Jon Thorne is an English double bassist and composer. He wrote, recorded and produced his album Watching The Well (2011) as a showcase for his mentor, legendary British bassist Danny Thompson. The album is a 12-part suite in three movements for double bass and orchestral ensemble and draws on ECM inspired European jazz, classical, electronica and folk influences. It features soaring strings, harp, electric guitar loops and choirs to create a unique backdrop for Thompson’s rich and perceptive bass work. (Read more)
A shifting matrix of string and harp, punctuated by choral voices and arcing sax. A grand, enchanting creation.
Huge thanks to Jon for this contribution to our Debut series in which he recalls the recording of his debut album Watching the Well …
Debut – Watching The Well (Jon Thorne/Danny Thompson)
by Jon Thorne, Aug 2015
It is a rare thing in life to be afforded the opportunity to acknowledge and give thanks to the benevolence of one’s mentor. Through a mixture of opportunism and good fortune such a chance presented itself one winter’s day in 2006.
Danny Thompson, a British double bassist of legendary proportions, is the reason that I wake up daily and lovingly wrap myself around a tree for a living. He remains a primary musical well that I draw inspiration from.
I first heard him play on a track called ‘Watching You Without Me’ – a song on the seminal Kate Bush album Hounds Of Love. I also heard him on ‘The Ink in the Well’ by David Sylvian from his album Brilliant Trees. I had never heard double bass playing like it in my life. It is the sound of a man earthing a track with profound depth whilst soaring across the top of it with a unique mellifluous woody growl, singing straight from the heart.
My first meeting with Danny proved particularly propitious. I was 23 and at that point still working in a bookstore.
Catalyzed by a borrowed mixtape of ECM bassists from my friend Mark Brighton, I purchased a grumpy and unresponsive plywood double bass – for £275 from a member of The Halle Orchestra in Manchester – with the express intention of recreating the divine sound of the great man. I had no idea where to begin and after two minutes of playing I thought my hands would fall off.
As a first step I decided to go busking in St Annes Square in Central Manchester. I played for four hours straight without having a clue what I was doing. I got enormous and agonizing blood blisters on my hands. And 74 pence. I was hooked.
I decided my next step would be to try and meet Danny in person. Learning that his band Whatever was playing at Manchester’s Band On The Wall on Swan Street, I hatched a plan to intercept him.
On a typically rain soaked Mancunian afternoon I waited in the club’s doorway, not sure what I was hoping for, nervous and as green as English summer hills. The band appeared late, tumbling out of the vehicle after a long drive from London, to find a human rabbit trapped in the venue’s headlights.
I stood in the doorway and mumbled something virtually unintelligible about buying a bass because of Danny. Having sized me up swiftly he invited me to sit in the front row to watch the soundcheck. I sat marvelling at being in close proximity to musicians of such high calibre – Paul Dunmall on reeds, John Etheridge on guitar and Tony Roberts on Northumbrian pipes. And the man himself with Victoria – his magnificent French Gand double bass – now towering over me physically as well as metaphorically.
To my great surprise he invited me on stage at the end and let me play his bass. Shaking profusely, I fumbled an attempt at playing ‘The Boy With The Gun’ from David Sylvian’s Secrets Of The Beehive album. He then got my bass out of its case and played the life out of it.
I confessed to him that I felt daunted at the prospect of starting a musical career so late in life with no training, but he was full of encouragement and sage advice. He told me to stay open to all forms of music, that there was no such thing as good or bad music, just music that moves or doesn’t move you, and to engage with the music that does. He taught me to leave musical prejudice at the door and give everything that I had to my playing and to not limit my horizons.
As we spoke I felt myself rising three feet from the floor and I have yet to come back down again. The maxim never meet your heroes turned out not to apply to me. (Danny later told me that his uncle once told him, “If it’s a choice between signing an autograph and catching the bus, sign the autograph.”)
I was on my way.
Six years later, after a great deal of hard work and hard times, I had established an international touring career with Lamb. I had taken a musical leap of faith and I found myself in new and uncharted territory.
I dedicated all of my playing on the second Lamb album Fear of Fours to Danny in the sleeve notes. Shortly after this I learned that he’d had a stroke during a heart valve operation. I decided to write him a letter to express my thanks for helping me find my true career path and changing my life irrevocably. I called his management to find out his hospital and ward details and I sent off the letter.
Six months later the phone rang. It was 8 am on a Saturday morning and I was half asleep and completely off guard. It was Danny.
To my delight he’d received and was very grateful for my letter. We had a chat and at the end he asked to stay in touch. Our conversation formed the start of a friendship that I would scarcely have thought possible years before while I sat listening to Kate Bush.
In 2006, very shortly before the birth of my first son, Manchester Jazz Festival approached me to write a commission, a concert piece to be played live at the Festival the following summer. The brief was to think big. My immediate impulse was to compose a musical suite for Danny, something that would feature his playing in a context I hadn’t heard him in before – a modern classical/ambient electronic setting.
Without too much thought, and with my heart firmly in my mouth, I phoned Danny.
He agreed almost immediately. I hung up. “Shit” I muttered. Backing myself into a corner to force myself to learn and grow artistically was already a well established technique of mine, but this was a stretch by any standards.
I sat down silently in front of my wife’s Yamaha U1 piano and waited for inspiration.
The title came first. Watching The Well. Taken as a mixture of ‘Watching You Without Me’ and the idea of Danny being the musical well that I drink from.
Fragments came. Bones with some flesh, but I knew I needed help. One sound I had in my head for it was the remarkable guitar work of Stuart McCallum. I took some rough chord charts round to his house. They felt like indistinct treasure maps with half of the details bleached out by the sun. Stuart contributed the lion’s share of the string arranging which really began to bring it all to life. We demo’d it all in midi for the benefit of the string players.
At this stage my focus was totally on the concert the following July. The birth of my son, moving house and the ensuing chaos brought the date of the gig close alarmingly quickly. I had many nights where my red and sunken eyes met the sunrise as I pored over the music.
And the only rehearsal time available was on the day of the concert itself.
I assembled a diverse and multi-talented ensemble, my wife Jojo singing celestial soprano, the ebullient Gilad Atzmon from The Blockheads on clarinet, Dave Walsh on drums, Stuart McCallum on guitar, the orchestral finesse of Danny Norbury on cello, Fiona Dunkley on viola, Claire Dixon on first violin, Karen Mainwaring on second violin and the lovely harp work of Anna Christensen.
I conducted the concert myself. A sold-out Royal Northern College of Music proved a deeply thrilling and very stern test. I surrounded myself with a multitude of old photographs of family and friends on the floor around my bare feet to give me strength. Everyone played their socks off. Danny’s double bass sounded immense and we got a very long and heartfelt standing ovation at the end. Happily the concert was an outstanding success.
In truth though I felt the music was under developed and I had a nagging urge to do it the justice I had initially wished for it. I decided I had to finish it and record it as an album. It would be self-financed, as and when I could afford it.
As it turned out it evolved much like a giant jigsaw puzzle with the pieces presenting themselves to me in random order and changing shape constantly during the process. But I trusted my instincts and with determined focus, full commitment, and hard work the solutions presented themselves as and when they were necessary. It was a journey down an unknown road. Little did I know at the time that it would take three and a half years of my life to record and assemble.
The initial recording took place at Woodman Studio in Halifax with the strings played by James Pattinson and Adam Robinson on violins, Justin Lingard on viola and Martin Couzin on cello.
There were some slight tuning issues during the session unfortunately. And, due to recording time constraints, a virtually non-existent budget, and the fact that all the strings were recorded into a co-incident pair of microphones, they couldn’t be fixed.
Hence the album was built around a slight discord. (As it turned out a newly developed studio software program called Melodyne Editor became available towards the end of the album’s mixing process that allowed us to go back, separate multiple signals, and fix the tuning.)
Next was Danny. My good friend and superb musician/sound engineer Dan Hope and I made the pilgrimage to Rickmansworth to record the great man in his own front room. Dan enquired as to Danny’s favourite microphone position for recording his bass.
“Just put it in front of it,” came the reply.
The harp parts were also recorded by Dan in the rustic kitchen of Eleanor Hudson, then harpist with the Liverpool Philharmonic. I distinctly remember kneeling near the harp and bathing in the unadorned beauty of its sound. Some very clever editing from Dan made some perfect loops from the session and we had another foundation stone of the record.
Stuart recorded all of his parts on the landing of his terraced house in Levenshulme. I was to loop and overlay a great many of these parts from the session across the entire piece, some of which worked well entirely on their own including the opening piece ‘The Light That Guides’.
The final album fell into being a 12-part suite. I barely used a single bass note in the place it was originally played. The same thing applied to the clarinet. Gilad very generously improvised over the whole piece. I ended up using every single note that he sent to me, but not one in the place it was originally played.
I always wanted choral work on the record. My wife had the perfect voice for it, so multi-tracking her as a choir was a no-brainer. I used all of her ideas in the final piece and each one elevated the record to a higher dimension. George King improvised some wonderful music for me almost completely unedited. One piece worked perfectly standing alone, the track ‘Tom’. Danny Norbury recorded at my house, adding his lush, sensitive cello tone to two tracks, a call and response with Gilad on ‘Eicher’, a tribute to Manfred, the creator of the inspirational ECM label and a superb call and response style part to the track ‘Molly’, named after my first born child.
Three guitarists added the final brushstrokes to the canvas. John Smith contributed a particularly fine medieval sounding extrapolation on one of the themes which became the track ‘Joanna’.Kirk McElhinney dropped some classic Bert Jansch influenced counterpoint to ‘Molly’, on top of the looped guitar part I had played on a Martin 0028 vintage reissue 12-fret parlor guitar. The last piece of the puzzle came from the subtle echoplex style guitar work of the exemplary Pete Philipson, also on the track ‘Molly’.
There it was. My initial three-part sketch had evolved into a 43-minute twelve-part suite.
Throughout the process I took on more and more of the recording and mixing myself. Jojo had bought me one to one lessons in Logic at the Apple Store in Manchester and I was literally learning as I went along, problem solving with Dan Hope weekly. He, very conveniently for me, worked there as an educator. Dan was in the spine of the project, all along the watchtower.
When it came time for the final mix I chose the fine skills of Joe Adams, who has since become a multiple award-winning mix engineer. It was a delicate process due to the patchwork nature of the parts and the varying quality of the recordings.
We worked in London at the now defunct Treacle Studios in Shoreditch and it all came together quickly after Joe had expertly resolved the early tuning issues in the strings with the new Melodyne multisignal tuning software.
After some final tweaks at home in my Romita/Ross Studio the album was finally ready for mastering, which was duly completed at Finesplice in Middlesex by Ben Turner.
When it came to the the artwork, I chose Emily Dennison for the sleeve and promotional photography on the strength of her previously outstanding strong conceptual work. She came up with the brilliant idea of submerging two large matching laminated photographs of us in half-filled tanks of water, one half of each of us within the other’s well, eyes closed and drawing equally from one another, composer and artist/muse in balanced union. She also took some humorous and relaxed shots of us together, which we used in the final CD booklet. These were also taken at Danny’s house where for the second time I was treated to his and partner Sylvie’s very generous hospitality. During this stay Nick Wells, then editor of Bass Guitar Magazine, organised an interview about the making of the album for the magazine, which only I had heard at this point!
Every project needs a man to put it into the right place. I knew I needed help with this and it arrived from a new and pleasantly surprising source. Kerstan Mackness ran Riot Squad Publicity and managed The Portico Quartet. We met at a music seminar in Manchester. He showed great enthusiasm and candour and I took to him immediately. He, like all the participants in the project, exhibited great generosity by offering his help and asking nothing in return.
Kerstan introduced me to Simon Drake who runs NAIM Records. Simon loved the album and after short negotiations we agreed a record deal. This, thankfully, allowed me to cover the costs and pay everyone involved in helping me make the album.
Filmmaker Richard Ramchurn and I hooked up with Danny before a gig he had at The Bridgewater Hall to shoot a ten-minute promotional video about the making of the album.
Shortly after, the good ship Watching The Well sailed out of dock on and into the crowded waters of 2010‘s musical releases.
It was met with a great deal of praise in the press. As an album it achieved my main objective, which was to write and record a musical thank you letter for, and featuring the playing of the man who inspired my career as a double bassist. A man whose flames of encouragement, support, humility and inspiration burn within me every time I pick up my instrument.
I will always be Watching The Well.
About Jon Thorne
Jon Thorne is an English double bassist and composer. His playing spans a broad range of the musical spectrum. As a member of electronic band Lamb he has recorded 6 albums, toured 45 countries in 5 continents, and played at most of the world’s leading festivals. He has also recorded, performed and appeared on albums with artists as diverse as Scott Matthews, Kathryn Williams, Liam Bailey, Robert Miles, Robert Fripp, Donovan, James Yorkston, King Creosote, John Smith, The Accidental, Amos Lee, Mr Scruﬀ, Jesca Hoop and Martha Tilston.
As a jazz double bassist he has played with many contemporary jazz musicians including Guy Barker, David Liebman, Ian Ballamy, Dave O’Higgins, Don Weller, Jean Toussaint, Gilad Atzmon, Ben Castle, Ed Jones, Byron Wallen, Martin Shaw, Jim Mullen, Alan Barnes, Jonathan Gee, Nat Birchall, and Claire Teal.
Jon wrote, recorded and produced his album Watching The Well as a showcase for his mentor, legendary British bassist Danny Thompson. The album is a 12-part suite in three movements for double bass and orchestral ensemble and draws on ECM inspired European jazz, classical, electronica and folk influences. It features soaring strings, harp, electric guitar loops and choirs to create a unique backdrop for Thompson’s rich and perceptive bass work.
A shifting matrix of string and harp, punctuated by choral voices and arcing sax. A grand, enchanting creation.
**** Uncut Magazine
Thorne’s sub-aquatic bass is a leap into the future.
Jon is also a member of the experimental trio Yorkston/Thorne/Khan whose album Everything Sacred will be released in January 2016.
Jon Thorne Links
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