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Kit Downes: You Have to Be What You Are

By Published: September 15, 2010
Downes is, in fact, a member of Sulzmann's band, Neon, which made its debut only a few days before the interview: "We had our debut at the Pizza Express and then we did the Brit Jazz festival at Ronnie Scott's a few nights ago...Another strength of the scene is that you get young and old guys playing together, and wanting to play together. There's a good deal of mutual respect on the scene."

This intermingling of the generations was a key aspect of Downes' own musical development as a teenager starting out on the jazz scene. Norwich, a relatively small English city of around 150,000 inhabitants, has produced a number of young jazz players who are still in their 20s, but making real reputations as players. Why has Norwich done this? "One guy: Dave Amis. He ran the Big Band, the Norwich Students Jazz Orchestra, where we all met. We met every week and played all kinds of jazz, so we got a real mix of styles. Dave really knew what he was talking about, it was very natural—you kind of got it from osmosis. He was so totally into it, it made you care about it as well."

As well as performing, Downes does some teaching himself, working one-to-one with students. All-in-all, it's a busy and varied life which he clearly enjoys. In fact, one of the downsides of the expanded media attention Downes currently enjoys stems from the amount of time such attention takes up: "Man, I really crave all of the activity—teaching, writing, playing—if it's not happening you can freeze up as a musician. The best situation I can be in is when there's stuff happening around me all the time. In fact it felt a bit weird last week because I hadn't played with the Trio; I'd just spent all my time talking about playing with them, so it felt so good to be playing in front of a crowd that already knew the music."

"It's so important to be doing something. Even if I don't have a gig coming up, or anything specifically to write, I'm always doing something, always thinking of a new project to do. Playing this music is a way of processing information. You can obsess about it all but the actual doing is when it sticks."

With no intention of taking time out, presumably there are plenty of new ideas being developed? "New projects? There's always something. I'm working with an East European Balkan violinist, doing a piano and Hammond album with Alexander Hawkins." Downes is also playing with two bands led by his girlfriend, Polar Bear's bassist Ruth Goller: "Big Cat and Small Cat: Small Cat is the trio version of Big Cat, which is much more full-on—two drummers, bass, me, James Allsopp, guitar...Her music is wicked, very open and good fun." The Big Cat line-up combines two major bands on the new UK jazz scene: "There are two drummers—Seb Rochford and Tim Giles—James Allsopp on saxophones, me, Ruth. So it's half of Polar Bear, half of The Golden Age Of Steam and Chris Montague on guitar [from another of Downes' bands, Troyka]. It's all terribly corrupt."

Through all of his many projects one potential partnership has yet to happen: "Whenever I buy a record, if I like it I start to think 'What kind of musical terrain could we meet on?' My dream collaboration would be with Bill Frisell, because I think there would be so many points of reference we could kick off from." On the evidence of Downes' already frenetic activity and his rapidly growing reputation, this is a collaboration that just could happen soon.

Selected Discography

The Golden Age Of Steam, Raspberry Tongue (Babel Label, 2010)

Kit Downes Trio, Golden (Basho Records, 2009)

Clark Tracey Sextet, Current Climate (Tentoten Records, 2009)

Troyka, Troyka (Edition Records, 2009)

Tom Cawley and Kit Downes, Homely (Impure Music, 2009)

Empirical, Empirical (Destin-E Records, 2007)

Photo Credits

Mike Stemberg

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