Tag Archives: Kit Downes

Review: Jazz meets science at Cheltenham Science Festival, 15-16 June 2012

Hot on the heels of Cheltenham Jazz Festival comes the Science Festival and for one event at the latter, you might wonder which you were attending.   But as I thought about it, the parallels between the effort needed to publish a scientific paper and have it critiqued, and possibly disproved, by fellow scientists is rather similar to the process a musician goes through in composition and the subsequent search for a label – sometimes he’s successful, at other times, his work stays locked away on his laptop heard by no-one.  In both cases, there is rigour and a desire for perfection. Order appears out of chaos.

Cross-fertilization between the Cheltenham festivals is becoming more and more interesting.  In 2005  Markus Stockhausen was commissioned to write “Sowieso” as a jazz piece and then rework it for the classically oriented Music Festival.   Last year the Wellcome Trust funded LabOratory  – a series of events bringing bio-medical science to all four Cheltenham Festivals.  And in this crucible, Animation Migration was forged last year and reworked in the comfortable, acoustic venue of The Parabola this weekend.

Animation Migration is a short work combining jazz, animation and science (DNA in particular) performed by the Kit Downes Quintet, to animation by Lesley Barnes and science input by geneticist Adam Rutherford. The animation was exquisite, triangles in beautiful subtle shades of yellow, turquoise, pink, green, red and orange combined in balletic grace to tell us the story of evolution from the first cells and tiny creepy things to birds and dinosaurs and finally to man (and many lovely images in between).  And then the story ran backwards very rapidly, suggesting that maybe we aren’t the pinnacle of evolution.

As Kit told us, he saw parallels between evolution from the last universal common ancestor and jazz – for in jazz, chaos is often built into the design. Jazz is about improvisation, the end isn’t always known, one idea builds on another. He absorbed much of his science lesson with Adam to build the work around a small motif of 4 notes, and Lesley used 4 squares to parallel the four bases of the DNA code.

Kit knew we were watching the animation as well as listening.  I found it quite difficult to do both at once, I know that a very large part of my brain is needed to absorb jazz and there wasn’t enough left over for the visuals for me. The music was arresting at times – the blood-curdling shrieks of the tyrannosaurus rex amusingly rendered by James Allsopp on bass clarinet, the gentle flight of early birds in the cello of Lucy Railton.  There was a dreamtime feel to the whole piece.  And as the story ran backwards faster and faster,  the music got faster and faster, and we held our breath to see if the music and the animation would end together – and they did!

We had a bonus of three new animations and compositions – The Brain Cells; I didn’t see it coming; and Quiet Tiger.  And yes, if the tiger looked familiar, he was – he’s on the cover of Kit’s Quiet Tiger album from 2011.  These new works were equally beautiful if slightly disturbing. Horsemen riding wild beasts through endless forests.  I wasn’t sure what it was about but it was vivid and arresting, and the music was freer.  I wish we had heard more about how Lesley made the animation but maybe not knowing added to the magic.  These pieces will certainly grow, or should I say, evolve.

You get a flavour of the animation here from the 2011 performance.

Animation Migration lineup:
Kit Downes – Piano
Lesley Barnes – Animations
Calum Gourlay – Bass
James Maddren – Drums
Lucy Railton – Cello
James Allsopp – Bass Clarinet



5 stars for Cheltenham Jazz Festival – 5th and 6th May 2012

There have been some really great reviews of this year’s Cheltenham Jazz Festival so I’ll confine myself to a narrow canvas.  When I booked the tickets I thought it was going to be the festival of the pianist but for me it turned out to be the festival of genuine deep emotion.  First up was a workshop with Chris Potter at the un-jazz time of 10.30am.  If Chris was still running on New York time he certainly didn’t show it as he led a small group of local young people through On Green Dolphin Street. Throughout the weekend there were tweets of  “Oh man, I can’t believe I just played with Chris Potter!” which made the weekend for me, their joy at playing with an idol was infectious.

We learned that a very young Chris was playing with Paul Motian in Switzerland in 1993 and one evening after a set he went for a long walk, feeling very down, trying to work out why he was just playing the notes.  He started to scat and that was his epiphany, the moment when he turned a corner. He knew he had to communicate more than the notes in a certain order.  People often ask him what key he plays in, to which he usually replies “I don’t know”.  He uses his ears to guide him into a piece, not written down notes.   His approach reminds me of Keats’s phrase about poetry:  If poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all.  Now it appears that glorious saxophone playing comes naturally to Chris. But that’s all because he spent his youth mastering standards on a piano and then working out how to get to the same place on a sax, but by one note at a time because that’s all you can do on a horn.  I loved this insight into the emotion of music – through his ears (and I’d add, probably his heart too).

Naturally-occuring emotion was what we got with Gregory Porter in the Big Top.    I loved every minute. That glorious huge voice, that child-like delight in being alive.  His jump for joy easily rivalling a Jamie Cullum leap!  No wonder his band played their socks off.   Who could not be captivated?  I hadn’t appreciated til I looked at the sleeve notes of his latest album Be Good that all the songs he sang were his own. They already sound like standards.  He’s honed his craft in Smoke in New York (one of my favourite clubs) so he manages to make a big venue feel like a small jazz club where he is singing just for you.

I was also captivated by the gentle Seb and Kit late night treat at the lovely Parabola. The Parabola is a new venue for Cheltenham Jazz Festival. It’s near-perfect  (just hope they can rectify the lack of coffee at future gigs!) , you can see/hear from every seat, it’s intimate and could (maybe should?) be used without amplification.   Kit Downes is a maverick pianist who is as comfortable in boisterous Troyka as this delicate duo with Seb Rochford.  It was a striking contrast to the somewhat patrician set by Vijay Iyer before him.  I was hoping for a Brad Mehldau intensity and perhaps that’s what we got, but I couldn’t find the emotion in his performance so it was lost on me.

My final blast of emotion at the festival was Roberto Fonseca and his extraordinary Cuban/Malian band in the Jazz Arena. Someone else has just posted that Roberto should have been in the Big Top and I agree. The sound was so huge I forgot the hard seats.  If we hadn’t been confined to tiny seats we would have got up and danced!  Roberto was barely able to sit on the piano stool, his exuberance propelling him to stand most of the time, a stunning pianist and leader.

All of the artists I have mentioned have this in common  – an innate ability not just to entertain, no, they go much deeper than that; they have the ability to convey deep emotions in a very genuine and humble way so the experience lives with you long after the festival is over.  That’s why I love jazz and already I’m looking forward to Cheltenham 2013.