Kit Downes: never knowingly one thing alone
Officially, Kit Downes is a ‘jazz pianist’. When he was getting his start, he would have objected: ‘jazz is just a summary of all the things I like’, he said in a 2008 interview with the Guardian, just 21 but already jumping from studies at the Royal Academy of Music into his first group. For Downes, jazz wasn’t referring to a genre and its structure, but rather a place to collect influences and sound, holding them for their use in improvisation and experimentation. He was expanding, rather than reinforcing, its definition.
In ten short years, Downes has blitzed through a series of projects that have cemented him in scenes far and wide. After his time studying at RAM, he joined jazz quartet Empirical, who debuted with him on piano for a self-titled record of award-winning workouts. He left to play organ in the kaleidoscopic prog group Troyka, who marry big band to noise, creating music that references jazz but gleefully veers away from it. Their record Ornithophobia envisioned a dystopian world where bird flu turned people into ‘human-sized birds’, dealing out obscenities a long way from his previous project. The group’s electronic inclinations made for new adventures in texture, not-so-quietly announcing Downes as a musician of multitudes.
No project speaks more firmly to the diversity of his work than Vyamanikal. Constructed in partnership with saxophonist Tom Challenger, this record saw Downes helm a church organ for improvisations of dramatically contrasting timbres. It followed on from Wedding Music, made by the duo in the same set-up, but diverged from it in every way. Where its predecessor saw a devotion to melody and accessibility, Vyamanikal shimmered with dissonance and incidental sound, Downes’ organ playing blurring into the room and contributing to its air.
His debut for hcmf// 2017 once again pairs him with Challenger for the world premiere of Obsidian, a tribute to ‘slow processes that cause extreme reactions’.
The pieces push Downes further towards extended techniques, along with matters beyond the notes: it promises an exploration of ‘duration, vibration and mechanics’, and gives particular consideration to the physicality of the organ. Though they see him working in an entirely different mode from his trio with bassist Calum Gourlay and drummer James Maddren, the pieces of Obsidian nonetheless rely on mixed disciplines of theme-writing and improvising, furthering his sonic instincts rather than diverting from them.
Downes’ pointed shift between a recognisable jazz ID and these pieces reflects his expansive philosophy. Speaking in lieu of his Mercury nomination in 2010 as a ‘token jazzer’, he pointed out the pluralism of the genre: ‘jazz isn’t one music, and it doesn’t have one audience’. His resume draws a path between a tradition and its branching strands, proving him malleable as leader and sideman. His 2015 ensemble with cellist Lucy Railton can be seen as an attempt at drawing together different regions of influence: Tricko was a work absorbing ‘big-beat, modern jazz, ballads from nearby circling ice-cream vans and light-footed approach to improvisation’, offering a full spectrum of Downes’ technical and emotional leanings before feeding them back into an recognisable jazz sound.
This year’s effort with singer Josienne Clarke is another example of unexpected fusion work. Fronted by Clarke’s traditional folk vocal, Such a Sky places Downes’ piano movements in an entirely new context, using the jazz aesthetic as a sort of atmospheric fog within the idiom of early folk songwriting. It may deviate from his own aesthetic, but the record proves Downes’ sound to be both recognisable and adjustable – something he’s loaned out for projects and performances by Mica Levi, Leafcutter John and Django Bates.
Whatever context he’s playing in, it’s clear that Kit Downes can’t be stopped. One of his biggest musical achievements of 2017 came from barely being able to make music at all; after tearing his left hand’s middle finger, he was left unable to play the piano with it. To keep himself creating, he swiftly produced 52 piano scores solely for right hand – one for every day of his eight week recovery process. It’s peculiar hearing him laid so bare, without a band behind him or a player out in front – but it’s further proof of an artist who could never be one thing and one thing alone.
25 November @ 12:00pm
St Paul’s Hall
Tickets £12 (£9 concession / online)