Kit Downes is a jazz pianist based in London. As well as heading up his own rotating groups, he has also played with the likes of Empirical, Seb Rochford, Acoustic Ladyland, Troyka and Nostalgia 77. From 2008’s critically acclaimed, Mercury Prize-nominated Empirical to the equally cherished Light From Old Stars, released last year, Downes has been involved in some of the most ambitious jazz projects of recent years and is arguably one of the best pianists of his generation. I spoke to him ahead of his performance at the Folk Forest in Sheffield last month.
What was your route into jazz? Did you learn other instruments before settling with piano?
I started by playing the cello from a young age (but was never very good) and then started playing church organ. I began to improvise on church organ, as is part of the tradition of playing that instrument, and that naturally led me on to improvising within jazz. Oscar Peterson was my first hero – Night Train was my first album.
I know you are interested in lots of other genres, including blues. Why did you choose jazz?
Jazz was probably the first genre that I really got into when I was younger, but it was also the genre that was most focussed on improvisation. This is what led to me studying it and playing it so much. I think I love the process of improvisation even more than I love ‘jazz’. What I now play is a real mixture of lots of genres and I wouldn’t necessarily describe all the things I’m doing as jazz any more, but jazz has been a huge part of my learning and playing all my life.
Is it hard juggling so many projects? When I interviewed Seb Rochford earlier in the year he didn’t seem too phased by it. Are musicians like you two just really passionate and industrious, or is there an element of some of these projects not having a wide enough appeal to be a main focus for you?
I think it’s a very personal choice and one that you have to take the responsibility of making work for you. I like playing lots of different types of music – I get bored otherwise – so I need to find a way to make that sustainable as a career. That’s the game, and it’s fun trying to work it out. I’m still trying. I don’t really care about the width of my appeal. That is the concern of the people trying to sell the music, not who’s making it.
Should all jazz musicians be collaborating widely and reaching outside their comfort zones?
I think all musicians, artists and people in general should be trying to reach outside their comfort zones, otherwise you get slow and become unprepared for what is thrown at you. I think artists constantly stretching themselves is what has led to the best art ever being made, and is a vital part of the process.
How do you think all of those collaborations feed back into your composition and playing style?
There are different languages within different genres that are tried and tested ways of expressing yourself through that genre, but changing what language you use doesn’t change what you are saying. It obviously gives it a certain inflection, but the message stays the same. I think the collaborative process is vital to keep your own music fresh and relevant.
Is it hard to compartmentalise your writing? Do you write a part which you think would work well with a particular collaborator, and save it for later, or do you write everything as it’s needed?
I just write lots of music, and then worry about who it’s for later. I am always writing and lots of it never sees the light of day, but what does, goes firstly through the process of creation, then of arrangement. They are two different processes I think.
In what way?
For me, creation is about just getting the raw ideas and ingredients together, written down and documented in their completely unedited form. Then arrangement being the process of trying to make sense of it all, and trying to present those ideas in a way other people will understand. But the line between the two can be murky, deliberately sometimes.
The trio is quite traditional as far as instrumentation goes. Have you enjoyed composing for more instruments?
Sure, I like composing for different line ups. It’s why I have never had just one ensemble. However, I would say that traditional line ups can sometimes yield the most messed up music. Vocal, guitar, bass and drums is pretty traditional, but there is a huge scope there. But I enjoy mixing it up a lot – as well because there are so many great players out there playing lots of different instruments that I want to write for!
What will be the set up for the Sheffield show on Sunday and which musicians will be joining you on stage?
It’s going to be a quartet – first time we have played together – of myself on piano, James Maddren on drums (who I play with a lot), Robert Stillmann on saxophone and Connor Chaplin on double bass, playing mostly my music with some other things thrown in.
It’s been a while since Light From Old Stars was released. What are your upcoming plans in terms of recordings and releases?
I have a duet recording with cellist Lucy Railton coming out soon.
What is your advice to aspiring musicians?
Take control of your own career, and don’t necessarily take what other people’s priorities are as your own. The music industry is pretty Wild West now. No-one has a method. People are trying all sorts of different ways of making a career and the choices are much more subjective now, so use that control in order to make the music you want to make. Also, to continue working hard, writing lots of music. Never getting to comfy, but pushing yourself to keep moving forward. The process of being an artist, rather than a performer.