The Dowland Project features the voice of John Potter, former member of the renowned Hilliard Ensemble and one of England’s most thoughtful and expressive singers of both early music and considerably more modern fare. As the name indicates, The Dowland Project began as a way to reinterpret some of the timeless songs of the Elizabethan composer John Dowland, and included contributions from Stephen Stubbs on lute and baroque guitar, Maya Homburger on baroque violin and then, in a gently subversive and totally effective touch, the modern bass of Barry Guy and the sax/clarinet player and composer John Surman. But each succeeding album has expanded the group’s range, backward to medieval music and forward to pieces created by the musicians themselves. These latter works are what make Night Sessions different from earlier Dowland Project records: About half of the album consists of medieval songs, but the other half features works improvised very late at night in the same church where the ensemble has made most of its recordings. The pieces flow together beautifully, linked by a sonic environment and a noir-ish approach that often makes it difficult to guess (without peeking at the liner notes) which are the old works and which the new. Potter had some medieval poems with him during the session, so the newly-created songs do have a direct connection to the older ones.
For those not inclined to speculation, “Can vei la lauzeta mover” is a troubadour song, by the enduring Bernard de Ventadorn; another of the most striking tracks is “Fumeux fume,” a very tricky, contemporary-sounding work that is in fact from Solage, one of the wild 14th-century composers who made the French and Burgundian courts a haven for the avant-garde. On the other hand, “I Sing of a Maiden,” which sounds like it could be centuries old, was created during the album’s late-night session. “Theoleptus 22″ is also notable: a Byzantine chant originally intended for the Hilliard Ensemble’s surprise hit record with the improvising sax player Jan Garbarek but re-purposed here. Night Sessions may not have the immediate appeal of the group’s first album, the remarkable In Darkness Let Me Dwell. But with its sustained, nocturnal mood and subtle musical surprises, this is an album that reveals more of itself with each listen.