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Kit Downes: You Have to Be What You Are

Bruce Lindsay By

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If there was a way to hear everything that's going on--if, for a week, you could replace 'MTV' with 'JazzTV'--suddenly, everyone would find at least one thing they liked.
Kit Downes' career as a jazz musician has, indeed, taken off in a very short time. He's still in his mid-20s, but such is his talent and appetite for music that Downes has become one of the most sought-after keyboardist in Britain, and he's a key presence in a series of cutting-edge bands, with The Golden Age Of Steam, Troyka, Big Cat and his own Kit Downes Trio all springing readily to mind.

While the intelligent but unassuming musician has seen his reputation extend across the jazz scene, in the weeks leading up to this interview he was also coming to terms with the attention of the wider British media, as the Kit Downes Trio's debut—Golden (Basho Records, 2009)—was nominated for the 2010 Mercury Music Prize. The prize is one of Britain's top music awards, selecting a winning album from a shortlist of 12 nominated recordings, all by British or Irish acts but culled from any genre of music.

Although the Trio didn't win—the 2010 Mercury Music Prize went to The XX—the nomination has impacted hugely on Downes, as he acknowledges. "It's allowed us to do a lot more things outside the jazz world—its allowed us to do more things within jazz, too, but doing radio to bigger audiences, things like that, has been lovely. It's especially nice for us because Golden is quite a traditional jazz record: the lineup is piano, drums, bass, all acoustic, all first takes, no editing."

Downes is keen to contrast this approach with the Trio's newly-recorded second album: "It's funny, because our next album is much more of a studio thing—there are other musicians joining us. But Golden sums up where we were at that time: it's a very jazzy record, lots of improvisation blended in with lots of written passages as well. So it's been nice to take very jazzy music on to very non-jazzy radio stations and to talk to non-jazz DJs. Once you start talking to these people about the music they become interested in the processes, in how we do things."

Downes has used the opportunities afforded to him by this new media access to expand on his own work and that of the Trio: an interview for The Guardian newspaper's website is a case in point, as he explains. "A lot of people who did this just spoke about the words of a song then played it. That was interesting in itself, but we took the chance to talk about how you bridge the gap between written material and improvising—how the two meet and how you try and disguise the two, how we play together, things about ensemble playing—specific musical things we're interested in. The guy doing the interview started becoming really interested in this—explaining the process is quite important for this music, because I think it's quite difficult to listen to this music without knowing a bit about where it's coming from. Once you start explaining that process people become a lot more fascinated with it and have a lot more open minds to listen to it, I think. So that's been really lovely."

It's clear that Downes' experience with the non-jazz media has given the Trio some new insights into their music as well: "Us talking about it makes us more aware of it ourselves. It's like teaching; when you're having to explain something to someone you have to really work it out for yourself first." The nomination has also expanded Downes' own musical horizons by introducing him to acts he's not previously been aware of: "People throw names at us that we don't know—like the nu-folk scene that also has an influence on jazz in Europe. So listening to people like [fellow nominee] Laura Marling has been really nice. I wasn't aware of these people before."

Downes' lack of familiarity with nu-folk and other genres stems from his conscious decision to avoid much contemporary media. It's an interesting position for a young person to hold but there is logic to it: "I don't watch television or listen to the radio, I just listen to music people tell me they like and so I might not have come across these names for a little while. I guess it's an unusual thing not to have a TV or a radio; it's not necessarily better or worse, but I made a decision—this sounds a bit dramatic—not to be told what to listen to, or at least to pick who I take advice from very carefully."

Such an approach is refreshing, but perhaps it's coming to an end, thanks to Golden's nomination: "Suddenly my CD is in the Mercury Music Prize list, whose whole point is to expose things that wouldn't otherwise get that exposure. It's made me reevaluate what I think and that whole process, working out where music like mine fits in the music industry, has been fascinating. It's also amazing how the Prize does that, defying the larger industry and including a jazz album, folk albums, unheard albums in the nominations. I think it's really important that such a tradition of creativity in the UK is still referenced in this big award."

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