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 astronomybut 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.
Downes' 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' enthusiasmsthe 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 emotionalI 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."