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.
Watching The Well by Jon Thorne
It is a rare thing in life to be afforded the opportunity to acknowledge and serve thanks to the benevolence of one’s mentor. Fortuitously for me just 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 the principal 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 was 18. And then I 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. And I still haven’t. It is the sound of a man earthing a track with the most profound depth imaginable, 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 working in a bookstore.
Catalyzed by a borrowed mix-tape of ECM bassists from my friend Mark 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 big 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 74p. I was hooked.
I decided my next step would be to try and meet the man himself. Learning that his band ‘Whatever’ was playing at The Band On The Wall, a small club on Swan Street, I set off to meet him. I waited in the club's doorway all afternoon 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 headlights.
I stood in the doorway - accidentally blocking their way into the club - and mumbled something virtually unintelligible about buying a bass because of Danny. Perhaps to politely get me out of the way while they unloaded, he invited me into the front row to watch the sound-check. I sat marveling at being in close proximity to musicians of such high caliber - 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: a perfect musical mirror.
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. It was unrecognisable. 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 good or bad music as many say, but just music that moves or doesn't’t move you and to engage with what did. He taught me to leave prejudice at the door musically and give everything that I had to the playing of it. He told me to take double bass anywhere that I wanted.
As we spoke I felt myself rising three feet from the floor and, in truth, I have never come back down again. The maxim never meet your heroes has 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 double bass exactly where I wanted and I found myself in new and uncharted musical 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 the true Career path of my life. 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 8am 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. I put the phone down and had a quiet weep. Our conversation formed the start of a friendship that I would scarcely have thought possible years before sat listening to Kate Bush.
In 2006, very shortly before the birth of my first son Thomas, the good people from The Manchester Jazz Festival approached me to write a commissioned concert piece to be played live at the Festival the following summer. My immediate thought was to compose a musical that would feature the playing of Danny Thompson 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 ensconced in my mouth, I went outside for a walk to distract myself as I often do when I’m about to make a particularly important call (this is how I asked my wife on our first date). Semi tongue-tied I phoned Danny.
He agreed almost immediately. I hung up.
I was engulfed in an immediate mixture of fear and excitement.
Backing myself into a corner to force myself to learn was already a habit of mine, but this was a stretch by any standards.
I sat myself silently in front of my wife’s Yamaha U1 piano and prayed 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 lions-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. My inexperience in the classical world was also being exposed. For example, I didn't create a master score in Sibelius, which - as I was to find out only hours before the concert - meant that everybody’s parts failed to cohere!
And the only rehearsal time available was on the day of the concert itself.
My ensemble featured my wife Jojo singing soulful solo Soprano, the ebullient Gilad Atzmon from The Blockheads on Clarinet, Dave Walsh on Drums (a man whose musical gifts defy belief), the tender 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 also made the error of not employing a Conductor and attempted this task 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. Despite some mis-conducting everyone played his or her socks off. Danny was immense and we got a very long and heartfelt standing ovation at the end. Against many odds the concert had been 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 went the way of most things in my life. It evolved, much like a giant jigsaw puzzle, and the pieces presented themselves to me in random order and changed 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 felt like walking down an unknown road that demanded pure faith to be travelled upon. 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.
“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 weeping openly at the unadorned beauty of the sound of it. It was completely celestial. 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 has the voice of an Archangel, 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, whose pianistic skills are truly worthy of royal status, 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 tone to tone tracks, a call and response with Gilad on ‘Eicher’, a tribute to Manfred, the creator of the wondrous ECM label and a mournful musical montage 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 for 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 3-part sketch had evolved into a forty-three minute 12-part suite.
Throughout the process I took on more & 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 mercurial 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, some of which were captured and edited by myself as I was learning.
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 with the new Melodyne multi signal 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.
Now it was time for the artwork. Until that was in place the album would feel like a naked body in need of the right clothing to present itself to the world.
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, each half of us within each 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 he and his 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. He still does. We met at a music seminar in Manchester. He showed great enthusiasm and candor and I took to him immediately. He exhibited great generosity by offering his help and asking nothing in return straight away. In fact, everybody involved showed tremendous magnanimity throughout the project
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 of everyone involved in helping me make the album.
Filmmaker Richard Ramchurn & 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.
I achieved my main objective, which was to write and record a musical love letter featuring the playing of the man who inspired my entire career as a double bassist. A man whose encouragement, support, humility and inspiration burn within me every time I pick up that tree.
Danny Thompson. I will always be Watching The Well.