by Ian Mann
April 06, 2018
Downes' command of melody, texture, colour and nuance draws you totally into his sound world. This is rich, evocative music that utterly transcends any perceived limitations about its format.
(ECM Records ECM 2559 Bar Code 578 2651)
The Norwich born pianist, organist and composer Kit Downes has been a frequent presence on the Jazzmann web pages for a decade now. He first came to my notice during his short lived spell with the group Empirical, appearing on their eponymous début album and playing with the band at the 2008 Brecon Jazz Festival.
Downes came to the attention of an even wider audience the following year with the release of the piano trio album “Golden”, his début recording as a leader and an album nominated for the Mercury Music Prize. The follow up, 2011’s “Quiet Tiger” saw Downes expanding the group to a quintet with the addition of cello and reeds, in which format he also recorded the equally impressive “Light From Old Stars” (2013). He’s since continued to be an adventurous and forward looking musician, a musical experimenter and a serial collaborator.
As a pianist Downes has been a hugely in demand sideman, bringing something of his own creativity to groups led by saxophonists George Crowley, Sam Crockatt, Stan Sulzmann and Julian Arguelles, drummers Clark Tracey and Jeff Williams and vocalists Sarah Gillespie, Lauren Kinsella, and Alice Zawadzki. He has recently revived his piano trio under the collective name Enemy and will release his début album with this unit (bassist Petter Eldh and drummer James Maddren) on the Edition record label later in 2018.
As an organist Downes has been part of the co-operative prog-jazz trio Troyka and its big band offshoot Troykestra and a member of saxophonist James Allsopp’s jazz/prog/gothic outfit Golden Age of Steam.
He has collaborated with French jazz musicians in the experimental groups Barbacana and In Bed With and has worked in intimate duo situations with cellist Lucy Railton (under the collective name Tricko), drummer Sebastian Rochford and fellow pianist Tom Cawley. Currently he is involved in separate collaborations with the folk musicians Josienne Clarke (vocals) and Aidan O’ Rourke (violin).
Among Downes’ duo collaborations was Wedding Music, which teamed him with the Yorkshire born saxophonist Tom Challenger. The duo’s début, the digital only release, “Wedding Music”, was recorded in 2012 with Downes playing the organ of Huddersfield University’s St. Paul’s Church. The pair subsequently made a number of spasmodic live appearances (both musicians were relentlessly busy on other projects) including the “Pull Out The Stops” festival which celebrated the refurbishment of the organ at London’s Royal Festival Hall.
The project acquired fresh impetus when Downes and Challenger were invited to become part of Aldeburgh Festival’s 2014/15 “Open Space” residency programme. This saw them visiting and recording at five different churches in Suffolk, rural locations that brought back childhood memories for Downes who was raised in the neighbouring county of Norfolk.
The results were released as the album “Vyamanikal” which appeared on the Suffolk based boutique label Slip Records. Critically acclaimed this unusual, intriguing and strangely charming recording became something of a surprise success with Downes and Challenger subsequently returning to Aldeburgh in 2016 and also making a number of Jazz Festival appearances, with Downes playing harmonium if a suitable sacred space with a pipe organ was unavailable.
Vyamanikal was adopted as a band name and in 2016 Downes and Challenger recorded a follow up which Slip issued as the cassette only release “Black Shuck”. Featuring one improvisation on each side of the tape this was a darker, spookier recording than the bucolic “Vyamanikal” with side one also featuring guest performers on strings and percussion with the sounds further manipulated by electronics artist Alex Bonney. It was substantially different to its predecessor but no less impressive and certainly didn’t hinder Vyamanikal’s progress.
Over the years Downes has become one of the few British jazz musicians to acquire an international reputation. He first came to the attention of ECM supremo Manfred Eicher thanks to his work with the Norwegian drummer, composer and bandleader Thomas Stronen. Stronen is perhaps best known to British jazz audiences as one half of the Anglo-Norwegian duo Food, alongside the English saxophonist Iain Ballamy.
In 2014 Downes, playing piano, was part of an Anglo-Norwegian ensemble, that also included cellist Lucy Railton, put together by Stronen to perform “Time Is A Blind Guide”, a commission for the 2014 Cheltenham Jazz Festival. Again the title later became a band name and the music was recorded by ECM with Eicher producing.
Eicher actually takes a back seat on “Obsidian” and the album is produced by Sun Chung who accompanied Downes to the three churches at which this essentially solo album was recorded. Four pieces were recorded at Union Chapel in Islington, London, a further five at St. John the Baptist Church, Snape, Suffolk and the final piece, “The Gift” at St. Edmund’s Church, Bromeswell, Suffolk. Challenger appears on one piece, “Modern Gods”, but in essence this is a solo organ recording that inevitably evokes comparisons with Keith Jarrett’s 1976 ECM double album “Hymns / Spheres” recorded on the Trinity organ of Ottobeuren’s Benedictine abbey,
Steve Lake’s liner note essay, titled “Through a dark glass” sheds valuable light on Downes’ inspirations and working methods with regard to “Obsidian”. This includes an explanation of the album title, “Obsidian” being the dark, transparent natural glass that forms as the result of the cooling of molten lava.
Downes explains that in his youth he sang in the choir at Norwich Cathedral while also taking lessons from the resident organist. Downes subsequently played at services and also exhibited an ability for improvising on hymn tunes and other pieces. This coincided with his discovery of jazz, courtesy of an Oscar Peterson and Downes subsequently became a jazz pianist and occasional Hammond player. He credits Challenger and the Wedding Music / Vyamanikal project as the main reason for him returning to the church organ.
At the 2016 EFG London Jazz Festival I enjoyed a performance by Vyamanikal at Kings Place that featured Challenger on saxophones and Downes playing two Indian classical harmoniums to replicate the organ drones and sonorities that characterised the “Vyamanikal” album.
A year later Downes played the magnificent three manual Father Willis organ at the Union Chapel, Islington as part of a duet with the improvising pianist and all round musical maverick Matthew Bourne. This lunchtime event was a collaboration between London Jazz Festival and promoters Daylight Music who deliver thirty such events at Union Chapel each year, usually featuring three different and highly diverse acts drawn from a variety of musical genres.
Downes describes the organs he plays on the album as “one large, one medium sized and one small”. He explains to Lake that each instrument has distinct characteristics and idiosyncrasies and describes the music that he has created for them as “giving a push and pull to the recording in terms of dynamic and size. I started writing with that in mind, with the idea of getting these organs from different parts of the UK speaking to each other. All built at different times, with different stops and different sounds. It feels like time travelling somehow, trying to find a common thread.”
“I had a couple of models in mind when I started writing. One was the idea of “The Forgotten”, of creating a kind of folk language, almost, for abandoned instruments. The organ itself isn’t forgotten, obviously, but there are so many of these instruments in country churches around the UK whose capacities aren’t explored any more, and they’re rarely used for new music or improvisation. Another idea floating around simultaneously had to do with volcanicity and how things happen very quickly in that world and then lay dormant for long periods of time. An analogy in a way”.
Hence the album title.
The majority of the individual pieces began as improvisations. “I would jot down elements that I found particularly interesting – a stop combination, a register detail, perhaps a note cell, or just sounds. Then I’d start to fill in the cracks between the abstract ideas to make fuller pieces”.
Downes cites the influence of the French organist and composer Olivier Messiaen stating;
“the organ is the ultimate orchestrator. For example what really appeals to me about Messiaen’s organ improvisations is how he blends the sounds of the instrument to give real form and colour to the performance. You can be both a composer and an orchestrator in the moment. And because the church organ is location specific it can be almost like playing a sculpture, knowing where the sound is going to come from, how it is going to beat with pitches from other pipes, how the sound will fill the room”.
The qualities which Downes assigns to Messiaen also inform his own playing. There is indeed real form and colour about these performances and also a very human warmth that transmits itself through the mechanisms of the various instruments.
The album represents a kind of travelogue with Downes beginning his musical journey in London at the console of the three manual Henry Willis organ built in 1877. With this being an ECM album the quality of the recorded sound is cleaner than on the two Vyamanikal releases, a quality that is likely to give the album an even broader appeal.
The opening “Kings” explores the sonic and orchestral capabilities of the Willis organ, combining hymnal, Gothic grandeur with rhythmic pulses that suggest the influence of minimalism or even contemporary electronic music. Skilfully layered and rich in colour, texture and nuance the listener becomes enveloped in the music - at Union Chapel itself the sound almost seems to surround you, such is the power, beauty and majesty of an instrument that fits its surroundings perfectly.
On “Kings” Downes skilfully combines arresting upper register melodies with deeper sonorities and continues this process with an arrangement of the traditional folk tune “Black Is The Colour”, masterfully combining the beauty of the timeless melody with the majesty and grandeur of the organ.
“Rings of Saturn” is a composite of several improvisations and was recorded at Snape. The eerie, ethereal, spacey effects were arrived at by the manipulation of the organ stops as Downes explains;
“These are organs where I can manipulate the airflow through pulling out stops to various degrees. If you don’t send quite enough air through the pipe by not pulling it out to its natural position you can get very different changes in pitch. Depending on which stops you’re using you can split the pitch in two. It’s an effect that I like using, but it’s one which has been written out of the modern, more regulated organs.”
Jarrett used similar effects on the “Hymns / Spheres” recording, observing at the time that some of the textures he discovered sounded almost “electronic”.
The brief “Seeing Things” occupies similar sonic territory and was freely improvised, with Downes adding the proviso;
“but still based upon sounds that I’ve set, and where I’ve known in advance what I was going for”.
A good balance therefore, and totally in accordance with the aesthetic of the album as a whole.
Challenger joins Downes at Union Chapel for the dramatic “Modern Gods”, a kind of fugue for pipe organ and saxophone.. “It was Tom who really got me back into playing organ again and I wanted to have his sound somewhere on the album” comments Downes. At first Challenger is deployed as “a rogue set of pipes”, supplementing what Downes is playing. When his tenor saxophone finally takes flight the effect is dramatic, mesmerising and uplifting.
“I wanted ‘Modern Gods’ to be big” explains Downes “it’s a cut off point on the record where we leave behind the Union Chapel and go the much smaller organ at Snape”.
The next piece, “The Bone Gambler” is much more contemplative in tone, the sound of the organ softer and less grandiose, but no less compelling. There’s a calming, liturgical feel to the music that conjures up images of small, dusty country churches, while a recurring, increasingly insistent bass motif adds a more contemporary feel and a vaguely unsettling atmosphere. The piece was recorded close up by engineer Alex Bonney with Downes remarking;
“ so you can hear all the mechanical noises of the instrument. Part of my fascination with the organ is hearing the individual stops and then abstracting the different sounds and combining them. If you aim for a big sound a lot of the subtleties, the special characteristics of the organs, can get lost. At lower volumes they seem to reveal more of their true identities”.
It’s a similar approach to the one adopted on the first Vyamanikal recording on which the workings of the various instruments can be clearly heard, together with outside, location specific sounds like birdsong.
“Flying Foxes” finds Downes exploring another aspect of the Snape instrument via a series of darting, high register melodic motifs. “The size of the organ is perfect for the church it’s in” observes Downes. “I wanted to find an organ that could punctuate a faster and more militant quaver feel to give a little rhythmic energy, and because the Snape instrument is smaller, and the sound very direct, you can work on that scale”.
The intensely romantic “Ruth’s Song For The Sea” is a dedication to Downes’ wife, the bassist and composer Ruth Goller. The piece features some of Downes’ most delightful melodic motifs in a beautiful performance that almost sounds as if the organist is conducting a duet with himself.
“Last Leviathan” conjures up something of the majesty of the cetaceans with its opening fanfares and fugues before a adopting a drone above which Downes replicates the sound of whale song courtesy of the organ’s keys, pipes and pedals. Like all of the other pieces on this remarkable album it’s a highly evocative performance.
The final piece, “The Gift”, is the closest that Downes comes to sounding like a traditional church organist. The tune itself was co-written by Kit with his father Paul Downes and is reminiscent of both a hymn tune and an English folk song. This is the only track to have been recorded on the organ at St. Edmund’s church in Bromeswell, a single manual organ with no pedalboard, essentially a converted harmonium.
Downes comments;“I tried playing that piece on the other instruments as well, but no other organ I’ve ever played comes close to sounding like Bromeswell. For all its faults it is so individual, and has a very personal voice”
“Obsidian” is a fascinating record, one that absorbs the listener from start to finish. Downes’ command of melody, texture, colour and nuance draws you totally into his sound world. He’s a master soundscaper whose playing embraces the full sonic and orchestral capabilities of the various instruments that he uses. This is rich, evocative music, beyond genre, that utterly transcends any perceived limitations about its format.
The album has received overwhelmingly positive reviews and is a recording possessed of a strange, calming beauty. Much of it ‘slow music’ but in a good way, unfolding gently and with the emphasis on colour, nuance and texture.
With Eicher not directly involved it is in many ways an atypical ECM record yet it fits perfectly into the label’s aesthetic. One can also imagine it being perfectly suited to BBC Radio 3’s ‘Late Junction’ audience and becoming a ‘crossover’ success in the manner of ECM’s recordings by Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble.
ECM just might just have another surprise hit on their hands.blog comments powered by Disqus