its McCoy Tynerisms), and repeat. It’s safe to say nothing quite like this has ever appeared on any David Bowie album, and it’s precisely that willingness to use the source material not as a map, but as a trampoline, that fulfills this album’s potential most admirably.
The version of “Warszawa” is another highlight. The band takes the simple, singsong melody and turns it into a bluesy, almost modal vamp, over which the solos unfurl in an incantatory post-bop manner. This may be even more Coltrane-ish than “All Saints,” Brandon Allen‘s saxophone work verging on Archie Shepp territory, but it’s all the more fantastic for taking what was originally pretty much a loop and blowing it out into something this hard-swinging and throbbingly alive.
This is a great album—an inspired idea, superbly executed. David Bowie is often the least interesting element of his own albums; in adapting pieces of music that even many of his fans regard as filler, and turning them into high-level, forward-thinking jazz, Dylan Howe has made a truly personal and progressive artistic statement.
Stream “All Saints”: