When English pianist and composer Kit Downes was ten and a chorister at Norwich Cathedral he was encouraged to start playing the church’s pipe organ, one of the largest in the country.
He was taught technique and some organ repertoire for hymns and psalms, but he was also nudged into experimenting with the magnificent instrument, playing with its many keyboards, pedals and stops, and exploring its infinite range of sounds.
“I loved it: it was pure excitement, like being on the biggest roller coaster I could imagine,” says 35-year-old Downes. “I was shown that the organ is not just a very serious instrument that you’ve got to play correct notes on, 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 composing and arranging, he has also worked extensively as a jazz pianist and band leader. He remains in thrall to the boundless possibilities of the church organ too – and committed to bringing its thrilling and affecting sounds to audiences far beyond the ecclesiastical.
Downes grew up in rural Norfolk to parents who were both passionate about music: his mother was a piano teacher and his father, a judge, a keen organist.
He started playing the piano as soon as he could climb up onto the stool, began cello lessons at five, and joined the Norwich Cathedral choir at eight. Over the next four years he sang for three to four hours every day, before and after school and during holidays, performing a full range of choral and sacred works, early to modern.
“It was probably the hardest job I’ve ever had,” he says. “Every day I was sight-reading, learning new material, learning to tune and learning to sing in an ensemble. Having the opportunity to gain some of those skills, at that age, was sort of the making of me. If I hadn’t had that, I doubt I would have become a musician.”
Downes’s interest in improvising led to his mother giving him Oscar Peterson’s classic 1963 album Night Train, and jazz increasingly became his main focus. At 15 he went to the specialist Purcell School for young musicians, where he studied both classical and jazz, and then on to the dedicated jazz course at the prestigious Royal Academy of Music in London.
Success was almost immediate. While he was still a student at the Academy, he helped form talented modern Brit-jazz quintet Empirical, an eclectic young band whose sharp looks and spikily catchy tunes quickly won them international acclaim – and tours in Europe, Canada and the US. In 2008, aged 22, Downes won a BBC Jazz Award for “Rising Star”.
Two years later Downes’s world was turned further upside down when his debut album as leader, the piano trio session Golden, a release that had sold only a few hundred copies for tiny London label Basho, was nominated for the Mercury Prize.
“When I was told, I didn’t even know what the Mercury was,” admits Downes. “We didn’t win [the prize that year went to The xx], and that amount of scrutiny was a bit intense, a bit too much for me at that point; some people wrote quite a lot of mean shit about me being ‘the token jazz nomination’. But I’m absolutely grateful that it happened – and I got a lot more work because of it.”
Downes took full advantage of his new opportunities, and since then he has embarked on a dizzying range of ventures and collaborations, making the kind of refreshingly panoramic and genre-fluid music that seems characteristic of the new generation of British jazz players.
As well as his own duo, trio and group projects, he is a member of jazz-prog-rock trio Troyka and playful experimentalists The Golden Age of Steam; he has also toured with English electronica innovator Squarepusher. Downes has written commissions for orchestras and festivals, and worked with film-makers, video game developers, artists and animators. Even his name has a certain cadence to it: “Yeah, it tracks well with a lot of old funk tunes,” he says, laughing.
He has also, over recent years, revived and reintegrated his passion for the pipe organ, recording a series of singular albums on various English church organs with saxophonist Tom Challenger that eventually caught the ear of Manfred Eicher, legendary boss of the ECM label.
It has so far resulted in three albums for the celebrated German label: Obsidian, a solo church organ recording (with Challenger on one track); the organ plus instrumental collage of Dreamlife of Debris; and a session with Downes’s energetic piano trio ENEMY, due for release next year.
It is 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.
Played by an outstanding quartet of Downes, Challenger, cellist Lucy Railton and drummer Seb Rochford, the work is inspired by German writer and academic WG Sebald’s 1995 book The Rings of Saturn, a meditative and exploratory work that, like Downes’s music, defies easy categorisation – and even core assumptions. Is Sebald’s book fiction or non-fiction, myth or memoir? Is Downes’s music jazz or classical, mostly composed or improvised? And does it matter?
One thing for certain is that the Triskel performance will allow Downes to reacquaint himself with the former church’s own organ, a 140-year-old instrument he first played in concert three years ago.
“I love that organ because it’s got a mechanical action that allows you to do some really fun and unusual things with extended techniques – you can really play with the sound,” says Downes. “Church organs have got all these beautiful colours… I can’t fully describe it, but they are just so exciting. Whenever I play them, I still feel like a ten-year-old.”
- Kit Downes’s Dreamlife of Debris is at Triskel Christchurch at 8pm on Sunday, October 24
- Paul Dunlea and Cormac McCarthy: two of Cork’s finest and most open-eared musicians, trombonist Dunlea and pianist McCarthy, up close and conversational. (Friday, 8pm).
- Marc Copland: solo piano has a long and lofty tradition in jazz – from Keith Jarrett through Art Tatum and right back to Scott Joplin – but few have revealed more rich and lyrical textures within the format than veteran American “piano whisperer” Copland. (Saturday, 8pm).
- Gold.Berg.Werk: a radical reimagining of Bach’s wondrous and beguiling Goldberg Variations for piano and live electronics. (Sunday, 2.30pm).
- Jazz on a Summer’s Day: a rare opportunity to see one of the great jazz concert films, shot at the joyous 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, newly restored and on the big screen. (Friday & Saturday, 2pm).
- Details at triskelartscentre.ie