Mike Downes’ fingers deftly fly around the fretboard as he performs the title track from his latest project Root Structure, his impassioned face wrenched in time with the groove being laid down by drummer Larnell Lewis. It’s particularly fascinating to watch Downes make these guitar faces, typically reserved for six-string shredders like Steve Vai or Jimi Hendrix because he’s not a guitarist – instead he’s wielding an upright bass, which stands over six feet tall.
The impressive flourishes of notes seem almost effortless for the Winnipeg native, who has helmed Humber College’s Bass department since 2000. The school’s esteemed music faculty help round out his quartet as well, with fellow teachers Lewis on drums, Ted Quinlan on guitar, and Robi Botos on piano.
In an interview before a performance last Sunday evening at Gallery 345 in Toronto’s west end, Downes says that he doesn’t just play with these three members of Humber’s music department, but pretty much everyone on faculty.
“It’s a great musical community there, and everyone is a working professional musician. I’m blessed to play with a lot of them.”
The performance marked the release of the Mike Downes Quartet’s new record Root Structure – or it would have if the CDs had been manufactured in time. Downes told the crowd that production for the discs was behind schedule, but assured them they’d be ready in the coming weeks. Given the delayed release, those in attendance at the club were treated to an exclusive preview of the album, as the quartet navigated two sets of intricate jazz instrumentals.
The venue is managed by Edward Epstein and is on the first floor of a century-old warehouse in Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood, which makes for a uniquely warm and open sounding room.
As Downes says, Gallery 345 is “a beautiful space for acoustics” – and that’s almost a criminal understatement. The combination of the plaster and brick walls and the 15-foot-high wood ceilings in the intimate, L-shaped room lend themselves superbly to the quartet’s sound. Epstein outfitted the venue with a 1960 Baldwin concert grand piano to take advantage of the superb sounding room, and it sounded immaculate in Botos’ hands.
Downes says that Root Structure is a play on words referencing his bass playing, but admits that there’s a more profound significance to the name.
“It’s about things that lie beneath the surface, getting in deep on things,” he says. “That’s how I feel when I play with these guys, and I wanted to do that compositionally and create that kind of environment.”
That sort of compositional connection was apparent from the quartet’s first notes – each individual performance seemed to feed off the last, and the solos grew more spirited as the night progressed.
Downes’ thumping low end notes seemed a little bit clearer as he made eye contact with his bandmates mid-jam, and Lewis somehow found another gear long after his rolls and fills behind the kit would have left a lesser band in the dust.
The band’s sound filled the room with infectious grooves, with impressive soloing from each instrument. There were times when Lewis’ drumming overpowered the basslines of Downes, and Quinlan occasionally even stopped strumming his tobacco burst Gibson to make way for Botos’ quieter piano solos – but these problems are to be expected when the instruments aren’t being pumped through a PA system.
The quartet’s final tune was the monumental jam “Moving Mountains” which featured a ludicrous drumming showcase from Lewis. The Humber alumnus’ full drumming vocabulary was on display for the audience as he powered through the lengthy solo. The sound of the other instruments seemed to fall away, but even his grinning bandmates didn’t seem to mind as they watched one of the world’s most talented drummers let loose on his Yamaha kit.
Lewis says that he’s been playing with Downes since he was a student at Humber College, and the chemistry they’ve developed shone through on Root Structure.
“To come full circle and to be in this project is a lot of fun,” he says. “There’s a great energy between everyone so it really made for a fun project to capture.”
Downes says that he isn’t just motivated by his bandmates, but his students as well.
“There are some killer bass players and musicians on every instrument. It’s pretty inspiring to see these guys who are so young and just absolutely killing it.”
The bassist says that he truly loves teaching his students, but finds himself learning more and more from them each lesson. One thing he tries to stress to them is that despite the state of the music industry, there are still opportunities for those who seek them.
“People are kind of doomsayers about the music industry – but for what we do, you just keep doing it and make things happen,” he says. “There’s still a lot going on if you want to be a creative artist.”
The associate dean of Humber’s School of Creative and Performing Arts, Dr. Andrew Scott, says that Humber’s faculty is full of incredible educators and musicians, and they’re lucky to have talent like the Mike Downes Quartet on staff.
“Good teachers, like good musicians, are above all communicators of ideas – and you couldn’t find better communicators than Mike, Larnell, Ted and Robi whether in the classroom or on the bandstand.”