Kit Downes interview

One of the most outstanding albums of 2019 the 5-star Dreamlife of Debris is a sobering album for sobering times. Think the rapport Iain Ballamy had in his early career...

Published: 30 Nov 2019. Updated: 3 months.


One of the most outstanding albums of 2019 the 5-star Dreamlife of Debris is a sobering album for sobering times.

Think the rapport Iain Ballamy had in his early career with Django Bates and you have one indication towards an intimation of that correspondingly here in the interplay between pianist/organist Kit Downes – on this Huddersfield and Snape recorded masterpiece – and saxophonist Tom Challenger.

Their duo passages are located at the heart of a remarkable album that sucks you in and never lets you go. The other personnel are cellist Lucy Railton, guitarist Stian Westerhus and drummer Sebastian Rochford. Suffolk and W. G. Sebald are inspirations, ones that Steve Lake refers to in the liner notes, a story first begun on Obsidian.

There is a grandeur to the music here that is not built on pompous statement more on intimacy, humility, and contemplation and that makes the quality of the composition and artisan crafting of the performance even more impressive as it dives into a world of melancholia and reflection.

Interview with Kit Downes

In terms of an influence on your music making would you say Keith Jarrett towers above everyone: If so why? If not how do you respond to Jarrett’s records more generally?

Keith Jarrett was definitely a very large discovery for me early on – my neighbour gave me a copy of The Köln Concert when I was 13, having no idea how much that would change my life. This was my second ever recording, and from there (combined with Oscar Peterson) was where I really fell in love with jazz. His commitment to melody and counterpoint was something I really enjoyed, as well as the feeling that he really improvises always – trying to construct new melodies each time, not repeating the same phrases or patterns very much. Also the way with which he managed to still encompass some of the aesthetics and approaches of 'classical' music without losing the core feeling of 'jazz' in his playing. I started on the record that I just mentioned, then discovered the standards trio, then worked backwards. The further I went back the more I loved the music – the rawer and riskier it got – always feeling very free and exploratory whilst always having this feeling of melody and unashamed romanticism in it. I love that.

Where does your love of pipe organ stem from?

I was a chorister at Norwich Cathedral and an organ scholar at St Peter Mancroft in Norwich, from around 8-12 years old. I have always loved the organ, and started playing it when I was a chorister hearing the organists there (people like my early teacher Katherine Dienes-Williams, David Dunnett and Neil Taylor) who could all improvise brilliantly, inspired me to try and improvise in the first place – messing around with themes of psalsm and hymns and trying to move them through key centres with variations, and play with the sounds and colours used to frame those ideas.

Picking it up again ten years later felt like an extension of that, but just with ten years' worth of playing other types of music thrown in as well. I love the way the organ feels really like something of a community instrument, the ultimate arrangers instrument in that you can mimic many instruments but also it has such a huge sound that it can easily wrap up other people's sounds into its own particularly with voices of course. When I rediscovered my enjoyment of playing it again it was really on a sonic basis. I loved exploring how different they all were, from the different sounds to the different mechanisms to the different spaces they lived in.

What do you enjoy most about teaching students at your old college the Royal Academy of Music?

What's not to enjoy really. They are all extremely committed to the music already at such a young age, very curious and intelligent. It is a very lucky position for me to be in where I get to just be a sounding board for their own ideas, encourage them to write their own music and develop the things that they are already interested in as well as introduce them to music that they haven't heard yet that they might like (and vice versa with them to me). I find it very inspiring myself. It makes me practise more and think in a deeper way about the things that I am trying to explain to them.

I feel I found my own sound really through trying to help students with their own playing in as much as anyone has their 'own sound'. It also reminds me how hungry for music I was when I was that age (not so long ago, but many things seemed to have happened since then), and that is a very infectious energy to be around. Also Nick Smart – the head of the course there – is such an amazing guy and leader of that course: the health of that course really is a testament to his devotion towards it, and his skill in running it so well.

When you were growing up in Norwich what was your first musical experience and how do you think it made an impression on you?

I can't remember which was the first but I played cello from a young age and played in orchestras as well as singing in choirs. My mum is a music teacher (piano specifically) and my dad was an amateur organist (and very part-time amateur french horn player) so there was always music in the house. And I was always encouraged to play music. I'm very grateful for that, mum and dad, if you are reading.

I think just having a piano and a harmonium in the house was such a huge deal growing up – there was always an interesting sounding instrument I could play on and mess about on – and to be able to play a real acoustic instrument, not a digital representation, made me fall in love with all the sounds. Cello I loved too but was awful at it, hence why I vicariously enjoy it through Lucy Railton now in as many contexts as possible.

Turning to ''Dreamlife of Debris'' let me ask you about Tom Challenger. What inspired you about working with Tom first, and how has your collaboration developed over the years?

Myself and Tom Challenger had always wanted to start a project together, but we were waiting to find a suitable opportunity and setting. Thanks to the generosity of P A Tremblay and Huddersfield University, a chance to spend a few days working and recording in St Paul's, Huddersfield arrived and out of those sessions came Wedding Music. Originally a sequence of improvisations, this was pretty much the first time that myself and Tom had improvised together in real depth. We had talked a lot beforehand about things that we wanted to explore – we had both been playing some quite intricate and intense music at the time, and this felt like a good opportunity for us both to investigate some long form durational elements, and to focus on sound production just as much as note content.

Out of Wedding Music then came a residency at Aldeburgh Music: this was maybe the most productive patch for me and Tom, as we spent many months travelling in his car round the Suffolk countryside improvising in different churches on various different organs – all in various states of disrepair.

Whilst this was happening I was constantly learning more and more about the instrument, as well as remembering more technical aspects of it that had been a bit dormant since my early lessons. Out of these trips came a collection of field recordings that made up the album Vyamanikal – and it was the video (made by Ashley Pegg) of that project that was first heard and seen by Sun Chung and Manfred Eicher at ECM.

What is your most recent composition and when and where did you compose it?

I'm writing music now for a new ENEMY album which will be released next year on ECM. I'm writing it either at my home in Chesham, or on holiday in Italy with Ruth [Goller, Kit's wife] in the Alps.

Are you exclusively with ECM now or can you record with a number of labels?

I am with ECM now, which I am very happy about. Not only was it a childhood dream to be on that label, but it is one of the last jazz labels left that really supports the musician in so many different ways. I am very lucky to be working with them.

Tell me about Sun Chung who produced ''Dreamlife of Debris''. Hands-on or not?

Sun was the reason I made both Obsidian and Dreamlife, as it was him that introduced me to ECM and suggested both concepts – a solo organ album, and then a large ensemble album featuring organ. We worked a lot together before the recordings talking about concepts and material; he was at all the sessions gently guiding the flow of work, and then played a huge part in structuring and developing the material (as with Dreamlife there was plenty of post-production work by myself and Alex Bonney, the engineer).

Sun, Alex and myself spent a lot of time together working on all this music together, and it was really productive I think. I came up with ideas that I would not have come up with on my own and saw perspectives that I would have missed without a more objective eye. I couldn't have made either record without him, and having made all my own previous records before that by myself without a producer it was a welcome change in process, and one that felt very supported in throughout.

On Stian Westerhus: how do you think he fits in to your sound in particular?

Stian was the one person I hadn't worked with before, and in a way the most wild element in the record. I love his playing and his solo albums in particular, and I just wanted to see if there was a way to make that sound fit somewhere within ours – I had faith that it would work out and that we would find common ground, and we did.

The track that he features on the most ('Bodes') is my favourite on the record – he pushes me and Tom somewhere else which was exactly what I was hoping for. I enjoyed the risk of the process, and have some great stuff that we did that didn't make it on the album that I would love to use for something else someday. He's a really unique voice and I'm very happy that he is part of the record – that goes of course for Seb, Lucy and Tom too.

How do you describe the Suffolk landscape as you know it?

Home of the enemy, Ipswich FC – no I'm joking of course, I'm just a Norwich FC supporter.

Suffolk and Norfolk are both pretty unique I think. The more I travel the more I think back about East Anglia and see how brilliantly bizarre and alien it is in many ways. Growing up there I just presumed that was normal, then when you see hills and bright colours elsewhere in the world you realise the very distinctive palette that East Anglia has.

I love it of course, it feels stuck in an older time and quite cut off – resisting modernisation a little longer than elsewhere, and the way the sky looms so large on the landscape makes everything feel so dreamy and hazy.

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It's hard to put into words (I am no wordsmith) the kind of affection you feel for your home landscape as it's tied to so much personal experience and childhood in general. But I am not surprised that Constable painted so many beautiful landscapes in Flatford, and that so many poets flock to the UEA [University of East Anglia], there is some invisible spark in that landscape for sure.

'Flatford Mill (Scene on a Navigable River)' by John Constable. Pic. Wikipedia

Kit Downes plays MAC, Birmingham on 5 December, Anteros, Norwich on 6 Dec, and Kings Place, London on the 7th.