Let the music play itself

British pianist Kit Downes's approach to his craft is Renaissance-like, feeding off musical, spiritual and philosophical inspiration.

June 11, 2010 21:57
In a band format, ‘you are constantly communicatin

kit downes trio 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

At the age of only 24, British pianist Kit Downes has a remarkably sagacious head on his young shoulders, and has chalked up considerable artistic mileage in his relatively few years on the circuit. Downes will front his own trio at next week’s Levontin 7 Pianotrio Jazz Festival (June 13 and 14), alongside bassist Calum Gourlay and drummer James Maddren.

Besides leading his own combos, Downes’s resumé to date features berths in the electric fusion Troyika threesome and with jazz outfit Empiricial, with which he played at the seminal Newport Jazz Festival in 2008.

London-based Downes takes something akin to the proverbial Renaissance-man approach to his craft, feeding off numerous sources of inspiration, both musical and spiritual, with more than a smattering of philosophy in there too.

“Music involves so many different things, and they all develop at different rates,” he muses, adding that chronology also has its part to play. Technically you can get it all together, but it can take a long time to get to know how to use it in the best way.

“Time comes into it, of course, but I also play a lot with people a lot older than me, and with people of my age and even younger. So you can feed off other people’s experience. That’s one of the great things about living and working in London.”

Temporally vastly distanced from the source of the genre, and the so-called Golden Age of jazz in the Thirties and Forties, Downes also fittingly feeds off far more contemporary sounds and energies, even if some predate him by a generation or two.

“I listen to a lot of music, and a lot of different types, and I try to filter out the stuff that isn’t relevant to me. I am into folk music, and I have a lot of time for singer-songwriters like Don McLean and Joni Mitchell. They have the art of writing their own song. They have to iron everything out, and to be very clear and concise, and say a lot with a little. The good ones have a real depth, and they are always immediately arresting. Jazz can benefit from that mind-set.”

One jazz artist Downes feels fits that description is American guitarist Bill Frisell, who was a headliner at last year’s Israel Festival.

“Frisell is a very good exponent of that approach. He plays so immediately that it touches you on a very basic human level. His version of complexity is what he leaves out rather than what he leaves in and, of course, he is influenced by the blues.”

Downes says he has long since realized that the best things come naturally and, seemingly, with a minimum of effort. Frisell appears to be an important point of reference in the Downes ethos.

“He takes time with his playing. Someone once said you let the music play itself and you try not to get in the way too much. You just have to be present and try to be as natural as possible and let the music come out. With any kind of music, it is about trying to get a place where you are almost not conscious, while also being aware. Your senses are alert and your mind is not so active. You get the perception when everything seems slower.

“When I play solo, I feel I have been playing for half an hour when I have actually been playing for an hour and a half. When you play solo you can enter your own private world in front of other people and you end up playing stuff you never thought of, with no constraints.” That is not generally the case in a band format.

“Then you are constantly communicating, and giving and taking, and compromising. When you play solo you delve deeply into yourself so it’s totally about you. But with others it has to be about blending. In a trio format, all three of those people’s sounds and their expression are important, have to leave room for everyone else.”

It also helps to be familiar with your bandstand cohorts, and shared work mileage can ease communication.

“In Bill Frisell’s trio, for example, all the players hear the same thing, so they can move around and do things and accommodate each other. In [veteran pianist] Keith Jarrett’s trio [which has been around for 27 years] they know each so well that they can each do their own thing but still sound well together. I know my trio players very well, and hopefully I’ll get to that stage with my trio too.

I’m aware of the importance of that, so I picked people I hope I’ll be playing with for a long time.”

For someone which such an open mind and exploratory approach, one might be forgiven for wondering what Downes is doing in the classic piano trio format of piano, bass and drums. In fact, the trio has been described as endeavoring “to both celebrate the classic piano trio tradition as well as develop it.”

Downes says there are benefits and disadvantages to the tried-and-tested trio lineup, and plenty of room for maneuver within the instrumental format.

“It’s easy to get into a trio. Three is a good number of players to have, and I play in more trios than any other kind of band. It’s a sort of natural number to have.”

Then again, there are instrumental permutations aplenty betwixt and between.

“The piano naturally lends itself to percussion,” observes Downes. “The note dies away immediately, and the beginning of the note is very important. The piano trios I really like are those in which the bass is not just the anchor, and the drums also play an important part. You need to question the roles of the instruments and to say something new. You have to be aware of register and creating tension.”

The classic piano trio has been around for decades and Downes says that lineage can hang heavy around a pianist’s neck.

“A lot of pianists become dissatisfied with the classic trio because it’s got so much history, so the audience immediately references all the great trios and that can be limiting.” But that doesn’t mean to say that Downes discards the achievements of threesomes of bygone years.

“I very much acknowledge the classic trio format, like Keith Jarrett’s and Oscar Peterson’s.” And there are trios that used the same instruments but endeavored to make the instrumental equilibrium more flexible, such as in pianist Bill Evans’s mid-Fifties band.

“He was the first to give the bassist [Scott LaFaro] a front stage role,” Downes states, adding that he is looking to add numbers to his own band format. “I am about to expand, and I want to add bass clarinet, cello and saxophone.”

Much of Downes’ early musical education was spent in the classical field, although today he says he steers a wide berth around that area.

“For me, jazz represents an alternative to European classical music, on which I grew up. I love classical music but I felt a bit uneasy with how the whole classical music scene works, so I looked for other traditions. I started listening to jazz and reggae and rock, as an alternative to imperial music; looking back, that’s how I saw it.”

Most of all, says Downes, it’s all about keeping an open mind and being receptive to all kinds of music, regardless of origin.

“People who achieve that high level of artistry, like for example Bill Frisell, relate to music being universal. Besides jazz, Frisell draws on country, rock, world music and fusion, and he has an appreciation [that goes] beyond the strict boundaries of jazz. [Icelandic singer-songwriter] Bjork is also like that, she also goes beyond geographical and musical borders.”

In a word, when Downes blows into Levontin 7 next week, expect the unexpected.

The Pianotrio Jazz Festival takes place at the Levontin 7 club in Tel Aviv on June 13 and 14. Other piano trios in the program include bands led by Daniel Sarid, Maya Dunitz, Shai Maestro and Omri Mor. For more information: www.levontin.com

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