Kit Downes: Vermillion (ECM 2721)

Kit Downes
Vermillion

Kit Downes piano
Petter Eldh double bass
James Maddren drums
Recorded May/June 2021
Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Cover photo: Fotini Potamia
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: February 11, 2021

On Vermillion, pianist Kit Downes continues guiding his chisel along ECM’s burnished surface. With bassist Petter Eldh and drummer James Maddren, he presents a mixture of ripe and freshly planted tunes, giving himself over to unforeseen impulses.

Downes and Eldh contribute five tunes apiece. The bandleader tries on outfits of various abstractions, finding each to be sleek and unrestrictive. The sound forged on “Minus Monks,” the album’s opener, is arboreal in its shade-providing abilities. Movements between colors, times, and places feel effortless beneath Downes’s fingertips. Paying homage to pianist John Taylor, he continues down that path of reverence with a sound that pushes as much as pulls. “Sister, Sister” takes an opposite approach, opening with exact measurements before tessellating into off-kilter rhythms, wherein his expressive body can flex without tripping over itself. It takes up no more space than it needs to, whispering its mantras of care only to those who ask to hear them. Such empathy can be hard to come by in a pandemic-scarred world, and it is a welcome gift. Further grace abounds in “Seceda” and “Bobbl’s Song.” In these, the trio shifts from wide-angle shots to close-ups, rendering the ears projection screens for the lives of others. Its breezy sentience finds solace in “Rolling Thunder” (Downes), wispy as clouds stretched translucent by the wind.

Alongside these graded plateaus, Eldh juxtaposes geometric rock formations. “Plus Puls” embraces quietly propulsive pianism while the rhythm section experiments with phonemes like a child rolling possibilities of meaning around in the brain. The upbeat fibrillations of “Sandilands” carry over that verve as its composer runs through a field of leaves without stepping on a single one of them. “Waders” is a high point for the trio’s organic changes, which do nothing to betray the difficulty of this music, rendered smooth as glass. What begins as an almost hesitant blues in “Class Fails” turns into a forthright exclamation of learning the hard way, leaving “Math Amager” to solve the Rubik’s cube of its self-regard.

In listening to Vermillion for the first time, I am moved by how these musicians treat light. Bright as our nearest star is, they manage to put a stained-glass window between it and us. This is most evident in their concluding rendition of Jim Hendrix’s “Castles Made of Sand,” an ode to the crumbling idols we call politics. If these reflections seem somber, it is only because those who’ve seen enough of life never stop drawing lines of awareness to the sun behind the clouds. There is always more to hope for.

Kit Downes: Dreamlife of Debris (ECM 2632)

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Kit Downes
Dreamlife of Debris

Kit Downes piano, organ
Tom Challenger tenor saxophone
Lucy Railton cello
Stian Westerhus guitar
Sebastian Rochford drums
Recorded November 2018
at St. Paul’s Hall, University of Huddersfield
and St. John the Baptist, Snape
Engineer: Alex Bonney
Produced by Sun Chung
Release date: October 25, 2019

Following his 2018 ECM headliner debut, Obsidian, Kit Downes returns at the organ (and piano), this time among friends, including saxophonist Tom Challenger (heard for a spell on Obsidian), cellist Lucy Railton, and drummer Sebastian Rochford. The latter is heard prominently in the concluding “Blackeye,” a piece cowritten by Downes and Challenger. Its thicker brushstrokes fill a rather different sort of canvas than the ones preceding, albeit touched by the same palette.

“Sculptor” opens with Challenger’s bare tone, a kiss of sun on the morning glory of piano that then imbues the scene with its color. Also lurking is guitarist Stian Westerhus, a new addition to the Downes nexus who is rightly described by Steve Lake in his liner notes as, at times, a “near-subliminal participant.” Twinkling like starlight in “Bodes,” his guitar emotes under tension of utterly non-invasive strings. The latter tune is the album’s masterstroke: a fully narrative journey from cradle to grave that catches as many life experiences as it can before passing them on like an inheritance in faith of continuation.

Comforting about Downes as composer is his underlying sense of open-endedness. Titles such as “Pinwheel” and “Sunflower” suggest interconnections just beyond their titular surfaces—not only in Railton’s liquid threading, but also in their ability to turn melody into substance (if not the other way around). “Circinus” and “Twin” make sense of the organ as if it were a text to be interpreted in humility. Both elicit an undeniably cosmic feel, strangely rendered in textures of flesh and soil.

The only piece not by Downes is “M7.” Composed by his wife, bassist and vocalist Ruth Goller, this organ solo centers its energies in sustained pedal points while spreading open the periphery as one might a pair of hands. In its cradle, the entire album’s heart dents a pillow woven from old maps and cartographic sketches, each drawing closer to an undiscovered country but never quite reaching it. Content to float wherever the current may lead, it closes its eyes and redraws its path in the language of a dream, where the only songs that matter are those without words.

Kit Downes: Obsidian (ECM 2559)

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Kit Downes
Obsidian

Kit Downes organs
Tom Challenger tenor saxophone (on “Modern Gods”)
Recorded November 2016 at St. John, Snape, Suffolk
Union Chapel, London
Engineer: Alex Bonney
Produced by Sun Chung
Release date: January 19, 2018

Performed on three different organs across the UK, Obsidian chronicles the spatial and temporal travels of keyboardist Kit Downes. Were this album to be turned into a book, it would require a tooled leather cover and hand-sewn binding to do even partial justice to all the care gone into its narrative. Each instrument thus embodies its own backstory, the mechanisms of which become clear not only in the intimately engineered recording but also in the interactions catalyzed by Downes’s gestural storytelling.

That said, the floating arpeggios and leading lines of “Kings,” our first leg of this journey, actualize their images not by pen but by palette knife, treading across canvas as if it were a horizontal path turned upward in defiance of gravity. Despite this perspectival flip, however, the music feels weighted by the contrary motions of its performer, who balances forces of suggestion with spontaneous deference. One imagines a boy running over hills in search of any other destiny than the one chosen for him, yet leaving an audible path so that even the blind might find him should he ever get lost. Such feelings of liberation are only intensified in a multilayered rendition of the folksong “Black Is The Colour.”

Not all in this world of hardened lava, however, is spoken in earthly tones. In “Rings Of Saturn,” Downes awakens the pipes like an intergalactic shō, and from their arousal turns outer space into inner reality, while in “Flying Foxes” he reroutes wordless carriages of animality into every unfolding theme, as in the avian hymnody of “The Gift” (written by father Paul Downes).

“Seeing Things” practices what it preaches through a more pointillist doctrine. Its marginalia gild a scripture explored more deeply in “Modern Gods.” Here the saxophone of Tom Challenger inhales from the organ even as it exhales something back into it. With a fleeting sense of form, it scales from shadow into burning triumph.

“The Bone Gambler,” as the program’s most evocative, couldn’t be more appropriately titled. With sincerity of pitch and mood, it wraps its arms around a room so beautifully timeworn that one could almost expect Tom Waits to walk in at any moment and start rasping his soul. Through the window of that same room, we gaze out upon the waters of “Ruth’s Song For The Sea” and “Last Leviathan,” elegies both. With a sincerity that can only have resulted from years of hammering on an anvil of love, these finely wrought talismans warn of continental vagaries, offering in their place a chance to sail away in boats of our own fleshly making.

Obsidian is the musical equivalent of following behind Lucy Pevensie as she escapes her war-torn world through the wardrobe to find refuge awaiting her snow-cushioned step. Let this be your doorway into something equally salvific.