Kit Downes: Old Stars, New Blues

Bruce Lindsay By

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Cheltenham Jazz Festival, Saturday 30th April 2011. The young British pianist and composer Kit Downes has travelled to this west of England town to première his latest composition, Animation Migration, at the Playhouse Theatre. It was an unusual event for a jazz festival. Downes' band played music inspired by the story of evolution and DNA alongside Lesley Barnes' similarly inspired and wonderfully colorful animations, followed by a question and answer session, where Downes and Barnes were joined by scientist and television presenter Adam Rutherford. The early evening event was a success and the audience demanded, and got, a reprise of the complete musical performance.

In June 2012 Downes was back in Cheltenham. This time Animation Migration was at the Science Festival and a chance meeting at a late-night event led to what may be a world first: liner notes for a jazz album written by a NASA astrobiologist.

Downes has firmly established himself as a leading light in the UK music scene. He was part of the original lineup of Empirical, won the 2008 BBC Rising Star award and gained a 2010 Mercury Music Prize nomination for his debut album Golden (Basho Records, 2010). He regularly plays and records with musicians such as George Crowley and Hannes Riepler. He's also a member of Troyka, alongside guitarist Chris Montague and drummer Joshua Blackmore: the trio was nominated for the 2013 JazzFM Cutting Edge award for innovation and the 2013 Parliamentary Jazz Award for Ensemble Of The Year.

He's a busy man, but he's no scientist. "I'm a complete layman as far as science is concerned. It's a starting point for opening my mind to things. Astronomy is my main interest and it's a hobby just like anyone has hobbies. Because I'm a musician everyone else has to suffer the consequences of my hobbies."

Downes met Daniella Scalice, from the NASA Astrobiology Institute, after she had seen Animation Migration at the Science Festival. "We met at what I can only describe as the science festival equivalent of a jazz jam session. All the scientists got together in the bar and chatted at the end of the day. They're all into science, of course, in a very geeky way. I'm into music in a very geeky way so it made it easy for me to talk to them. They were really up for talking about the murky, gray, area where music and science cross over. The evening ended with me talking to Daniela about astrobiology and planet hunting. We spoke for a couple of hours: she explained astrobiology very clearly to me but still made it exciting."

Scalice's notes, about the nature of light and its link to life on Earth, appear on the sleeve of Downes' third album, Light From Old Stars (Basho Records, 2013). The album title refers to the idea that the stars we see as we look into the night sky are far away in time as well as distance—"time travel without moving," as Downes has said. It's a grand concept, but his musical explorations of the idea are far from pretentious and often find expression through very down-to-earth musical influences.

Downes began to write Light From Old Stars before his meeting with Scalice. "I was working with Lesley (Barnes, whose artwork adorns the album sleeve) and I always had an interest in astronomy—but I think everyone has an interest in those fundamental questions. I had some ideas floating around in my mind, I'd been talking to Adam Rutherford about similar things, concepts I didn't really understand. I felt buzzed by it. For me, it's not so much a conscious decision to deal with those things. I never say emphatically that something I've written is about a specific subject. All of these things are disparate ideas that float around in my head. It's up to the people listening to make some kind of sense of it," he says, laughing. Enter the album name hereDownes' enthusiasm is clear as he carries on discussing these ideas. "There are concepts of scale, time, that I want to deal with as a human being as well as a musician. They're kind of fundamental. The whole beauty of getting into science is that there is still an enormous amount of mystery about it. It's the same with music. But I haven't transcribed any algorithms."

The down-to-earth nature of much of this music comes from another of Downes' enthusiasms—the blues. "I'd been listening to a lot of blues while I was writing the album, blues from a particular period. Early Delta blues, }}Blind Willie McTell}}, Skip James, Robert Johnson, Howlin' Wolf. Their music is defiant but also melancholy and quite bleak. It's never overtly emotional—I can relate to that. It's powerful but never overstated. I like the freedom within it as well. The people who are influenced by that music are people I'm really into—[guitarist] Bill Frisell, [pianist] Paul Bley. They have that thing of being very free yet rooted in a strong melodic context."

Blues may be central to much of jazz but its influence seems less obvious among the younger generation of European jazz musicians. Downes identifies one particular musician as the man responsible for his current interest. "Chris Montague is very into blues: he's an encyclopedia of guitar and really got me into all of this. I even started to try and play guitar: there are some dodgy blues licks I can just about do. It's opened up a new sound, a new way into the old blues language. I do see a link between blues and a lot of European jazz and folk. Maybe just in the atmosphere, the sentiments, aesthetic links."

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 figure—his 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.

Selected Discography

Kit Downes, Light From Old Stars (Basho Records, 2013)

Troyka, Moxxy (Edition Records, 2012)

George Crowley Quartet, Paper Universe (Whirlwind Recordings, 2012)

The Golden Age Of Steam, Welcome To Bat Country (Basho Records, 2012)

Kit Downes Trio, Quiet Tiger (Basho Records, 2011)

Kit Downes Trio, Golden (Basho Records, 2009)

Photo Credit
Emile Holba

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