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Mravka - David Dower Trio

David Dower is an energetic and engaging performer. Imagine if you will a packed jazz club space ( Hampstead Jazz Club) where an enthusiastic pianist inspires his trio to ever more daring takes on known and not-so-well-known numbers. After reviewing David Dower's music with the trio and as a duo with Matt fisher ('The Fish and The Whale') over several years, I finally saw the David Dower Trio perform at the Hampstead Jazz Club. A brilliant evening with an increasingly appreciative audience as Dower regaled them with stories, anecdotes, and exciting, engaging music. Dower's music is an eclectic mix of a few covers (arranged by Dower) and Dower compositions with various influences, often Eastern European and often Bulgarian, such is his fascination with the country, its culture, and music. 'Mravka' is released on November 14, 2022, and is the culmination of Dower's years of fascination. He told me, "The pandemic stopped the world, and this period only heightened my desire to 'go global' as soon as possible. As soon as flight restrictions out of Australia were lifted, the flights and 10-date tour were booked!

The album was a very collaborative experience – it started with me contacting Bulgarian Folklore singer Rayna Vasileva (the lead vocalist on the tracks 'Selo' and 'Syanka') and sharing musical influences. The links she sent me were captivating; most notably, the Abagar Quartet jumped out at me - The harmonic movement, especially in the function performed by the voices blew my mind; I realised that often the alto voice (middle voice) was acting as a drone, singing the same lyrics on a single note while the other choir parts move inwards-and-outwards, creating the tension-and-release, and a richness that is a definitive feature of Bulgarian music.

Having lyrical contributions from Mariana Vasileva and my brother Patrick was very special to me. Having Bulgarian lyrics heightens the authenticity in my ears, and they add a dark, mysterious quality to the music."

The album, in its entirety, premiered on Bulgarian Jazz FM on November 3 as a pre-release show.

On 'Mravka,' the 3rd release from the David Dower Trio, Australian pianist Dower teams up with long-time UK bandmates Matt Fisher on drums and Luke Fowler to produce their most intricate and profound work to date. 'Mravka' is infused with the sounds of Bulgarian music that initially drew Dower to the mysterious Balkan nation, with Bulgarian choral harmonies, odd-meter grooves, and the traditional kaval ( a wooden flute-like instrument). These elements are intermingled with the band's joyous energy, and Dower's ever-inventive song writing and arrangements. The album was recorded in Bulgaria during the trio's fourth tour in the region.

Inspired by artists such as Ben Folds Five and The Bad Plus, the trio blends pop, jazz, rock, and Bulgarian influences to create an accessible, energetic and dynamic experience. The album features guest Zhivko Vasilev on the kaval and UK's Elliot frost on guitar, a traditional Bulgarian folklore choir, and Sofia-based jazz vocalist Vesela Morova. Musically, memorable piano melodies meet distorted fuzz bass and eclectic percussion grooves.

'Selo' (Bulgarian for 'Village') opens the album with a brooding Bulgarian choir overture. There is something deeply evocative in the harmonies, enhanced more when you understand this is a dedication to the villages of Bulgaria. These stunning regions are gradually losing their population to bigger cities. Yet there is also hope in the way the vocals and harmonics rise, the piano trickling in the background as Dower explores chord progressions and a variety of transitions. The strong, powerful bass line evolves out of the journey from choral harmonies, through 12/8 Afro-Cuban-inspired grooves, into an 'in-your-face' distorted-fuzz-bass breakdown, tempered by a stunning solo interlude from the piano of Dower. Lead choir vocalist Rayna Vasileva performs the soaring melodies of this piece beautifully, incorporating traditional Bulgarian inflections and melismas ( the singing of a single syllable over several note changes). Even if you do not understand Bulgarian, the emotion in the lyrics is profound and lifting, and the music is the common language. The final harmonics from the choir finish the track beautifully.

'Kopanitsa' is a traditional Bulgarian dance rhythm, typically played in 11/8. Dower employs this rhythmic structure in this original composition, featuring Zhivko Vasilev on the flute-like kaval. Despite the intricacies of the rhythms, the groove and melody are performed with a relaxed nuance by the trio, making it very accessible. With its rich overtones and subtle timbre, the kaval evokes the mysterious feel of Bulgaria, while the sudden, time-shifting shakes from the percussive elements of the trio offer contrast and seamlessly blend tradition with rock nuances. The delicate interaction of piano, percussion, and kaval in the middle section is simply stunning, with Zhivko's mesmerising performance improvising over the groove with practiced ease, especially during the latter stages when he picks the perfect juxtaposition on the scale to the harmonies. Glorious.

'Mravka' (Bulgarian for 'Ant') is the album's title track. The trio piece blends influences from drum and bass producer 'Squarepusher' and Perth pianist Tom O'Halloran, to create a joyous and uplifting song. For the trio, there is a return to their distinctive syncopated harmonics and rhythms, which is a defining feature of the trio. Matt Fisher features with a playful and energetic drum break. The entire track has an uplifting lilt, typical of the trio's now well-ensconced playing style.

'Tell Me What You See' is a slow, melodic track featuring the stunning, intimate voice of Vesela Morova. The beautiful lyrics resulted from a collaboration between David and his brother Patrick and show a tender side. The song speaks of hurt and the seeking of hope and truth. Dower's piano is intuitive and quite beautiful here, ebbing and flowing along melodic rivers of sound, the rhythmic patterns tempered by emotive phrasing and arcs, creating a musical highlight worth several listens alone. Brass is provided on the track by Melbourne Symphony Orchestra musician Tristan Rebien, adding power and warmth to the ballad.

'Syanka' (Bulgarian for 'Shadow') is the 2nd collaboration with Bulgarian lyricist Mariana Vasileva on the album. Employing a traditional Daichovo-Horo rhythm (9/8), Matt Fisher's Indian Kanjira drum drives the rhythms on the number, while Elliot Frost's guitar adds an ethereal edge to this piece, as does the Zhivko's ominous kaval playing. Frost has a superlative touch in his playing style and it is given full rein here along with some intricate melodies from both piano and the kaval, which rises and soars across the intricate rhythms of the Kanjira. The choir provides a stunning display of traditional singing.

The iconic piano runs flowing into the verse introducing the number, are just about all the original parts of the trio's cover of the Boomtown Rat's 'I don't Like Mondays' you are going to get. This number has an almost ironically joyful melody and backing, contrasting with the dark lyrical content so well delivered in the original but who needs lyrics? Forget the original harmonics; here, Dower, in his arrangement, picks up the darker, subliminal tonality of the piece and re-works it to within an inch of its original tone. Dower's compositions were once described as being an extreme but functional juxtaposition between darkness and light-heartedness. The choice of this cover was intentionally made with that comment in mind. The trio unearths the passion, the hard-hitting time patterns, and the percussive elements that made the song at once a classic and a song of the downtrodden—no need here for the lip-curling snaggle-nosed expression of the Boomtown Rat's Bob Geldof. Instead, the trio unleashes the musical power behind the lyrics – to great effect. It's raucous, energetic, fun, and full of distorted bass and huge rock drums.

'Freya' is a delicate piano-trio ballad dedicated to Dower's baby niece. Inspired by the compositions of Randy Newman, it is a beautiful lullaby and a calm close to an ambitious and exciting album.

Of the album, Dower explained, "I hope this album can capture people's imaginations. There is a beautiful world out there, and the deeper you dig into something, the more magical and fulfilling it can become. In my four trips to Bulgaria and years of passionately listening and investigating, I've found a beautiful musical avenue to dig into, which has shifted the direction of my originals that I never could have imagined possible."

'Mravka' is a great album – interesting and inventive music and a beautiful dip into Bulgarian-influenced rhythm patterns and vocal traditions. Coupled with the talent of those on the recording, this album is a delight.


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