Focusing on the instrumental elements, rather than the more structured songs, from David Bowie’s Berlin era allows Dylan Howe the luxury to pay tribute even as he brilliantly elaborates on the themes.
That’s best heard on Subterranean via “All Saints,” an electronica-meets-jazz moment that finds Howe tangling with bassist Mark Hodgson before the song opens up into a sizzling bop-inspired cadence driven by Ross Stanley’s work on the keys. And, just like that, Howe’s new Motorik recording lives up to its subtitle: New Designs on Bowie’s Berlin.
Dylan Howe made an early name for himself alongside Stanley in his father Steve Howe’s straight-ahead jazz trio. He also sat in on the celebrated 2014 collaboration by Wilko Johnson and Roger Daltrey, and has worked with the late Ian Dury and the Blockheads, as well. There have also been a some stand-alone Blue Note-ish throwback recordings along the way.
He’s not the first artist to find sustenance from Bowie’s late-1970s albums (including 1977’s Low and Heroes, as well as 1979’s Lodger) but he may have done the most with this fertile period. Howe focuses on the initial two albums in this Berlin triptych, which found Bowie working in more ambient, Krautrock-inspired sound — rather than Lodger, which began a journey back to guitar and drums. This gives his core group (rounded out by tenorists Brandon Allen and Julian Siegel, with additional contributions from Nick Pini, Adrian Utley and dear old dad) a much broader canvas with which to work.
And they do, only sticking — as on “All Saints” — with recognizable elements of the David Bowie albums long enough for them to serve as launching pads. Painterly and episodic, Howe and company smartly mix expansive modernity (“Art Decade”) with mid-century swing (“Weeping Wall”).
This occasionally means the group utilizes tension as a narrative device — as on the opening title track and, in particular, on “Warszawa,” where a lineup featuring Utley on guitar offers a platform of uncommon grace for Allen’s surging sax. The best remaining moments on Subterranean, however, move in more atmospheric waters. “Neukoln,” which is split up into “Night” and “Day” elements, find Dylan Howe working in a spacious trio setting with Stanley and Pini.
Steve Howe then takes over for Pini, but takes up the koto rather than the double bass, for the closing “Moss Garden” — completing this journey with a burst of diaphanous beauty.
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