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Kit Downes



by Ian Mann

June 30, 2015


An astonishingly mature record, superbly realised. "Tricko" illustrates what a versatile and fully rounded musician Downes has become.

Kit Downes


Coup Perdu Records CPCD003)

Pianist, organist and composer Kit Downes has been a particularly ubiquitous presence on the Jazzmann web pages whether as the leader of his own trio and quintet or as a member of co-operative units such as the bands Troyka, Barbacana and the very first edition of Empirical. He has also been an astonishingly prolific sideman in groups led by saxophonists Julian Arguelles, George Crowley and Sam Crockatt, guitarist Hannes Riepler, fellow keyboard player Dan Nicholls, and singer songwriters Sarah Gillespie and Alice Zawadzki. Downes has also been part of the bands Neon Quartet (led by saxophonist Stan Sulzmann), Golden Age of Steam (saxophonist James Allsopp) and In Bed With (French drummer Sylvain Darrifourcq). It’s a richly varied list that still probably only scratches the surface of the phenomenally busy Downes’ multifarious musical activities, the latest of which is a new piano trio, The Enemy, featuring Swedish bassist Petter Eldh and British drummer James Maddren. 

In addition to the above Downes also likes to play in the intimate situation of a duo. These collaborations include a piano duo with his one time mentor Tom Cawley and his currently ongoing partnership with saxophonist Tom Challenger under the name Wedding Music in which Downes plays church organ.

2012 saw a remarkable late night performance by Downes on piano and Sebastian Rochford on drums at the Parabola Arts Centre as part of that year’s Cheltenham Jazz Festival. The event proved to be a genuine Festival highlight with the two musicians demonstrating an astonishing level of rapport and with Rochford giving a real masterclass in “painting in sound” from behind a very modest drum kit. It’s a shame that this highly fruitful collaboration was never documented on album, particularly as it no longer appears to be a going concern, probably because both musicians are so permanently busy elsewhere.

However one duo collaboration that is very much ongoing is Downes’ Tricko project with cellist Lucy Railton. Formerly known as Tricko-Tareco the duo’s music seeks to blur the boundaries between composition and improvisation, chamber music and jazz. The classically trained Railton first worked with Downes as a member of his quintet and her playing was a distinctive factor in the success of Downes’ 2013 quintet album “Light From Old Stars”. In recent years she has developed a keen interest in experimental music and improvisation, some of it involving electronics, and she is the co-director of the London Contemporary Music Festival. Railton was also the co-ordinator of the fondly remembered Kammer Klang series of experimental and improvised music events that took place four or five years ago at a variety of London venues, including The Vortex in Dalston. 

Although “Tricko” is credited solely to Downes it’s very much a duo record and Railton’s role is again key to its success. Alongside Ben Davis (of Basquiat Strings) and Shirley Smart (recently heard with pianist/accordionist Maurizio Minardi) she ranks as one of the UK’s most accomplished improvising cellists. Railton and Downes first met when both were students at the Royal Academy of Music in London and their rapport has been honed both by their work in Downes’ quintet and by numerous concert performances as Tricko, often with guest performers such as saxophonist Julian Arguelles who appeared with the duo at the 2014 Cheltenham Jazz Festival. 

The appearance with Arguelles incorporated a high degree of improvisation and Downes also used a modicum of electronics to treat the group sound. However for “Tricko” the album there is a greater emphasis on composition and although Downes plays both piano and organ there appears to be little additional electronic input. As such this is essentially an acoustic “chamber jazz” record, immaculately recorded at a variety of locations by an engineering team headed by Alex Killpartrick.

Downes’ liner notes explain that the compositions took a long time in development, with changes being made incrementally rather than on impulse, through choice rather than necessity. It’s a process that meant that none of his original ideas actually made it onto the record. “Mutability itself can be a creative force” he concludes.

The album commences with “Jinn”, a musical evocation of a mythical “smoke spirit” that is always tantalisingly hovering just out of reach. Downes’ swirling piano arpeggios and Railton’s dark hued cello responses seem to capture the elusive nature of their subject. Resolution is reached with a quieter, more lyrical passage, its very serenity seeming to suggest a tacit acknowledgement that the beguiling and mysterious “Jinn” can never be caught. The piece is also played in live performance by Downes’ new trio The Enemy, presumably sounding very different in their collective hands.

“Jinn” segues into the following “Alliri” which draws its inspiration for Downes’ love of the music of Maurice Ravel. Beginning with almost subliminal piano and cello the piece explores a single melodic idea by playing it in a variety of different ways. Railton plays both pizzicato and arco with Downes on piano and there is an experimental episode which features the musicians playing in two keys at once while making them sound thoroughly compatible. As Downes explains “it’s about about pairs of things, dancing together, pulling and pushing away and towards each other”. It’s something that can be heard not only here but in the music throughout the album.

Waira” is named for a mountain dwelling demon in Japanese folklore but the music is surprisingly serene and beautiful. Downes’ sparse but lovely melodicism is enhanced by Railton’s cello, both bowed and plucked, and further embellished by a tasteful location recording of the sound of rainfall in the Japanese mountains. It’s all very atmospheric and highly effective.

The tune “Tricko” has been around since the quintet days and is inspired by the music of John Adams. It’s described in the accompanying press release as “a study in voice leading, with pivot notes within chords, stepping from one to another, slowly changing, giving it a jaunty, entrancing feel”. It’s an accurate enough description and Downes’ own playing is often intensely rhythmic with Railton’s melodic but melancholic cello lines providing a good counterbalance. The piece also reminds me of the music of minimalist composers Steve Reich and Philip Glass.

“Ihno” features deeply sonorous cello, sparse piano melodicism and another smidgeon of subtle electronica. There’s a kind of ambient quality about it which has evoked comparisons with the music of Brian Eno. At times the piece almost appears to be in stasis but out of the uneasy tranquillity comes a form of dark beauty. 

“Arkane” is very different with the focus very much on rhythm. At times it’s also a very playful piece with Downes on piano exchanging rhythmic phrases and ideas with Railton’s spiky cello, once again both bowed and plucked. Other exchanges are conducted with a greater intensity in a particularly spirited dialogue that thrills and engages the listener throughout. 

The closing track, “Helkalen”, is named for a remote town “far to the north”, presumably in Scandinavia. It’s a bleakly lyrical depiction featuring Downes’ simple but effective piano chording and Railton’s hauntingly beautiful cello melodies. Between them the duo capture the essence of a remote and chilly beauty.

“Tricko” is an impressive artistic statement from Downes and Railton that bridges the worlds of jazz and contemporary classical and chamber music. The pieces are often downright beautiful and can be enjoyed for their serenity and lyricism alone but there is also an intellectual rigour behind much of the writing with the two musicians conjuring up a wide variety of colours, nuances, timbres and textures from their respective instruments. As an album “Tricko” is well programmed and, for a duo record, surprisingly varied with Downes bringing a host of interesting compositional ideas to the table.

“Tricko” creates its own distinctive soundworld and bearing in mind that Downes is not yet thirty it’s an astonishingly mature record, superbly realised. With “Tricko” Downes is not afraid to keep things simple and many of these pieces tell a story rather than acting as mere displays of technique - a cavil that has sometimes been levelled at Downes when he plays in other contexts, notably Troyka and In Bed With… . It’s not necessarily a criticism that I’d buy into but “Tricko” does illustrate what a versatile and fully rounded musician Downes has become. And let’s not forget the contribution of Railton who is excellent throughout and really deserves a co-billing, even allowing for the fact that the compositions are all by Downes. Tricko really is a double act in the best sense of the phrase. 

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