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Kit Downes: You Have to Be What You Are

By Published: September 15, 2010
The Prize committee doesn't select from the entire output of British albums; instead, record companies have to submit albums for consideration by the judging panel. Presumably the Kit Downes Trio's label, Basho Records, discussed the submission process with Downes? Apparently not, as he explains: "No, not at all. A couple of months after the label had submitted Golden I was having dinner with Christine [Allen] from the label and she said 'Oh, I nearly forgot to enter you for the Mercury Prize. I nearly missed the deadline.' I didn't give it another thought, because I had the prize down as being for more crossover jazz. This was my own fault, my limited view, because I didn't know much about it. So I thought that I'd never have to think about it again, because the Trio always feels to me like a little underground thing and so I never thought I could get to something like the Mercury by making that sort of music."

Being unprepared for the nomination, Downes was at first somewhat phased by the experience: "At first I was totally shocked by all these pop critics going 'Who the Hell is Kit Downes? Why is he on the list when we could have had two more up and coming important pop acts.' That's fine, it's their prerogative and, of course, you've also got all these jazz journalists going 'Where are all the other jazz bands?' Because you can't represent the whole of the UK jazz scene with one album because it has such rich diversity."

The press conference that followed the announcement of the nominated albums was a new experience for Downes and fellow Trio members, drummer James Maddren and bassist Calum Gourlay: "It was very strange: especially with us being quite young and shabby and totally not hip in any way. We shuffled into the press conference with our scrabbly outfits and beards and hair, looking like total beatniks. After the initial shock and some criticism from pop journalists it made me think 'Well, that's what I am. I am a jazz act, I'm not trying to fit into your world, someone else has brought me into the pop world.' You have to be what you are, and be uncompromising about it. Once I got my head around that it got a lot better—it's hip to be the underground thing that no-one has heard of."

Although Downes seems very blasé about the press criticism, some of it was almost vitriolic. The most obvious example was from the British daily tabloid newspaper The Sun: under the heading "Prize Idiots" the paper's show business gossip writers claimed that Downes was "an idiot" because he had never heard of the Mercury Music Prize. Such a non-story seems barely worth the column inches, even if it were true, and it seems even more amazing that anyone could apparently feel the need to express anger about it. Downes' mature attitude meant that he didn't take the story to heart: "It was hilarious. I've got the press cutting on my fridge... The idea that I hadn't heard of the prize was actually a misquote from another newspaper story. But they are there to make stupid news: the column is called Bizarre."

"The stuff that really annoys me comes from the people who can't be bothered to listen to the music. They'd rather just dismiss it straight away rather than doing their job, which is to listen to it then say what they think about it." Does Downes think that there is a lot of this type of press response around? "Every year it's the same. Every year the jazz act gets panned. So I wasn't surprised. It's just a shame. It doesn't seem like a very human thing to do. It's a strange thing to me—most good musicians like diverse music and it seems an odd thing to just shut something out and just resort to press stereotypes to get more people to read a funny headline. Like my mum says, it's tomorrow's fish and chip wrapper."

Downes has a positive attitude to the press coverage the Trio have received from the Mercury Music Prize, feeling that on balance it does more good than harm. "What's nice is that lots of people get in touch to say they would never have bought the album but for the Mercury nomination, but they really like it. It's a pretty amazing thing that if someone buys only one jazz album in a year, it's your album. That's really amazing—it's a privilege to be in that position."

Golden is a beautiful album, worthy of its nomination. It is also, even in a list that contains more than one folk-inspired album, the record with the most direct link with the past. The Trio's line up and instrumentation has a contemporary take, but it's easy to see the link with Bud Powell
Bud Powell
Bud Powell
1924 - 1966
or Al Haig
Al Haig
Al Haig
1924 - 1982

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