Kit Downes: Old Stars, New Blues
It's certainly true that the blues, like science, has never been afraid of dealing with major concepts. Loss, death and revenge, for example, are staple themes. "Yeah, they are. Skip James has lots of very bleak material. The blues does deal with very deep subject in a very pure way."
There are folk influences at work too. For example, Lucy Railton's cello introduction to "Two Ones" has something of an Appalachian feel. "Lucy and I talked about the introduction. She settled on what contemporary classical musicians might call a graphic score. We wanted it to reference a Bulgarian folk feel. It's just meant to be a sweet, folky, thing. I wanted to put it in an old, folky, non-specific space to set up the rest of the tune."
Another of Downes' European influences is Swedish pianist Jan Johansson, whose Jazz På Svenska (Megafon Records, 1964) is one of Sweden's best-selling jazz albums. Johansson died in 1968 but remains an inspirational figurehis own work was heavily influenced by Scandinavian folk song. For Downes, Johansson's inspiration is not only from his playing. "You can find inspiration from different aspects of a musician, not just their music. It can be how they worked, how they pioneered things, how they were as people. He was a very important figure in what we now call Nordic jazz, what's ended up being a general European jazz concept. The way his records sound is very unique, I think. The piano and double bass duo, his piano touch; there's a very strong atmosphere. He's not one of my favorite instrumentalists, but he sounds completely like himself; that's very inspiring." Downes is a relative latecomer to Johansson's work. How did he come to hear the Swedish pianist for the first time? "Oh, [British saxophonist] Iain Ballamy hipped me to him, maybe four years ago. It's the same with Paul Bley, who's better known, probably more influential. His influence on [pianist] Keith Jarrett is enormous, but he's not regularly name-checked. He's done my joint favorite piano trio album, Footloose! (Savoy Records, 1963). He sounds unique, has a completely individual musical language, for me he's just magic.
"I remember an interview with Bley where he talks about 'the freedom of the hands.' It's a very intangible thing, that idea that if you let go your body knows what to do. There's a weird tie-in with how we think about nature, the way we treat information consciously or unconsciously. We're always walking that divide when we're improvising. You're always in a state of flux between the two."
Downes also works with singer/songwriter Sarah Gillespie. "Sarah calls on a very different range of influences compared to what I do in any other band. We're both really into Paul Simon, Jeff Buckley, people like that. So it's a very different musical language, playing with Sarah. I really love it. I'm still being myself in that context, but I get to use a different set of colors. It's also fun to work with such a great lyricist, it's a different challenge."
While the pianist enjoys this challenge, he's at pains to avoid any clichéd responses to the lyrics. "Like when someone sings 'waterfall' and the piano goes 'Tinkle, tinkle, tinkle'? That gets on my nerves. Sarah's songs aren't about one specific thing, there's a theme with a myriad of topics. The lyrics are another strong palette to paint with."
When Downes was last interviewed for AAJ, back in mid-2010, he revealed that his "dream collaboration" would be with Bill Frisell. Is that particular partnership still top of his list? "Yes, probably. He's one guy I haven't talked about yet, but he's probably the most important influence on Light From Old Stars. My decision to have the group play totally acoustically was from seeing his 858 Quartet, how they dealt with dynamics. Also, I love his approach to writing melodies. For me he really gets that thing of early blues, real depth of emotion, very powerful but never over the top."
This interview took place at Downes' parents' home on the North Norfolk coast. It's only a hundred yards or so to the cold and unwelcoming North Sea and it feels like it's a thousand miles away from jazz's more usual urban hangouts. But it's a great place to see the light from old stars.
Kit Downes, Light From Old Stars (Basho Records, 2013)