Friday, March 11, 2011
Reviewed by: Ian Mann
An impressive document that demonstrates a considerable step forward.
Kit Downes Trio
(Basho Records SRCD 34-2)
Following the success of the Mercury Music Prize nominated “Golden” pianist and composer Kit Downes returns with a new album and an expanded line-up. Downes’ regular band mates Calum Gourlay (double bass) and James Maddren (drums) remain but eight of the eleven new compositions to be heard here also feature the talents of James Allsopp (tenor sax and clarinet) and Adrien Dennefeld (cello). The “Trio” nomenclature is thus a bit misleading, but it’s a winning brand so why tinker with it? Having said that Downes’ regular gigging unit is still the trio, although he will be making a number of quintet and even sextet appearances this summer with Josh Arceleo’s tenor sax sometimes augmenting Allsopp’s bass clarinet. “Quiet Tiger” also features the distinctive artwork of Lesley Barnes, a Scottish illustrator and animator. Downes and the sextet will be working with her on a music and animation project that will be premičred at the 2011 Cheltenham Jazz Festival.
The young Norwich born pianist’s career got off to flying start with “Golden” which was recorded when he was fresh out of music college. His profile has since risen remarkably quickly with plenty of work coming his way including recordings as a pianist with Stan Sulzmann’s Neon Quartet and as an organist with both Troyka and Allsopp’s group Golden Age Of Steam.
“Quiet Tiger” is a more mature statement than its predecessor and includes material that has been fully played in by the core trio over the course of the last year or so. Several of these pieces were performed during the trio’s inspired performance at the 2010 Cheltenham Jazz Festival including “Frizzi Pazzi” and “In Brixen”, compositions inspired by Downes’ holiday visit to the Austrian South Tirol.
The addition of reeds and cello offers Downes a broader range of colours and textures and as a writer he has taken advantage of these possibilities to produce an album of impressive range and scope. Pretty melodies combine with spikier improvised moments on an album that covers many moods and musical styles. It’s ultimately a more challenging, yet more satisfying, album than “Golden” and one that exhibits clear signs of progress.
The brief opening track “Boreal” acts as a kind of overture with Downes’ piano skipping prettily above the low register sounds of cello and bass clarinet. It represents a kind of chamber jazz and wouldn’t be out of place on the recent Fringe Magnetic album “Twistic”, a record also featuring the bass clarinet talents of Allsopp.
Next up is “Tambourine” a joyous groove orientated piece that has been compared to Keith Jarrett’s
country blues style of the 70’s. Gourlay and Maddren impart the piece with a mighty rhythmic impetus and Downes even gets to do the Jarrett vocalisation bit when he solos. There’s also an excellent solo from Gourlay, both fluent and resonant.
“With a View” is a brooding meditation, a kind of tone poem, with Allsopp double tracked on tenor and bass clarinet. There’s another prolonged feature for Gourlay, who is again excellent, and a leisurely but beautiful excursion from Downes at the piano. The whole group performance is beautifully restrained and controlled, the contemplative stillness evoking comparisons with Miles Davis’ “In A Silent Way”.
“Frizzi Pazzi” is an effervescent, free-wheeling trio performance that confirms the instinctive rapport between Downes, Gourlay and Maddren.
“Attached” is another atmospheric ensemble performance with a brooding intro featuring Dennefeld’s cello. The central section is almost hymnal with Downes piano to the fore above a rich, sometimes eerie sonic backdrop of reeds and cello and the steady pulse Maddren’s slowed down drumming.
“In Brixen” is another trio piece and features one of Downes’ prettiest melodies. Again there’s a discernible Jarrett influence in the writing but the sheer charm and exuberance of the trio’s performance is irresistible. Maddren’s brightly detailed drum work is a particular delight.
Described in the accompanying press release as “sinister” the brief “Wooden Birds” flirts with free jazz with Allsopp producing an astonishing array of sounds from his tenor as the others flutter around him. It could serve as the soundtrack to a particularly atmospheric horror movie.
The gently unfolding “Fonias” is atmospheric in a more controlled way and comes from the same school as the earlier “With A View” and “Attached”. This time it’s a trio performance with a delightfully unhurried and mature performance from the three young men.
“The Wizards” is Downes’ dedication to the talents of Allsopp, and the saxophonist features strongly in a tune that tips its hat to John Coltrane and the sixties avant garde movement. The piece contains some of the most full on playing of the album with Downes at his most percussive and forceful and with Maddren restlessly inventive.
“Skip James” is another tune that has been in the trio’s repertoire for some time. Dedicated to a troubled early delta bluesman it’s also a homage to guitarist Bill Frisell, an even greater influence on Downes. Loosely based on blues and gospel forms it’s presented as a near ten minute epic building from a sedate trio opening via a deeply resonant bass solo through Jarrett like piano extemporising to full on band mode. It’s strangely moving with Dennefeld’s cello adding a distinctive haunting quality.
The record closes with the title track, another piece of gentle chamber jazz that mirrors the opening “Boreal” and effectively bookends the album thereby giving the impression of a diverse but complete piece of work.
“Quiet Tiger”, the album, is an impressive document that demonstrates a considerable step forward. The ballyhoo about the Mercury nomination may have died down but “Quiet Tiger” offers evidence that Downes the jazz musician is in it for the long haul. He’s clearly not the kind of musician who will allow himself to become typecast and I think it’s fair to say that he has the potential to become one of the UK’s most significant jazz performers in the years ahead.
Downes has frequently been compared to the slightly older Gwilym Simcock, a British pianist who is fast gathering an international reputation. Downes casts his net wider seems more prepared to take risks but with his undoubted ability there’s every chance that he will achieve similar levels of success and may even become the more interesting musician in the long run.
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Ian Mann on the two latest recordings by the most important European jazz pianist since Esbjorn Svensson.