Kit Downes set to descend on Cork this weekend
When the English pianist and composer Kit Downes was ten years old and a chorister at Norwich Cathedral, he was encouraged to start playing the church pipe organ, one of the largest in the country.
He learned the technique and a bit of organ repertoire for hymns and psalms, but he was also inspired to experiment with the magnificent instrument, to play with its many keyboards, pedals and stops, and to explore its endless range. of sounds.
“I loved it – it was pure excitement, like being on the biggest roller coaster I could imagine,” says Downes, 35. “I was shown that the organ is not only a very serious instrument on which you have to play correct notes, but also that you can improvise on it, do your own thing and have fun.”
It was a formative experience that still resonates with Downes to this day. A musician whose first love is choral and classical music and who is powerfully drawn to composition and arrangement, he has also worked extensively as a jazz pianist and conductor. He also remains fascinated by the limitless possibilities of the church organ – and is committed to bringing its exciting and touching sounds to audiences far beyond the clergyman.
Downes grew up in rural Norfolk with parents who were passionate about music: his mother was a piano teacher and his father a judge, an avid organist.
He started playing the piano as soon as he could get on the stool, started cello lessons at age five, and joined the Norwich Cathedral Choir at age eight. Over the next four years he sang for three to four hours a day, before and after school and during the holidays, performing a full range of choral and sacred works, from early to modern.
“It was probably the hardest job I’ve ever had,” he says. “Every day I was sight-reading, learning new songs, learning to tune and sing in an ensemble. Having the opportunity to learn some of these skills, at that age, was sort of my way of doing things. If I hadn’t had that, I doubt I would have become a musician.
Downes’ interest in improvisation led his mother to gift him Oscar Peterson’s classic 1963 album Night Train, and jazz increasingly became his main focus. At the age of 15, he entered the Purcell School for young musicians, where he studied both classical and jazz, then the course dedicated to jazz at the prestigious Royal Academy of Music in London.
The success was almost immediate. While still a student at the Academy, he helped form the talented modern British jazz quintet Empirical, an eclectic young band whose sharp looks and catchy tunes quickly earned them international fame – and tours in Europe, Canada and the United States. In 2008, at age 22, Downes won a BBC Jazz Award for “Rising Star”.
Two years later, Downes’ world was turned even more upside down when his debut album as a frontman, The Golden Piano Trio Session, an outing that had only sold a few hundred copies for the little one. London label Basho, was nominated for the Mercury Prize.
“When I was told, I didn’t even know what the Mercury was,” Downes admits. “We did not win [the prize that year went to The xx], and that scrutiny was a little intense, a little too much for me at the time; some people have written a lot of mean things about me like “the token jazz nomination”. But I’m absolutely grateful that it happened – and I’ve had a lot more work to do because of it.
Downes took full advantage of his new opportunities, and since then he has embarked on a dizzying array of ventures and collaborations, creating the kind of refreshing and fluid music that seems characteristic of the new generation of British jazz players.
In addition to his own duo, trio and group projects, he is a member of jazz-prog-rock trio Troyka and playful experimenters The Golden Age of Steam; he also toured with the English electronic innovator Squarepusher. Downes wrote commissions for orchestras and festivals, and worked with filmmakers, video game developers, artists and animators. Even the name has a certain cadence: “Yeah, that fits well with a lot of old funk tunes,” he laughs.
He has also, in recent years, rekindled and reintegrated his passion for the pipe organ, recording a series of singular albums on various English church organs with saxophonist Tom Challenger which ultimately caught the ear of Manfred Eicher, legendary patron of the ECM label.
It has so far resulted in three albums for the famous German label: Obsidian, a solo recording for church organ (with Challenger on a track); the organ and instrumental collage from Dreamlife of Debris; and a session with the energetic Downes Piano Trio ENEMY, slated for release next year.
It’s the ambitious and intriguing Dreamlife of Debris that Downes brings this weekend to Triskel Christchurch and the Guinness Cork Jazz Festival as part of a Music Network tour.
Performed by an exceptional quartet of Downes, Challenger, cellist Lucy Railton and drummer Seb Rochford, the work is inspired by German writer and scholar WG Sebald’s 1995 book The Rings of Saturn, a meditative and exploratory work that , like Downes’ music, defies easy categorization. – and even basic assumptions. Is Sebald’s book fiction or non-fiction, myth or memory? Is Downes’ music jazz or classical, mostly composed or improvised? And is it important?
One thing is certain, Triskel’s performance will allow Downes to reconnect with the old church organ, a 140-year-old instrument that he first played in concert three years ago.
“I like this organ because it has a mechanical action that lets you do some really fun and unusual things with extended techniques – you can really play with the sound,” Downes explains. “Church organs have all these beautiful colors… I can’t describe it fully, but they are so exciting. Every time I play them I still feel like a ten year old.
- Dreamlife of Debris by Kit Downes is in Triskel Christchurch at 8 p.m. on Sunday 24 October
- Paul Dunlea and Cormac McCarthy: two of Cork’s finest and most outgoing musicians, trombonist Dunlea and pianist McCarthy, up close and conversational. (Friday, 8 p.m.).
- Marc Copland: The solo piano has a long and noble tradition in jazz – from Keith Jarrett to Art Tatum and up to Scott Joplin – but few have revealed richer, lyrical textures in the format than the veteran American “piano whisperer” Copland. (Saturday, 8 p.m.).
- Gold.Berg.Werk: A radical reimagining of Bach’s wonderful and alluring Goldberg Variations for piano and live electronics. (Sunday, 2:30 p.m.).
- Jazz on a Summer’s Day: A rare opportunity to see one of jazz’s great concert films, shot at the newly restored 1958 merry Newport Jazz Festival and on the big screen. (Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m.).
- Details on triskelartscentre.ie