Previews & Features
Interview: Kit Downes
By Martin Barber
Jazz pianist Kit Downes is riding a musical wave of success with the release of Empirical, the debut album from a talented young five-piece of the same name. Produced by the legendary Courtney Pine, the jazz world is watching Empirical with interest.
There have been some great jazz musicians over the years and if 2007 is anything to go by, it seems that Norwich's Kit Downes is set to join them.
Having just released his band's self-titled debut album Empirical, playing the jazz stage at Glastonbury and winning one of the jazz world's most prestigious awards - it's proving to be quite a year for the 21-year-old pianist.
"It's fantastic. We've had airplay on Radio 3, played live at Glastonbury, did a Front Row [for Radio 4] recently… it's been amazing," he said.
Empirical, produced by Courtney Pine, has been praised by reviewers as a fine showcase for the five-piece band and hotly-tipped future jazz stars.
Kit Downes (front left) with Empirical
Featuring Jay Phelps (trumpet/voice), Nathaniel Facey (alto sax/voice), Tom Farmer (double bass), Shane Forbes (drums/percussion) and Kit Downes (acoustic piano) - the quintet is regarded as playing with a musical maturity and confidence.
Kit admits that recording the album was hard work.
"It was a gruelling experience, but very enjoyable at the same time. We went to Courtney Pine's house and he made an album with us. He was great at tying it all together.
"It was more challenging than anything I've done before. You're confronted with every fault about your own playing in the most fundamental way. It's so plain and obvious what you can and can't do after recording," he added.
Kit started playing the piano when he was 12 years old, working his way through the music of Bach and Beethoven, but it was while listening to a CD by the great jazz pianist Oscar Peterson that inspiration struck.
After training at the Purcell School Of Music in London, he's now finishing his degree at The Royal College Of Music.
Having been gigging for a number of years Kit is no stranger to performing to an audience, but seeing his first album in the record shops is taking some getting used to and he knows that the band can't afford to rest on its success.
"It's pretty weird, but you've got to be realistic about it. An album doesn't last a long time, one album on its own, especially from a young jazz band," said Kit.
"It's an amazing starting point but I think Empirical really want to build on it. There's a massive understanding of jazz out there but people's preconceptions are quite different."
The band are dedicated to maintaining the roots of traditional modern jazz, but have a finger on the pulse of the contemporary world.
"What I like about Empirical is that it approaches lots of different genres, but still keeps what people hear as jazz," he said.
Empirical won the inaugural EBU/European Jazz Competition in July 2007 beating four other European bands: Chet Doxas Quartet (Canada), Frederik Koester Quartet (Germany), TTPKC & Le Marin (France), and Franz von Chossy Trio (Netherlands).
The awards, which took place at the North Sea Jazz Festival, Rotterdam, aim to encourage and promote young musicians in jazz ensembles.
Kit performing with Empirical, Jan '07
"We managed to win the competition which was an utterly unreal experience, but fantastic," said Kit.
"The benefits were massive. As a band we'd never done anything quite that big before so all five of us now feel stronger we've done something like that together.
"For me personally it was just an amazing experience to play at the North Sea Jazz festival," he added.
Litres of mud
Away from playing some of the UK's finest jazz clubs and music venues, Kit's reputation as a pianist is opening up the door to some of the biggest music festivals - including Glastonbury.
"It was a massively amount less glamorous than I thought it would be," said Kit.
"We went on the rainiest, muddiest day and I was dragging this heavy keyboard through litres of mud. But we got there and we played and it was great fun.
"Then we had to wait for about three hours to get out because of the mud. It's an amazing festival, great fun, I'd love to do it again," he added.
Kit spends most of his time in London, juggling performing and recording with his studies at the Royal Academy. But when time allows, he's quick to jump on the train back to the family home in Norfolk.
"I try to come as much as possible as it's always really relaxing… but I love playing in Norwich. There are some lovely venues like the King Of Hearts, The Playhouse and John Innes," he said.
"It's nice to come back to what still feels your base which for me is probably still Norwich, at home.. I also write so much better when I'm at home.
Kit working at home in Norwich
"I find it so easy to compose as what's so important about writing music is the situation you're in and how comfortable you are and also what piano your using. I'm so spoilt with this piano at home I just want to play it!"
Kit is never one to enjoy a quiet life.
When not writing and playing with Empirical, he's working with his other band Troyka which takes the best of jazz practice and influences and mixes them up with experimental production, electronica and break-beat.
"Our audience with Troyka is very mixed. It's a project with me, guitarist Chris Montague and drummer Josh Blackmore - all at the academy - it's very much our band," said Kit.
"We all write for it and it's very much our thing. We find at gigs guys really loving it because it has a lot of rock in it - not particularly savage, just that attitude - that kind of feeling.
"I think the most important thing for us is to keep writing honestly and playing the music we hear in our head," he added.
last updated: 23/08/07