Cheltenham Jazz Festival 2015: Interview with Kit Downes
PUBLISHED: 16:55 23 April 2015 | UPDATED: 17:11 23 April 2015
Pianist and composer Kit Downes will be giving unique performances for audiences of one at this month's Cheltenham Jazz Festival. Katie Jarvis booked a seat for an experience-of-a-lifetime
“Hello,” says Kit Downes, almost curtly, as I’m shown into a small, small room of four bare, featureless walls. The only window is blacked out; the door firmly clunks to behind me. An image of Brian Keenan flashes, unbidden, into my mind. There are three things in this room – a piano, and two functional chairs. Kit Downes is sitting in one; I uncertainly take the other. I study for a moment the back of his head. It’s nicely formed; dark, well-cut hair… Look - if I’m being absolutely honest here, I’m clutching at straws: you can’t tell much from the back of someone’s head.
He suddenly turns to me. “Red or blue?” he asks, out of the blue (or red).
Oh Lord, I panic. Why is he asking me this? I mean, it’s a simple question. Too simple, I think, suspiciously. If I say ‘red’, that probably tells him I have latent axe-murderer tendencies. There again, ‘blue’ could signify I’m a wizened, emotionless shell. “Red,” I decide, quickly. (There are no sharp objects in this room.) He gives me a coin. “Flip this and call heads or tails.” Also not a difficult request; but I panic again. Am I meant to predict or note? I’m so uncomfortable; so at sea, here, in this almost-empty, door-shut, window-dimmed cell. He retrieves the coin, glances at it, turns to the piano, lifts elegant fingers, and begins to play. And… listen! It’s like no experience I’ve had before. Just me. Just him. Just a piano. Just two chairs. And a room suddenly crowded with invisible particles of air that jostle, vibrate and resonate with notes just for me. As he plays, and air swirls, I’m sometimes in the room with him; sometimes I’m transported on a wild gallop, across windswept plains. There are discords that scare me; motifs that become familiar friends. I feel very close to him, this man I’ve hardly met; yet I’m also a voyeur, as he - immersed in his playing - breathes a wild tattoo that accords with his music.
I also feel things I can’t express.
When his hands finally still (after how long? I’ve no idea), he almost slumps. Exhausted. I, on the other hand, continue to sit statue-like; but my racing brain has to slow down (I picture it hands on hips, bowed like a recovering marathon-runner), and snail its way back to my waiting body. Kit Downes turns to me and, for the first time, smiles. “Let’s go and talk somewhere,” he says. Life assumes a normality that’s both a relief and a come-down.
It’s an experiment. A first. The Cheltenham Jazz Festival came up with the idea. Why not do individual concerts, one-to-one, it said to pianist Kit Downes. A series of sessions where a person – a festival-goer - sits in a room, alone, with you playing to them; music especially for them; music that no one will ever hear in the same way again.
“You can imagine, I jumped at the chance,” Kit Downes says.
It’s funny. This person – this Kit Downes - is very different from the Kit I met a few minutes (hours? Days?) ago, in that dark, featureless room. He’s normal – talented, clever, yes – but reassuringly normal.
He laughs. He was initially distant on purpose. “I didn’t want to talk much beforehand. I didn’t want to meet you before, either.” He pauses, to think of ways to explain something to me. “When you go and see a gig, if there are 200 people screaming that they love it, unconsciously you’re either going to be drawn to that energy and enjoy it, or you’re going to go the other way. But either way, it will take you away from your true gut-instinct of what you’re listening to. And there’s nothing wrong with that - it’s just the nature of listening to something collectively.
“But the experiment here is for someone to be completely robbed of all of that context. There’s no dialogue with me. It’s just about what you’re seeing happen in front of you.”
The two questions he asked me – one a slightly personal one (red/blue preference, though the questions will change for other individuals); and one an element of chance (the coin-toss) – determine in an unspecified way how Kit will play.
“They’re designed to give me one little piece of information. My interpretation of your answer is just another choice I’m making among these bits of written material and themes and motifs that have all been designed to intertwine. But that’s the very technical way of describing it. The basis is that you are provoking me – in a nice, gentle way – to start off on a whole tapestry of paths that I’ve designed to be comfortable to go down and to link together.” It’s fascinating, musically; emotionally. But it’s also a blindingly smack-in-the-face metaphor that’s no less significant for its obviousness. There we were, the two of us, strangers in a room in an experience both intimate and solitary: Kit absorbed in playing; I, in listening. Separate beings in the same world, having similar experiences that are so different and so incommunicable. Welcome to solipsism.
There are other metaphors (realities, maybe), too. Quantum physics is one: the fact that observation changes both the animate and the inanimate. The fact that no experience can ever be recreated. “Once the piece is played, it’s stuck like that. Except that, when you go home with all your weird memories of it, it will twist and your memory will change it. That’s the point of music: to try and suggest more than is actually there. To activate your imagination.”
Even though Cheltenham festival-goers who sign up for the experience will each in turn enter a specially-converted shipping container for their one-to-one with Kit, the Kit they each find will be different.
“It’s an exhausting thing – full of effort - yet I’m going to have to do that for three hours on the day. So if you come at the beginning, you’ll get a very different experience from coming at the end.
“But it’s exciting to think of seeing music in a different context. And that isn’t new. It’s been going on for ever and ever and ever. But for jazz music, sometimes I think it can be rather unimaginative in how it presents itself, particularly for a music that was born out of a real break from tradition – you would go down into these dark, grimy, smoke-filled little clubs. It had a very different context, which was part of its appeal; part of its social importance, as well as its musical importance. From that, jazz has lost some of the innovative spirit of how to present itself and to make things a bit more provocative.”
But surely it can’t be as satisfying for him to play to one single person when he could be playing to 200?
“Only if you take a quantitative mind-set. I’m not a naturally comfortable performer. I don’t think most musicians are, actually. It’s a minor concession for most people because, inevitably, they’ll make their best music when at home by themselves or playing to their wife or their husband or their dog. Some of those will be the most meaningful musical breakthroughs they’ll ever have. So the idea that that will happen every night on stage in front of 200 is obviously nonsense.”
Understood. But this is a pretty brave – very impractical, even – way of achieving the rare: a concert for one.
He laughs again. “Yes, it’s a total pain in everyone’s ass,” he acknowledges, while clearly rejoicing in that pain.
He started as a chorister in Norwich, before being drawn to the organ, followed by the piano. “My mum is a piano teacher. She never taught me but she was a big influence. My dad was in law but he also played some church organ. He was very good at discussing, which is a good tool for improvising.”
Kit’s background was in classical music, and he certainly took the brilliant, if conventional, route – the Purcell School and the Royal Academy of Music. The result, however, is far from predictable. The music for which he’s becoming increasingly known is progressive, startling, beautiful, challenging. “One of the finest pianists of his generation,” Timeout calls him.
He collaborates with many, though his main platforms are with his own group, Tricko, and his long-time compatriots, prog jazz group Troyka.
We talk about the art of improvisation – an enigma wrapped in a mystery for me, especially improvisation as part of a group. He shakes his head. It’s not difficult. “It’s the same as us having a conversation. There’s grammar; there’s a set of unwritten rules that we follow to leave space for each other. To allow each other to have our own thoughts; our own inspirations. There will be clashes, occasionally, but we have nice ways to work it out. It becomes about social skills, really.”
He’s won awards, plaudits; but his view is essentially pragmatic and even amusing. Music is not a rarefied activity: “The very idea that you can sell vibrations in air itself is ridiculous. And the idea that only special people can do it is also silly, in that the music a lot of people listen to is achievable by anyone. And just the role of the musician in society: it’s riddled with both compromise and contradictions in a way that I can’t really put my finger on. But when you have a one-on-one experience like that, it can laser through in a direct way, which is rewarding for me as a musician or as someone sharing something in a room with someone I don’t know.”
Yes, OK. It does sound silly, when you put it like that: the idea that you can own a vibration. Nevertheless, the vibrations I heard feel like mine and no one else’s. And that’s a precious idea I want to hang onto.
So who does he think would enjoy it, a one-to-one concert?
“Anyone. Everyone,” Kit Downes says.
As in people who love jazz? People who think they hate it?
“Especially people who have strong opinions about it. That’s great. But also anyone. Absolutely anyone… Except my mum and dad,” he muses. “That would be too awkward.”
For a full programme, including more information on Kit Downes and his individual performances, visit www.cheltenhamfestivals.com/jazz or call the box office on 0844 880 8094
For more on Kit Downes, log onto www.kitdownes.com