Since its inception, a jazz act has been nominated for the annual Mercury Music Prize. And while none have triumphed so far, being shortlisted can do much to further the career of such a musician.
Pianist Kit Downes knows how it feels to be the Mercury’s ‘token jazzer’. He was the perennial outsider ushered into the prize’s inner circle back in 2010 when he and his trio were nominated for their album Golden.
Such inclusion can play a crucial role in helping audiences find the music and give the spotlight a brief chance to shine on the genre.
Kit is one of the poster boys for the new jazz generation. Young and exceptionally talented, he’s part of a fresh wave of musicians intent on looking above and beyond the perimeters of the genre for inspiration and influence. His latest album, his third, is entitled Light from Old Stars, was inspired by a chance meeting with a NASA scientist while he’s previously collaborated with musical mavericks Matthew Herbert and Micachu.
M quizzed him to find out his latest album develops his songwriting and how he found inspiration in the cosmos…
How did you first get into jazz?
I’ve been playing since school. I started learning the cello then eventually moved onto the church organ before piano. I was a junior organ scholar in Norwich which is where I grew up. It involved playing services where you had to improvise. While that was going on, my mum gave me an Oscar Peterson record so I had these two interests. I left the organ behind and started to get really into jazz.
I ended up going to the Purcell Music School and studied a degree in jazz. I balanced it with watching lots of gigs and meeting people who I’m lucky enough to play with now.
How does the latest record develop your sound?
It’s a more expansive line up which builds on the core of James Maddren [drums] and Calum Gourlay [bass].
I also changed the way I approach recording. Previous ones were very much an interpretation of what we were doing live. Which is kind of what most jazz albums are. But I wanted this record to be more conceptually thought about.
I wrote all the music beforehand, rehearsed it, gigged it and had this working album title to pin it all together. Plus the composition is also quite different. It veers from extremely structured to extremely improvised and there’s no crossover between the two styles.
It was also my extension of my work with Lesley Barnes, an animator. She did the artwork for my album Quiet Tiger, then we got asked to do a commission for Cheltenham Science Festival supported by the Welcome Trust – about the idea of DNA migration.
We got asked to come back to the science festival the previous year. While I was there I met a scientist who works for NASA, and just asked her in the bar about her work. She gave me this lovely description of how she’s looking for planets which could support life through means of seeing how much a star wobbles when they're dying. That’s where Light from Old stars came from. This scientist [Daniella Scalice] has written the linear notes for the album and Lesley did the artwork.
What importance does the album in 2013 have for a jazz artist?
A typical jazz album sells between 1,500 and 2,000 albums. So it’s income is nothing compared to the commercial market, but at the same time, money spent on those pop albums dwarves jazz records by a 100 times. You don’t spend as much money because the musicians can often record it in one day.
It’s a certainly more niche audience but that’s by nature of where it sits in the musical world. You don’t make much but it is enough to pay for a next record. Or to pay for a tour. By virtue of having an album out, you can sell out your gigs and gives you a good way to start touring. So it does have an economic importance.
But the main reason is it helps musicians improve their craft. It’s a long-term project and doesn’t play into the whole pop model. There is an audience for this music but not enormous. If you look after your audience, once you have it, i.e make sure they get access to your music every time, then there’s enough people to allow you to make enough money to keep doing it.
Is the jazz scene in good health at the minute?
This music is defined by facing challenges. It’s quite a defiant music both in terms of the spirit in which it was made in when it was first born and the spirit it has now.
But when it’s at its best, it flies in the face of all things consumerist and capitalist. I think as jazz as having great integrity which is why both audiences and musicians continue to be drawn to it.
There’s a lot of music around now so it’s tempting to see it as less significant but I disagree. There’s always music under the radar which benefits from its position because there’s more scope to experiment. It doesn’t have these commercial considerations.
How is it in the UK?
It’s in great health in the UK but it’s always in great health. Looking back through the last 50 years of British jazz, I can’t think of one period when it hasn’t been doing well. It’s just whether people know about it or not.
As a genre, it sits outside of the mainstream and that’s its strength. People are drawn to it because it’s an alternative to other types of music which is everywhere.
‘Jazz’ also doesn’t mean what it did a few years ago. That word is enormous, perhaps too enormous to even have any meaning now. When people talk about jazz, there are so many different forms.
When I was at the Mercurys, I said it was incredibly difficult to be the one artist representing this genre - because it incorporates much more in terms of styles than any other genre represented in the Mercury. That’s it’s strength. You can’t put your finger on it. It relies on people having a personal relationship with it. It’s fluid and never stays still.
How did you find collaborating with Matthew Herbert and Micachu?
I didn’t treat it any differently to playing with jazz artists. They’re musicians but they just speak in a slightly different language to get their point across. Micachu’s music is really rich and does really amazing things. I was very stimulated by it.
It’s all slightly different languages but doesn’t mean to say it has any less of you in it. It’s quite shallow to see yourself defined by the language you choose to use within music. By language I mean genre - people are more than that. They have a wider vocabulary than that.