Kit Downes

Kit Downes’s previous ECM appearance was as pianist on the debut recording of Time Is A Blind Guide in 2015 and he’s critically-regarded as one of the UK’s outstanding young jazz talents. This recording however has little to do with “jazz”, although it could only have been made by an improviser of subtle sensibilities. Some of Downes’s earliest musical experiences were as a church organist and in recent years he has been revisiting the instrument, exploring its sonic possibilities and idiosyncrasies, in improvisations both melodic and textural. In November 2016 producer Sun Chung followed Downes to three English churches – the Snape Church of John the Baptist and Bromeswell St Edmund Church – both in Suffolk – and Union Chapel Church in Islington, London. These are very different acoustic spaces housing organs of very different characters which Downes investigates creatively. Alone for most of the album he is joined on one piece (“Modern Gods”) by frequent improvising partner Tom Challenger (tenor sax).
2015 spielte Kit Downes zuletzt eine Aufnahme für ECM ein, als Pianist an der Seite von Time Is A Blind Guide auf deren gleichnamigem Debütalbum. Auch wenn der junge Brite vorrangig dem Jazz zugeordnet und in seiner Heimat als eines der vielversprechendsten jungen Talente der Szene gehandelt wird, hat sein neues Projekt wenig mit Jazz zu tun – und konnte doch nur der Fantasie eines feinfühligen Improvisators entspringen. Downes knüpft an seine frühen musikalischen Erfahrungen als Kirchenorganist an, wenn er, wie in den vergangenen Jahren häufig, die akustischen Möglichkeiten der Orgel ertastet, ihre Besonderheiten in melodischen und harmonischen Improvisationen erkundet. Im November 2016 begleitete der Produzent Sun Chung den Musiker in drei englische Kirchen – die Snape Church of John the Baptist und die Bromeswell St Edmund Church in Suffolk, sowie die Union Chapel Church in Islington, London. Dank der akustischen Eigenheit eines jeden dieser Orte und ihrer so individuellen Orgeln öffnen sich Downes Spielräume, die er kreativ erforscht. Für das Stück „Modern Gods” wird er dabei von einem vertrauten Partner, dem Tenor-Saxophonisten Tom Challenger, unterstützt.  
Featured Artists Recorded

November 2016

Original Release Date


  • 1Kings
    (Kit Downes)
  • 2Black Is The Colour
  • 3Rings Of Saturn
    (Kit Downes)
  • 4Seeing Things
    (Kit Downes)
  • 5Modern Gods
    (Kit Downes)
  • 6The Bone Gambler
    (Kit Downes)
  • 7Flying Foxes
    (Kit Downes)
  • 8Ruth's Song For The Sea
    (Kit Downes)
  • 9Last Leviathan
    (Kit Downes)
  • 10The Gift
    (Kit Downes, Paul Downes)
On this solo recording (with the exception of a single track) Downes utilizes organs at three UK locations; London's Union Chapel, St. John's in Snape and St. Edmund's Church in Bromeswell. As explained in the liner notes, Downes long fascination with the organ extended to his transformational wish to play on these different instruments and find a way to have them communicate with each other. Certainly, each has individual characteristics and a unique voice that may be apparent when listening in the context that Downes has laid out. […] Downes' creative approach on Obsidian ranges from singular spontaneous improvisations to multiple reassembled improvisations, to building on—and around—concepts. A key inspiration is French composer and organist Olivier Messiaen who Downes explains ...’blends the sounds of the instrument to give real form and colour to the performance. You can be both an improviser and an orchestrator in the moment.’ Messiaen, in fact, rejected much of the analytical terminology of music suggesting that there is only music with, or without, color. Downes has taken that to heart on this beautiful collection and he has plans to expand on his use of the organ in a future project. ‘Obsidian‘ is highly recommended.
Karl Ackermann, All About Jazz
Downes sucht weniger die Klangfülle der Orgel, als ihr Flüstern. Das Nachhorchen scheint dabei genauso wichtig wie die aktive Tongestaltung. So entstehen Klanglandschaften, die sich stilistisch zwischen Jazzidiom und Neuer Musik bewegen, Downes selbst erwähnt in diesem Zusammenhang die Improvisationen von Olivier Messiaen. Ihm gelingt es, jenseits bekannter Kirchenklänge ein Gefühl für Raum und Zwischenraum, für Freiheit und Gebet zu vermitteln.
Jan Tengeler, Deutschlandfunk Kultur
There’s a haunting, ethereal quality that pervades throughout. And though Downes has cited the twentieth-century French composer, improviser, and organist Olivier Messiaen as an influence — makes sense, since he does all of the above — at times there are echoes of the minimalist Terry Riley, especially in ‘Modern Gods,’ the only piece on which he uses an accompanist, the tenor saxophonist Tom Challenger, who collaborates frequently with Downes. It recalls moments of the saxophone-organ duo in Riley’s 1972 ‘Happy Ending.’ Is ‘Obsidian’ a jazz album? It’s not Wild Bill Davis, Jimmy Smith, or Lonnie Smith, but if it’s not soul-jazz, it does have soul. He was first turned on to the piano, according to the liner notes, by listening to Oscar Peterson, and is now fully entrenched in the British jazz scene; he dedicates the album to John Taylor, the English jazz pianist who died in 2015. Anyway, call it what you want. I’ll call it quietly riveting. In a world going to hell, Kit Downes is playing for the angels — what’s left of them.
Michael J. Agovino, Village Voice
‘Obsidian’ is a fascinating exploration of an instrument little used in jazz. Most of us have had significant engagement with the church organ throughout our lives yet will not have heard it outside of its traditional setting in the church. To hear Downes investigate its orchestral and improvisational possibilities is like finding out a secret about a friend you’ve known all your life. A secret which you never knew but always suspected was a possibility.
John Marley, Jazz Views
Die zehn Miniaturen des mit Kirchenmusik sozialisierten Tastenvirtuosen gleichen einem eruptiven Kreativprozess, bei dem sich die erkaltete musikalische Magma langsam in dunkles, vulkanisches Glas (‚Obsidian‘) verwandelt. Ein markantes, völlig eigenständiges Werk, nicht zu vergleichen mit Keith Jarretts Ausflug an die Kirchenorgel 1976 bei ‚Hymns/Spheres‘.
Reinhard Köchl, Jazzthing
Kit Downes’ beautifully crafted thematic improvisations for church organ mingle serene moods and stately counterpoints with the jump and scatter of improv and an underlying sense of unease. […] Later Downes is joined by Tom Challenger on tenor saxophone, rekindling their previous recordings. Challenger plays ‘Modern Gods’ in unison at first, sounding much like an extra organ pipe. As the piece builds, the two instruments become distinct until they peak with dense chords and sustained single-note sax. […] The CD ends with ‘The Gift’, a mix of hymn and lament co-composed by Downes and his father Paul and played on the single-manual church organ at St Edmunds in Bromeswell. The melody is simple, warm and plangent, and Downes’ development keeps the balance intact. It is a gem.
Mike Hobart, Financial Times
Als feinfühlig Improvisierender setzte er sich an ein-bis dreimanualige Instrumente in Suffolk und London, spielte eigene Stücke, eins seines Vaters und ein Traditional, wird einmal von Saxofonist Tom Challenger begleitet und verortet alles jenseits gängiger Kategorien. […] Es kann folkloristisch klingen, dann wieder klangmalerisch, introspektiv und geheimnisvoll, wenn hier auf verblüffende Weise die Orchestrierungsmöglichkeiten der Orgel ausgetastet werden.
Ulrich Steinmetzger, Leipziger Volkszeitung
Die Frische von Downes’ zehn Stücken rührt daher, dass sie mindestens zum teil improvisiert sind und in ihrer formalen Offenheit durchaus jazznah wirken. Diese Offenheit passt zur Kirchenorgel: Bis heute ist nirgendwo in der Klassik Improvisatorisches so gebräuchlich wie bei der Orgel […] Borduntöne, die lange liegen bleiben, Klänge als Kontinuum waren seit je eine Spezialität der Orgel. Auch wenn man früher nicht von Space, sondern von Sakralität sprach, nicht von sphärischen Klängen, sondern von Himmelsmusik. Und so schafft es Kit Downes auf seinem Album, so sehr von heute zu klingen und dabei auch überraschend aktuelle Traditionen freizulegen.
Christoph Merki, Tagesanzeiger
Many of the tracks feature the organs miked close up, so the listener gets a sense of the mechanical noises coming from the instruments. I love the variety of music on the album and Downes’ fresh, improvisational approach to the music. He’s an experimenter, changing the stop positions and footwork, and exploring the myriad sounds of the organs. Just like with Keith Jarrett’s 1976 album ‘Hymns/Spheres’ years ago, I have been listening over and over to Obsidian and still discover new gems each time.
Tom Schnabel, KCRW Rhythm Planet
The compositions are for three separate church organs: one large (the three-manual instrument at London’s Union Chapel), one medium-sized and one small (organs with, respectively, two manuals and a single manual in a couple of East Suffolk churches). The sounds they produce, of course, are rather different, due partly to the instruments themselves, partly to the acoustic properties of the buildings they inhabit. Downes, who was a chorister and church organist in Norwich before becoming a professional jazz musician, plays both to and with these differences in a selection of compositions which is pleasingly varied yet admirably coherent. The opening ‘Kings’, for example, played on the Union Chapel organ, has a brooding majesty, its steady procession of low pulse-notes overlaid with higher scales suggestive of fanfares, whereas the closing ‘The Gift’, for the single-manual instrument, has a tender, quiet simplicity evocative almost of a folk song. (In fact, the melody is from a hymn written by Downes’ father.)
Geoff Andrew, Notes & Observations
Made in three churches, each with its own acoustics and, of course, organ, the record is beautifully recorded, full of depth and nuance, and it sounds particularly good through headphones. On the last track, the gentle tune ‘The Gift’ (based on a composition by Downes' father) it is possible to hear birds singing in the background, adding to the bucolic feeling. […] It is a powerful record: these instruments create a big sound. Although the locations may be ecclesiastic, the music is secular. Downes produces some surprising sounds from the organs, such as other-worldly bleeps and whistles on ‘Rings Of Saturn’ or cetacean moans on ‘Last Leviathan’. At time he makes the organ roar; at other, it is as if it is simmering, waiting to be let loose.
Patrick Hadfield, London Jazz News
Obsidian is the first ECM solo album from Kit Downes. Previously heard as pianist on the debut recording of Thomas Strønen’s group Time Is A Blind Guide in 2015, Downes (born 1986 in Norwich, UK) is widely-regarded as one of the outstanding British jazz players of his generation, through his work with his trio and with groups such as Troyka, the Golden Age of Steam and Enemy, as well as long running collaborations with Stan Sulzmann and Clark Tracey. The present recording, however, has little overt connection to “jazz” – although it could only have been made by an improviser of subtle sensibilities, and wide-ranging musical knowledge. It features Downes on church organ, exploring the idiosyncrasies of three different instruments.
First, we hear the grand three-manual organ of London’s Union Chapel, built by Henry Willis in 1877, the size and the scale of the instrument immediately apparent on opening track “Kings”. Later, the scene shifts to the Suffolk countryside with a two-manual organ at the ancient church of St John’s in Snape, and finally a single manual instrument with no pedalboard, basically a converted harmonium, at St Edmund’s Church in Bromeswell.   
Small or large, the instruments have their distinct characteristics, imaginatively emphasized in the music Downes has created for each of them, “giving a push and pull to the recording, in terms of dynamic and size.”
Some of Downes’s earliest musical experiences were with the pipe organ and in recent years he has been revisiting it, encouraged by saxophonist Tom Challenger who appears as guest on one track here (“Modern Gods”). Downes’s and Challenger’s earlier improvisational project Vyamanikal found them making an exploratory journey around England’s churches, which helped establish a familiarity with some of the instruments heard here.
“I started writing with the idea of getting these organs from different parts of the UK speaking to each other. All built at different times, with different stops and different sounds. It feels like time-travelling, somehow trying to find a common thread.”
With the exception of the well-travelled traditional tune “Black Is The Colour” (of Scottish origin, it found a new home in the Appalachians, and in the early 1960s was famously adapted by Berio for his Folk Songs collection), and the final track “The Gift” – based on a composition by Kit’s father – all music here is by Downes. It has been created in diverse ways. Some pieces, including “Seeing Things”, are purely improvised. “Rings of Saturn” is a composite of several improvisations recorded at the Snape church. For other pieces improvisation suggested a direction to be followed further. “I would jot down elements that I found particularly interesting, then start to fill in the cracks between the abstract ideas to make fuller pieces.”
Obsidian is also a reflection upon other traditions of improvising associated with the organ, and Kit speaks with admiration of Messiaen’s work in this context. “The organ is the ultimate orchestrator. What really appeals to me about Messiaen’s improvisations is how he blends the sounds of the instrument to give real form and colour to the performance. You can be both an improviser and an orchestrator in the moment.”
Obsidian was recorded in November 2016. A year later, Downes toured with some of its repertoire, performing the music in contexts ranging from the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival to Jazzfest Berlin, and netting many positive reviews:
"Of all the concerts I have heard in this space, Downes’s command of the intricacies and expressive potential of that grand and ancient instrument, the pipe organ, were the most impressive", wrote Josef Woodward in Downbeat, reviewing Kit’s concert at the Keiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin.
“Some of the greatest moments” of the Huddersfield Festival “were the gentlest,” wrote Guy Dammann in The Spectator, citing the “luminous glow” of Downes’s rendition of “Black Is The Colour”.
Kit Downes is currently preparing a new round of solo concerts, and also developing new trio music for church organ, saxophone and guitar.