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Aidan O’Rourke / Kit Downes Duo

Aidan O’Rourke / Kit Downes Duo, Walker Theatre, Theatre Severn, Shrewsbury, 20/04/2018.

Photography: Photograph by Pam Mann

by Ian Mann

April 23, 2018


An intriguing evening exploring the links between various artistic disciplines, and doing so with wit, warmth, wisdom and insight.

Aidan O’Rourke / Kit Downes Duo, Walker Theatre, Theatre Severn, Shrewsbury, 20/04/2018.

The keyboard player and composer Kit Downes has been a regular presence on the Jazzmann web pages for the best part of a decade playing piano, organ and harmonium as a leader of his own groups and as a prolific collaborator with other artists across a broad range of the musical spectrum. Fuller biographical details of Downes can be read in my recent review of his latest album “Obsidian”, a largely solo recording featuring the sound of various church organs released on the prestigious German label, ECM.
Review here;

Anything that Downes turns his hand to is guaranteed to be of interest and I was intrigued by this collaboration with the Scottish folk fiddler and composer Aidan O’Rourke, especially as the duo were set to perform in nearby Shrewsbury. I’ve been a regular visitor to the town, mainly to cover events organised by Shrewsbury Jazz Network at the Hive Arts Centre. Indeed Downes visited the Hive as recently as January 2018 as a member of the quintet led by American born drummer and composer Jeff Williams.
Review here;

Meanwhile O’Rourke has also featured in these pages as a member of the trio Lau, an Anglo-Scottish collaboration that also features guitarist / vocalist Kris Drever and accordion virtuoso Martin Green. Lau is a long running project with a string of album recordings and a large and dedicated fan base. The members of the trio are all brilliant instrumentalists and represent one of the most adventurous ‘folk’ acts around. Unlike some of their contemporaries improvisation plays an important role in their live performances and they have been involved in collaborations with jazz and electronic music artists, notably at the EFG London Jazz Festival.

All of the members of Lau are solo artists in their own right and each has a successful individual career.  Away from the trio O’Rourke has released a number of solo recordings, these featuring personnel drawn from both the folk and jazz scenes in Scotland. There’s considerable cross-fertilisation between the two camps on the Scottish music scene and O’Rourkes three solo albums, “Sirius”, “An Tobar” and “Hotline” include contributions from a number of musicians I know primarily as ‘jazzers’, these including saxophonist Phil Bancroft, trumpeter Colin Steele and keyboard player Paul Harrison.

O’Rourke has also been a member of the popular group Blazin’ Fiddles and is the co-leader of Kan, a quartet he co-founded with the flute and whistle player Brian Finnegan from the band Flook. O’Rourke’s music remains rooted in traditional folk but also includes elements of jazz, electronic and contemporary classical music, and he has written a number of commissions bringing these various strands together. Further details regarding O’Rourke’s wide ranging musical activities can be found at his website

O’Rourke’s collaboration with Downes began in 2016 and is a musical partnership inspired by literature. At Christmas 2015 the fiddler was given a copy of the book “365 Stories”, written by the award winning Scottish author James Robertson. The premise of the book was simple but ingenious, Robertson wrote a short story on every day of the year during 2013, with each story literally 365 words long. Initially these were published daily on line before eventually being collected together in the form of a book.

O’Rourke says;
“I began reading at the start of January and kept reading every day for the rest of the year. I loved the vivid moods the stories could stir up in an instant., like falling into a deep dream only to wake up a few minutes later. The atmosphere and pace of them seemed somehow musical – not unlike, in form and content, how I’d approach writing a tune. Two or three parts, one main theme, emotional, apposite”.

O’Rourke approached Robertson and explained that he was thinking of writing a tune every day of the year in response to his stories (except February 29th, represented by a blank page in the book). Encouraged by the author O’Rourke began writing on 1st March 2016 and by 28th February 2017 had composed 365 tunes. The pieces were written in the moment after reading the story, whether at home or on the road with his various bands, often in airports or cafés, but sometimes in the open air or up a mountain. Of the tunes O’Rourke observes “The deft brevity of James’ stories inspired me to keep thinks succinct myself”.

O’Rourke has now recorded twenty two of these tunes and released them as a double CD, “365 Volume 1” on the Reveal record label. Most of the pieces were composed in March and April 2016, the first two months of writing. The fiddler approached Downes who appears on the album playing both piano and pedal harmonium, and it’s combination of either of these instruments with O’Rourke’s fiddle that makes for an intimate set of performances, a kind of ‘chamber folk’ if you will, played with great warmth and a high degree of musical sophistication.

The duo are currently touring the UK performing this music and the Shrewsbury event took place at the Walker Theatre, the smaller of the two performance spaces at the riverside Theatre Severn complex. I’ve been in the main house before but this was my first visit to the Walker Theatre which proved to be surprisingly large and spacious, much bigger than the usual ‘studio theatre’ spaces at other arts centres and theatres.

The musical version of “The Full Monty” was playing in the main house to a large audience of anticipatory Shropshire lasses. The irony wasn’t lost on O’Rourke and Downes as they played to a much smaller, but very supportive crowd in the Walker. “Welcome to the Full Monty” said O’Rourke as the duo introduced themselves.

Robertson’s words were central to the evening and the performance was presented as something of a ‘multi-media’ event with the author’s words and other visual images, notably the snowy owl that adorns the album cover, projected behind the duo as they played.  There was also something of the feel of an old fashioned ‘review’ as both O’Rourke and Downes read extracts from the book and following the interval one brave audience member was encouraged to read a story at the beginning of the second half. Robertson himself performed with the duo at the 2017 Edinburgh Book Festival and will also appear at selected dates on the current tour.

O’Rourke took his tune titles from the first line of each of Robertson’s stories and the performance began with “I Was An Experiment”, written on 20th March. This was a straight ahead musical performance with just the snowy owl for a visual backdrop. The folk timbres of O’Rourke’s fiddle contrasted effectively with the gothic, church like sounds of Downes’ harmonium, a surprisingly small instrument powered by pumping its foot pedals. “Kit cycles 120 miles every night on that harmonium” joked O’Rourke.  I noted that Downes was reading sheet music while O’Rourke wasn’t, an observation from which I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.

A second instrumental, “The Room Is In Darkness” featured O’Rourke’s fiddle melodies underscored by Downes’ counter melodies at the harmonium. The two instruments complemented each other surprisingly well and Downes spent more time at the delightfully rustic harmonium than he did at the Walker’s rather splendid Yamaha grand piano.

Downes read Robertson’s story “Hotel” - tune title “Do people still do this?” - and the words were projected on the screen behind the duo as the pair played, Downes still on harmonium. The keyboard player then moved to the piano for “Nobody could be one hundred per cent sure about the last tiger” - story title “The Last Elephant” with the text again projected behind the band. But there was nothing remotely elephantine about the graceful fiddle and piano melody lines.

Robertson’s stories are hugely evocative,  often combining the simplicity and economy of a haiku with the power of a parable. Sometimes the reader is left hanging, the brevity of the prose opening up a myriad of future possibilities that are condemned to be forever left unexplored thanks to the author’s self imposed parameters. The stories are drawn from sources ranging from ancient Scottish folklore, myths and legends through stories learnt from his father and grandfather to the vicissitudes of everyday contemporary life and politics.  Appropriately some of them are based on old Scottish folk ballads. Some possess a black humour that somehow reminded me of Roald Dahl’s “Tales Of The Unexpected”.

“Red Sauce” (tune title “The phone rang just as she’d got the children to the table”) read here by Downes, represented one of the modern stories, simultaneously humorous and ineffably sad, the bleakness represented by the long, mournful violin melody lines and the lugubrious drone of the harmonium.

A passage of solo harmonium presaged and underscored O’Rourke’s reading of the story “Imagination” (tune title “There once was a man so old”), which was segued with a second story “Skin”, tune title “When I was still some distance from the village”. On completing his recitation O’Rourke took up his fiddle and his frantic bowing allied to the Downes’ feverish stabbing of the harmonium’s keys brought a fascinating first half to a close.

During the interval O’Rourke and Downes chatted amiably with fans at the merch table, discussing the project at length with their appreciative audience. Besides his solo albums, plus CDs by Lau and Kan, O’Rourke had brought along copies of Robertson’s book, with an attractive special offer for purchasers of both the book and the recording. I’d determined to search for a copy of Robertson’s book at Waterstone’s the following day so the prospect of purchasing it on the night together with the CD was too good to miss. By the end of the evening the biggest selling item was Robertson’s book - “he’s making more out of this tour than we are” grumbled O’Rourke good naturedly.

Set two began with plucky audience volunteer Margaret, who had been coerced during the interval, reading the text to the story “Freedom”, tune title “A fox and a hound met early one morning on a hillside”, written on 1st March and the first piece O’Rourke composed for the project. The music, with Downes on harmonium suggested a kind of rural tranquillity.

Read by Downes the story “Self-control” (tune title “At the interval as the applause dies away and people begin to make for the exits”) was set in a classical music venue and the music, again played by a combination of fiddle and harmonium, seemed to fit the grandiose story setting.

The story “Birthday” (tune title “Her feet padding back”) was projected onto the screen as Downes illustrated the piece with a lyrical passage of unaccompanied piano, joined later by O’Rourke’s elegant violin.

Also projected behind the duo the story of “The Abbot” (tune title “It was the savage boys watching from the cliff”) was played with far greater intensity with Downes reverting back to harmonium. Robertson’s tale, presumably about a Viking raid on the Scottish coast, was striking in the richness and vividness of its imagery, all conveyed with a stunning, and necessary, economy.

Solo harmonium underscored O’Rourke’s reading of the story “Only Disconnect”, tune title “First to go was the television”, a perceptive satire on the subject on popular culture, social media and human ‘contact’. O’Rourke then picked up his fiddle as the as yet unrecorded tune erupted into a frantic jig.

Among Robertson’s characters is young Jack,  a kind of idiot savant who features in several of the tales and speaks in a broad Scottish dialect. The story of “Jack and The Dog”, tune title “Jack, his mother says one day, ‘that auld dug has had it” elicited a haunting solo fiddle performance from O’Rourke, a kind of air or lament.

Finally, and offering further proof that this truly was a multi-media project, came “Every morning she steps out of the back door” , story title “The Painter”, was Robertson’s dedication to the Scottish artist Joan Eardley (1921-63). O’Rourke’s tune, played on fiddle and harmonium, mirrored the dignified beauty of Robertson’s words. It represented an end to an intriguing evening exploring the links between various artistic disciplines - music, literature, painting- and doing so with wit, warmth, wisdom and insight. Even the music itself embraced a variety of genres, folk, jazz, liturgical, classical.

Ultimately it’s probably best regarded as a folk performance, and a particularly Scottish one at that, with O’Rourke’s melodies largely drawn from that world - not that Downes’ classical and jazz influences should be understated. The two musicians appeared to have an innate feel for the music, a shared love of the literature that inspired it, and both seemed to get along very well off stage and seemed to be enjoying the tour.

It was certainly very different from the average jazz or folk performance and I found the whole experience fascinating. I was reminded of the 2013 work “What Do You See When You Close Your Eyes?”, a collaboration between the contemporary jazz group Moss Project, led by guitarist and composer Moss Freed, and a number of well known writers including prize winning authors Colum McCann, Naomi Alderman and Lawrence Norfolk, rising star novelists James Miller and Joe Dunthorne and the acclaimed Lebanese author Hanan al Shaykh. In this case the authors responded to Freed’s compositions with short stories (albeit longer than 365 words in most cases), the music coming first in this instance. Presented in an elaborate but classy package that was more like a book than the average CD cover this work was a considerable artistic success and was also performed live, with the authors in attendance to read their work. Downes’ wife,, bassist Ruth Goller,  was involved in that project and her experience may well have encouraged her husband’s involvement here. Also Downes played on the first album by Time Is A Blind Guide, the group led by Norwegian drummer and composer Thomas Stronen, an ensemble formed to perform music written by Stronen in response to “Fugitive Pieces” the award winning novel by the Canadian author Anne Michaels, the first lines of the book providing the name for Stronen’s band. 
A review of the Moss Project album can be read here;

The music of Moss Project, with its blend of jazz and rock, is very different to that of this duo but the way in which both projects, plus Stronen’s, have blended music with literature has hopefully been beneficial for both musicians and writers alike. I speak primarily as a music fan but all of these exercises have encouraged me to check out the works of the authors involved, including Robertson.

O’Rourke and Downes are still touring, sometimes with Robertson in tow, and details of forthcoming dates are listed below;

Nettlebed Folk Club

Heath Street Baptist Church, London

Norwich, Anteros Arts

Ashcroft Arts Centre, Fareham

Otley Courthouse, Otley

Irish Centre – Manchester

Further information at


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