Kit Downes: Light From Old Stars (2013)
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Given pianist/composer Kit Downes' standing in the UK jazz scene it's rather surprising that Light From Old Stars is only the third album he's released under his own name. It's less surprising when his relative youthhe was still in his mid-20s when he recorded this albumand active membership in bands such as Troyka and Stan Sulzmann's Neon are added to the mix. All this musical activity might seem to leave little time for other considerations, but at least one non-musical interest is key to the development of Light From Old Stars.
As the album's title suggests, the key is Downes' fascination with science generally and astronomy in particular. The cover design, by Lesley Barnes, takes this astronomical inspiration and adds a touch of mysticism. The sleeve notes, by NASA astrobiologist Danielle Scalice, take a more scientific perspective yet still serve to emphasize the mystery of the stars. "Wander And Colossus" reflects this mystery and fascination most clearly, driven by Downes and drummer James Maddren's rolling, seemingly eternal, rhythm.
Not all of the old stars which inspire Downes are distant entities. He readily acknowledges the influence of pianists Paul Bley and Jan Johansson and both get tunes in their honorDownes is particularly impressive on the jagged and darting "Bleydays." Downes also admires legendary blues musicians like Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and Skip Jameswhose impact Downes acknowledged with "Skip James" on his second album, Quiet Tiger (Basho Records, 2011). Their influence is also at the heart of Light From Old Stars, especially on "Outlawed," a loose-limbed tune redolent of laidback country blues which features Calum Gourlay's rootsy bass solo.
Two tunes with ornithological titles inject some engaging eccentricity into the mix. "Owls" finds James Allsopp's bass clarinet twitting and twooing on the cheerfully upbeat opening and closing passages, while Lucy Railton's scary cello creates a much darker mood in the middle section. "The Mad Wren"which may or may not refer to this album's drummerjumps and bounces just like the tiny bird as it switches between moods and tempos.
The old stars of the cosmos and the old stars of the blues may seem to have little in commonbut both of them have inspired the creation of a lovely, rewarding, album. Light From Old Stars is Downes' most accessible and imaginative album to date, a worthy addition to an already impressive body of work.
Track Listing: Wander And Colossus; Bleydays; Outlawed; What's The Rumpus; Two Ones; Falling Dancing; Owls; The Mad Wren; Jan Johansson.
Personnel: Kit Downes: piano, organ (3, 5, 8); James Allsopp: tenor saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet); Lucy Railton: cello; Calum Gourlay: bass; James Maddren: drums.
Record Label: Basho Records
Style: Modern Jazz