Sunday, September 12, 2010

Images coming into focus

On September 7, Britain handed out its highest award in popular music, the Mercury Prize. Before you dismiss it as another useless music prize handed out by the music industry to boost its own lagging sales, the Mercury Prize is voted on by musicians and critics, and always features self-directed artists among its nominees. While the band The xx took home this year's Mercury for their debut album, the bigger surprise came in the nomination of a jazz album: "Golden," by the 24-year-old pianist Kit Downes and his trio.

Sounds like Herbie Hancock getting that Grammy album of the year nod in 2008 right? Uh, not exactly.

It's more like that guy that lives down the dorm hall from you was nominated. You know, that guy that seemed pleasant to talk to, was very polite, kind of kept to himself, supposedly played a lot of "jazz" gigs at some clubs off campus that never went to see...

So yeah, I'd have to say that was a surprise. And it also suggests that there are young jazz musicians in the UK playing engaging and vital music that appeal to listeners of all ears. So in regards to my earlier post, I had to go out and find where Kit Downes and like-minded people play.

Ok, it was a little easier to find than I initially thought. From September 9-12, a combined visual arts and concert venue called King's Place (located down the street from Platform 9 and 3/4, muggle side of course) was hosting a huge festival to kick off their eclectic season of music. On Saturday, one of the halls at King's Place was taken over by London's F-IRE Collective, a hip young (ish) organization of progressive jazz musicians. One of the organization's members, saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock, had just played a killer show that I saw at the Stone this summer with drummer Tyshawn Sorrey (so the group seems legit). Kit Downes' trio was on the program. It was almost eerily precisely what I had been looking for when I got to London. I had to be there.

Before Kit Downes, I caught a set led by trumpeter Tom Arthurs. In addition to his usual trio, Arthurs invited a string quartet to the show in order to try out some new music he had written for the slightly askew combination of instruments. Arthur's own playing own playing resides in the abstract regions of free improvisation, but he also comes armed with a tone more enveloping than abrasive and a quirky melodic sense. The music felt as an experiment, as the string quartet members sometimes looked a bit quizzical trying to figure out how they're written parts were going to work after Arthurs' freely improvised cadenza. The music was most convincing when Arthurs dispatched with the free improv for a bit and played some zig-zagging tune, harmonized by the strings. Arthurs certainly is a thoughtful player with a great group (drummer Stuart Robbins really shined, flying around the kit armed only with chopsticks), but his new music lacked organic flow from section to section. You could tell what was on the page and what wasn't.

After a short interval where some angsty spectators did some rocking out on a junk percussion setup outside the hall, Kit Downes and his trio came on. Downes, bassist Calum Gourlay, and drummer James Maddren have been playing together since starting at the Royal Academy of Music in London in 2005, and they took the stage with a relaxed politeness. Like those "nice boys" your mom always wanted you to date. Except that Downes has a mighty beard and pony tail.

The ensuing set was filled Downes' original compositions, music that was warm and inviting, but never constrained by tight forms. The tunes were nearly hummable, but that didn't stop Downes from flying into the stratosphere with piano-spanning runs. Even with the feats of technical prowess, the music was humble, content to let you listen as you pleased, as opposed to grabbing you by the collar and smacking you in the face. It all was a little too polite, as if Downes wasn't confident enough in his music to demand your attention. At this point in the game, Downes' music sounds that it is still searching for something. Downes certainly isn't a carbon copy of Brad Mehldau or Esbjorn Svensson (which is a lot better than a lot of his peers both in Europe and the States can boast) but he hasn't fully arrived as an artist yet.

One thing is for certain though: I will continue to check up on Mr. Downes after returning to the states.

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