Kit Downes, composer, pianist and organist

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?

I started playing organ and piano quite young, and sung in a choir when I was at school. This was very inspiring as we would get to perform new choral music by people like Arvo Part and John Taverner, as well as singing through core repertoire such as Palestrina, Tallis, Duruflé and Finzi – as well as listening to lots of great organ music (played by Katherine Dienes, who was the organist when I was there). I began improvising on the organ and became interested in jazz as a result. Some early heroes in jazz for me were Keith Jarrett, Herbie Hancock and Oscar Peterson. These musicians all led on to many other strands of the genre and soon I was deep down the rabbit hole.

Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

Probably a mixture of my friends and my teachers – the people I grew up playing with like James Maddren, George Crowley, Tom Challenger, and then the great teachers I was lucky to have, such as Simon Colam, Nick Smart and Tom Cawley. Though there are many influences outside of music that I find inspiring- especially in film and art.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

Playing and composing your own music and trying to find a platform for it is always difficult, especially when working with more experimental music – but there have also been times when I have suddenly found a lot of exposure for it which I wasn’t quite prepared for. I think I am used to working within my own scene, amongst my peers, and to suddenly be heard by the larger listening community can be quite a shock – but nice in different ways. I guess I can be a little insular if left to my own devices. Musically speaking, the greatest challenges are to keep thinking of interesting new ideas for my music, both in the writing and performance but also in the broader conception. Recently I recorded a solo church organ record for ECM Records (called ‘Obsidian’), this was the first time I had recorded solo, and the first time I have written pieces for organ (I usually improvise) and whilst recording the album, I felt right at the edge of what I can do. I find that exciting and challenging – to be on the edge of what is possible for myself.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

I find it excruciatingly difficult to listen back to recordings of mine, even though I have to when I edit, mix and master them, but once they are finished I rarely revisit them. I think in jazz, a big reason people make records is to document the process of this quite abstract way of working – this is how i think of it anyway. I relate to this genre so strongly because of that, I like to follow an artist’s progression – rather than be too fixed on the final ‘product’ each time.

You perform on Lewis Wright’s upcoming debut album ‘Duets’ on Signum Records, with whom you’ve also performed since childhood – can you tell us about your performing relationship with Lewis?

We grew up in neighbouring villages in rural Norfolk, he’s a good friend and an amazing musician, and it has been great fun to play his music with him. It’s lovely to play with an old friend like that, especially as he’s such an outrageous musician!

Which particular works do you think you play best?

My own music.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

I think this is more a classical music question perhaps? I play lots of other people’s music, it just depends who is making what project at what time. I don’t tend to revisit old works by myself or anyone else really – the focus is always new music. I have become more careful about what I say yes to – though I am always very happy when someone thinks of me for something. My teachers always encouraged me to sound like myself, so that people would ask me to sound like myself in their band, rather than just be a pianist-for-hire kind of thing.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

Depends on what kind of music you are playing them – they are all different and all have their strengths and limits, like the musicians playing in them! Though I do have a soft spot for smaller intimate churches with similarly sized pipe organs – often in a state of disrepair.

Who are your favourite musicians?

People I am currently listening to are – Mary Halvorsen, Deerhoof, Stian Westerhus, Ambrose Akinmusire, Tim Berne and Wayne Shorter. As well as people in the UK like Robert Stillman, Tom Challenger and Lucy Railton.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

It was just after I had played a concert at Newport Jazz Festival. I was incredibly excited as that festival has such a big history – it was also the first time I had played in the US. I sat down on a wall next to the harbour enjoying the sun, and then suddenly Bill Frisell (with Kenny Wolleson and Tony Scherr) started playing a surprise gig in the tent we had just been playing in – they played ‘Heard it Through the Grapevine’ for 20 mins and it was bliss.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

It’s pretty subjective I think, but for me it is being able to play the music you like and earn enough money from it to have a happy life – to not have to make musical choices based on financial factors.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Sound like yourself and question everything/everyone – and most important is to enjoy it.

What is your current state of mind?

I’m pretty happy – my first solo record for ECM just came out a month ago. This was a boyhood dream of mine, to record for that label which I have listened to so much my whole life. I feel lucky to have been given the opportunity to do it, and excited about what is next.


Kit Downes appears with Lewis Wright on DUETS, released 6 April on the Signum label. Further information here


(photo by Alex Bonney)


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