In this unprecedented year, some things never change. In this case, it’s us reviewing a Luke Howard record ~ although despite this being their fourth release, we haven’t until now covered the trio that one of our favourite pianists fronts. The Shadow EP merits this mould-breaking, a bouncy yet reflective excursion that endures for a satisfying 37 minutes despite its “EP” status.
We’ve seen the Australian composer evolve over the last seven years to the languid, droning soundscapes of last year’s evocative The Sand That Ate the Sea. Luke Howard Trio, completed by Jonathan Zion on upright bass and Daniel Farrugia on drums, has always favoured the sort of condensed compositions exemplified by “We Want To Give You Some Advice”, a two section-piece whose sparse piano chords move onto hammered chords beneath increasingly busy drum fills ~ and just as the restraint dissipates, so the piece ends.
But on this EP do we perceive more than a whisper of Howard’s latest, more cinematic solo endeavours. Like The Sand…, The Shadow EP was composed for another form of media; in this case, accompanying an Australian theatre production called ‘The Shadow Who’s Prey The Hunter Becomes’. Several of the pieces are accordingly sparse in arrangement and gentle in dynamic. Over a third of that 37-minute runtime is devoted to “OK, I Will”, whose bright chords ensnare pensive spaces that imperceptibly begin to fill over the first movement. With sizzling percussion, rumbling tom fills and bass phrases dying as quickly as the instrument finds its voice, this jazzy minimalism is reminiscent of fellow Aussies Triosk in its pursuit of mood and texture above all else. And even after the groove returns, the trio doesn’t compromise this pursuit. “I Think It’s Sinking In” is melodically narrow in service of the build-up, a two-note bass line disguising more intricate drum and percussion texture and chordal embellishment, until the set’s biggest moment arrives: ominous ivories at their deepest register and tom skins flexed. That it swiftly withers is typical of the restraint this refined trio demonstrates throughout.
There are a couple of piano soliloquies that organically flow between the grooves of these more rhythmic pieces, and that demonstrate the dark (“The List”) and the light (ironically, “Penumbra”), respectively. And as we end with a reprise of the wonderful opening track “Shame/Shame” ~ now with greater fight in its belly ~ we appreciate that, though we’ve come full circle, we feel differently now. This duo reflect the set as a whole, moving with grace from despondency to sanguinity as from dark to light, and accordingly passing through every opacity of grey between. (Chris Redfearn-Murray)