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Kit Downes

Reflex; Dr. Snap

by Ian Mann

May 22, 2024


Rhythmically vibrant and rich in terms of colour, texture and dynamics it’s a complex and impressive piece of work that is brilliantly performed by a stellar international ensemble.

Kit Downes

Reflex; Dr. Snap

(Bimhuis Records BIM 016)

Kit Downes – piano, Ketija Ringa Karahona – flute, Ben van Gelder – alto sax, Robin Fincker – tenor sax, Percy Pursglove – trumpet, Reinier Baas – guitar, Petter Eldh – double bass, Sun Mi Hong – drums, James Maddren – drums, percussion, Veslemoy Narvesen – drums, percussion, Juliane Schutz – live visuals

At the recent 2024 Cheltenham Jazz Festival I encountered the celebrated pianist, organist and composer Kit Downes, who was about to perform in a duo context at the Parabola Arts Centre alongside vocalist and lyricist Norma Winstone.

It was a concert that I would very much have liked to have seen, but such are the vagaries of Festival life that I had already committed myself to covering another event.

Since you ask as this was Dee Dee Bridgewater and her band at Cheltenham Town Hall, a more exuberant and very different kind of show to what I’m sure must have been a very intimate performance from the Winstone / Downes duo. Nevertheless I would have loved to have seen BOTH performances and the scheduling of two absolute vocal legends opposite each other did seem a little perverse to me.

Later on in the evening a similar US / UK clash saw saxophonists Lakecia Benjamin and Trish Clowes on stage at different venues simultaneously. I usually go for the American option in these scenarios as you never know when their next visit will be and I have covered Downes, Winstone and Clowes fairly comprehensively on these web pages in the past and will hopefully continue to do so. The Downes / Winstone Duo is due to release a new album, “Outpost of Dreams” on ECM Records in July 2024, so I will look forward to that.

Kit and I are old acquaintances and it’s a measure of the man that even when I rather sheepishly confessed that I wasn’t actually going to his gig he didn’t seem to mind,  readily acknowledging that difficult choices are part and parcel of Festival life. “If you can’t review the show you can review this”, he said, thrusting into my hand a CD copy of his latest release, which came out on Bimhuis Records on April 26th 2024. Thanks, Kit.

“Reflex; Dr. Snap” is a live recording captured at the famous Bimhuis venue in Amsterdam on November 3rd 2022.  It forms part of Bimhuis Productions’ “Reflex” series of recordings, which the album notes describe as; “A series of four composition assignments reflecting on the current zeitgeist, composed, performed live and recorded at Bimhuis. This edition is written by Kit Downes”.

The recording features Downes leading a ten piece international ensemble featuring no fewer than three drummers – very King Crimson! The personnel listing also credits Juliane Schutz, Downes’ partner,  with live visuals and examples of her work also adorns the album booklet. The instrumentalists include a number of musicians with whom Downes has collaborated in the past, including bassist Petter Eldh and drummer James Maddren from the piano trio ENEMY and guitarist Reinier Baas from the organ trio Deadeye. Indeed Downes regards this ensemble as an extension of Enemy and has described this expanded line up a ‘family band’ that celebrates the jazz and experimental music scenes in a number of different countries and cities.

One suspects that the music was composed with this line up specifically in mind and Eldh is also involved in the writing process, as is saxophonist Tom Challenger, who doesn’t appear on this recording but who has previously been part of Downes’ Wedding Music and Vyamanikal projects.

The Bimhuis Bandcamp page says of the “Dr. Snap” project;
“DR. SNAP was some kind of rogue chemist, a ‘Breaking Bad’ kind of dude. He got shot at a lot, and kept everyone feeling good”. BIMHUIS Productions invited Kit Downes to write new work for REFLEX. Downes decided to make something big. He branched out his trio ENEMY into a brand new ‘family band’ consisting of artists hailing from disparate scenes. With three drummers (!) and an enormous backdrop of hallucinogenic visuals by Juliane Schutz, Downes got loud, garish and ‘in-your-face’.

The album commences with Eldh’s composition “Children With Pitchforks” which combines the rhythmic complexities made possible by the presence of three drummer / percussionists with quirky horn arrangements, with the sound of Karahona’s flute a particularly distinctive component. It’s a busy, bustling,  intricate piece with a lot going on, but this is an ensemble that is more than capable of navigating the complexities and challenges of Eldh’s writing. It’s a strong collective performance and solos are not clearly signposted in the usual jazz manner, but nevertheless Baas on guitar, Karahona on flute and van Gelder on alto sax are all featured individually. The composer’s bass is a powerful presence throughout and Downes’ piano is at the heart of the music. Mixing complexity with playfulness this is music that sometimes reminds me of Loose Tubes -  a compliment indeed, and of course one should not forget that Eldh has worked extensively with the great Django Bates. The ecstatic audience applause indicates just how much the Dutch crowd enjoyed it.

Tom Challenger’s “Full Dress” is relatively more straight-forward, with Eldh’s bass again really driving the music, in conjunction with the drums and percussion. The horn arrangements are less wilfully quirky than on the previous piece, but are still punchy, inventive and colourful, with Fincker on tenor sax emerging as the featured soloist and stretching out at length. Downes is also featured as a soloist, albeit comparatively briefly, and the piece is again notable for some exceptional ensemble playing.

Challenger’s piece incorporates a loosely structured ‘free jazz’ coda featuring reeds and percussion that segues into Downes’ own “Mirror”, which briefly introduces a more recognisable theme and adds the composer’s piano to the instrumentation.

Nevertheless the overall impression is still one of ‘free jazz’ as the music segues once more into “Familiar”, at first featuring the sounds of piano, bass and drums, essentially the ENEMY trio, before embracing additional instrumentation and mutating into the ‘Family Band’. The music becomes more structured and incorporates a series of spiky exchanges between guitarist Baas and the two saxophonists.

Again there’s a change of direction as the music segues into “Interlude A”, another episode in piano trio mode that is lyrical and reflective at first, before becoming more abstract and dynamic, this presaging a return to the earlier lyricism.

The introduction of Karahona’s layered flute takes us into “Pantheon 4”, the soft and airy introduction followed by a piano led passage that exhibits a spacious, but sometimes sombre beauty. Flute and guitar pick up the melody and van Gelder adds wispy alto saxophone, dovetailing effectively with Karahona’s flute. This is another piece that concludes with a loosely structured coda, this time incorporating the sounds of sampled voices and Baas’  ethereal guitar effects.

“Dimitrios In 64” emerges in similar territory with the sounds of soft reeds, guitar FX and the rustle of percussion. A bass and drum / percussion groove is then established and introduces a more propulsive ‘big band’ section with saxophone and flute solos and with a drum feature played out above a skronking backdrop of uncertain genesis – guitar FX / distorted horns? - I really couldn’t make up my mind. Pursglove’s trumpet improvisations, including the use of extended techniques provide the bridge into a more lyrical section featuring an elegant piano solo from the leader.

A shimmering forest of cymbals marks the transition into “Snapdraks”, the lengthiest track on the album. The hitherto underused Pursglove picks out a melody above the increasingly diverse percussive sounds and eventually the music gravitates into relatively more conventional large ensemble territory, with Pursglove still leading the way. But this is very contemporary large ensemble writing, veering towards the avant garde and a long way removed from conventional big band swing. Nevertheless there’s some impressive collective playing as the music continues to shift shape, with Fincker weighing in with an earthy, skronking tenor solo. Dynamic and textural contrasts are a feature of Downes’ writing and the softer sound of Karahona’s flute is next to feature, again intertwining with van Gelder’s alto.

“Interlude B” is a brief piano and percussion episode, sprinkled with a soupçon of electronica. It presages a brief collective “Pitchforks Reprise” and finally the track “Applause and Credits”, which merges a rapturous audience reaction with a fleeting instrumental coda.

With the exception of Eldh’s opening piece, which essentially feels like a stand alone item, even allowing for its subsequent reprise, the rest of the album hangs together like a suite as it moves through a number of different sections / movements. Rhythmically vibrant and rich in terms of colour, texture and dynamics it’s a complex and impressive piece of work that is brilliantly performed by a stellar international ensemble. The Bimhuis crowd loved it and one feels quite envious of those audience members who were lucky enough to be there on the night. It must have been a great live experience, especially with Schutz’s live visuals enhancing the music. One hopes that there might be subsequent live performances of the work in the UK, it would be a perfect fit for the Parabola programme at the 2025 Cheltenham Jazz Festival, and I can promise Kit that I would most definitely be there for that!

“Dr. Snap” represents the fourth and final release in the current Reflex series following albums from cellist / vocalist Sanem Kalfa, drummer Yoran Vroom and trumpeter Alistair Payne. Details of all Bimhuis Records releases can be found at;

Meanwhile London Jazz News has recently reported that the restlessly creative Downes has been booked by Bimhuis to present “Dr. Snap 2” in January 2025. This will feature new music and a completely different international large ensemble whose members will include saxophonists Camila Nebbia and Otis Sandsjo, pianist Marta Warelis,, bassist Ole Morten Vagan, and drummer Andrew Lisle. I shall look forward to hearing that too.

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