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Chris Hyson

Little Moon Man - played by Kit Downes


by Ian Mann

September 16, 2013

/ EP

Ian Mann enjoys this digital EP of solo piano pieces written by bassist and composer Chris Hyson and played by the acclaimed pianist Kit Downes.

Chris Hyson

“Little Moon Man” - played by Kit Downes

(Digital EP;  Barcode 88751633487)

Chris Hyson is a double bassist and composer who graduated from the Jazz Course at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff and has recently completed a Master’s degree at the Royal Academy of Music in London. I’m familiar with Hyson’s bass playing from his Cardiff days and saw him perform several times at Black Mountain Jazz in Abergavenny as part of a house trio featuring pianist Chris Gilligan and drummer Gethin Jones, both fellow alumni of the RWCMD. During this period I witnessed the trio provide sterling support to saxophonists Mornington Lockett (tenor) and Nathaniel Facey (alto). Under the group name Little Fish the trio also supported Neil Cowley at The Point in Cardiff and recorded an album with South Wales based saxophonist Lee Goodall.

I’ve also seen Hyson deputise superbly for Dave Green in alto saxophonist’s Martin Speake’s Generations quartet (Lichfield Real Ale Jazz & Blues Festival 2009) and other leading musicians he has performed with include Iain Ballamy, Mike Outram, Kit Downes, James Maddren, Jeff Williams and Liam Noble. It’s an impressive list that speaks volumes for Hyson’s abilities both as an accompanist and as an inspired double bass soloist with a huge tone and an impressive inventiveness and dexterity. 

However “Little Moon Man” reveals a whole new side to his talent, certainly one unknown to me until now. Whilst studying for his Master’s Hyson has spent a good deal of time composing music at the piano. The result is the digital EP comprised of six solo piano pieces played by Kit Downes.
Hyson has spoken of his love of the piano “its resonance, space, depth, texture, range and dynamics” and who better to bring these qualities to life than his old friend Kit Downes, one of the best pianists of his generation.

Still only twenty six and a regular presence on the Jazzmann web pages Downes has achieved an extraordinary amount in his relatively short career. His début album with his trio ,“Golden”, was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize and thrust the young pianists into the media spotlight. This may have been a mixed blessing at first but ultimately Downes has flourished with two successful quintet albums “Quiet Tiger” and “Light From Old Stars”  have added to a growing reputation. Also a talented organist and electronic keyboard player Downes has brought this side of his skills to such acclaimed bands as Troyka, Golden Age Of Steam, Neon Quartet and the Anglo French collaboration Barbacana. Virtually all the aspects of Downes career to date have been reviewed on this site including his occasional guest appearances with singer/songwriter/guitarist Sarah Gillespie. 

This digital EP, first released in February 2013, consists of six relatively short piano pieces with the title track easily the longest at just over six minutes. Hyson’s compositions are superbly played by Downes, his interpretations perfectly encapsulating the qualities of the piano outlined by Hyson above. The composer felt that Downes was the perfect pianist to play his pieces due to his selflessness and delicacy of touch. Recorded at Fieldgate Studios by Alex Killpartrick the sound quality is excellent with Downes playing the studio’s F278 Fazioli piano.

The first thing that strikes the listener is just how beautiful Hyson’s melodies are, a surprise perhaps coming from a musician best known as a rhythm player. “Little Moon Man” itself is the perfect example of what Hyson was looking for in Downes. The pianist gets right inside the music, focussing on simplicity and melody and resisting any temptation to overplay. His use of space is striking but there is also colour, nuance and texture as composer and musician gently explore the sonic possibilities of the piano. It’s a lovely start.

The mood of quiet reflection extends into the shorter, hymn like “Sunday”, again with focus on the simple and the unadorned. Likewise the spacious, gently rolling “Rainbow”, a suggestion of Abdullah Ibrahim here perhaps? Hyson himself quotes pianists Keith Jarrett, Carla Bley and Bobo Stenson as influences on his composing.

As befits the title the delightful “Button Eyes” adopts a more playful approach which continues to charm the listener. I understand that a short film inspired by this piece is currently in the course of production.

There’s something Keith Jarrett’s “country blues” style in “Drifter” and maybe something of Ibrahim again too, all of it music with its roots in the church.

The closing “If I Miss A Star” is arguably the most beautiful piece of them all, a sparse, meditative exploration of a beautiful melody that feels absolutely timeless.

Hyson says of this album; 
“I spent a lot of time experimenting with different musicians and instrumentation to find the right combination for this music. After some time, I came to realise that it was best suited to being played on the piano alone, as that’s where I spend a lot of my time composing - alone on the piano. When I write music, I try to be as honest as possible, drawing influence from my own personal life experiences, and the relationships I have with others. All the music is written from a place of love.”

And he’s right, you can hear that love in these gentle, but never bland melodies. The strength of this music lies in its simplicity with Downes sustaining the listener’s interest through his lightness of touch and the all round beauty of his playing. This music is a pleasant listen but it’s a rewarding one too. 

I think I’m correct in saying that “Little Moon Man” represents Downes’ first solo piano recording (although he did record “Homely”, an album of piano duets with Tom Cawley back in 2009) and as such this collaboration should hold a good deal of interest to his burgeoning fan base. But let’s not forget Hyson, the composer of these lovely melodies and a significant jazz talent in his own right.

“Little Moon Man” is available at Amazon, Bandcamp, Soundcloud and all the usual digital outlets.

The second EP in this series “Alive With Closed Eyes” is expected to be released in October 2013.

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