After the months of work that went into arranging charts, assembling musicians and arduously sourcing outmoded sounds to recapture the cold, ambient textures that underpinned David Bowie's Low and 'Heroes' LPs of '77, Dylan Howe's resulting, swing-licked Subterranean - New Designs On Bowie's Berlin album was a five-star success. Even Bowie himself went as far as to crawl out of hibernation to commend the drummer's efforts, deeming the record “top notch”. Then Howe pushed the panic button by booking a tour to road-test his raw, yet meticulously multi-layered record live, and the punishing work schedule resumed.
But here, all those rehearsals later, in an appropriately-arty venue, on a dim-lit stage, against a huge screen showing scratched-up visuals of '70s Berlin, tonight's band rolled out the record with ease. From the opening bars of the album's ghostly title track, Howe's faint, but fidgety swing feel appeared almost wired to a restless hook from double bassist Dave Whitford, leaving pianist Ross Stanley to plant gentle chords in the spaces unoccupied by Steve Lodder's sci-fi-style synth work.
Completing this A-list line-up for this Kings Place appearance, saxophonist Andy Sheppard played magnificently, slouched back into the dense, dry ambience on stage, concocting soft, scribbley lines away from the mic, or leaning in to max out melody lines with Stanley. A drum break-built ‘Weeping Wall’ (which was dramatically complimented with old, bleached clips of the Berlin wall behind the band), was trailed by a ruthless arrangement of Bowie rarity ‘All Saints’, throwing the band into a full-pelt swing out. With Stanley, Sheppard and Howe now firing on all cylinders, the piece could have passed for a passage from Coltrane's ‘Resolution’, had it not been for the some electrifying, laser-guided synth gymnastics from Lodder that prog-star Rick Wakeman would have approved of.
As the screen flickered and flipped to fuzzy films of German military camps, checkpoints and car factories, another frantic ride cymbal pattern sprung ‘Neukoln (Night)’ to life. Soon growling with low, strummed bass, the tune's dark, descending theme - a mess of soprano sax, strident piano and a ghostly, sustained celeste-style synth sound - swirled around the room.
Later, the familiar strains of ‘Art Decade’ and ‘Warsawa’ stirred real excitement amongst the Bowie nuts, the latter launched by Howe executing strong timpani-style tom rolls with mallets and Whitford clung to a single-note drone. Sheppard approached the bleak, repetitive melody here with long breathy lines against the flutter of brushes, presenting Stanley with a runway in which to slowly build what could have been the solo of the night.
By the time Lodder ushered in ‘Moss Garden’ mimicking the original with samples of running water and koto, the whole hall was hypnotised. This trance-like state from the off could account for some great solos tonight drifting by without applause, which for a typical jazz gig would appear atypical. But this was no standard jazz show. This was Howe's live eulogy to Bowie, his moment of glory, a great reading of a real rock standard, rolled out with such ease and conviction it should be seen to be believed. By both jazz heads and Bowie buffs alike.
– Mark Youll (review and photo)