Kit Downes Trio plus Allsopp/Arceleo/Dennefeld (Kings Place, April 9th 2011, photo credits for full group - above - and Kit Downes - below: Roger Thomas)
When a musician has become unquestionably and indispensably a part of the UK's musical landscape, it is useful to have the memory jogged, to be reminded what it's like to hear him for the very first time.
The thoughts of a reviewer for the Hamburger Abendblatt, who had just heard the Kit Downes Trio in Hamburg, and who was completely bowled over, bring a useful sense of perspective:
" Kit Downes is the most impressive jazz pianist from England since John Taylor, and it's a heck of a long time since [Taylor] came onto the scene."
The German critic declared himself under the spell of the sheer range of influences which Downes has made his own as composer, making every bar "exciting and impossible to predict," his "wonderful economy" as a pianist, and the telepathic communication of the three trio members.
Downes has added three melody instrument players to his regular trio with Calum Gourlay and James Maddren: James Allsopp -bass clarinet and tenor saxophone - Josh Arceleo, tenor sax - and Adrien Dennefeld - cello.
These instrumentalists are rarely called on to function as a traditional jazz "front line." Instead, Downes savours the textural and expressive possibilities of having these extra voices. Indeed he sets out his stall from the very first few bars of the CD, and with its title track which was the opener last night. In "Quiet Tiger" itself, Allsopp, Arceleo, and Dennefeld provide lush tonal colours, a shifting, brooding polyphonic backdrop to Downes freely melodic excursions.
Downes also knows he can rely on these players' impeccable intonation and sensitivity to balancing and blending, in search of the expressive. Other combinations give very different possibilities: in "Owls" inspired by the films of David Lynch, bowed cello (Dennefeld) and double bass (Calum Gourlay) brought spine-tingling spookiness. Allsopp's armoury of extended wind techniques was also used to expressive effect. He produces either loud and soft multiphonics and also - not at the samr time - circular-breathes the bass clarinet. He also can shift easily- when called upon - from being a textural voice to being the leading incantatory voice which the others all follow.
Another feature of this performance which reinforced the direction Kit Downes is taking is that the narrative arcs, the concentration spans are getting longer. The tune "Jump Minzi Jump," rearranged for the sextet format, used to be angular and to dart back and forth. It now unfolds much more naturally. On a number of occasions, the band would grow the sound over a long section, constantly accreting new layers and new tensions to it. The listener gets a satisfying sense of architecture, of big shapes being formed.
But perhaps the most fascinating revelation, a leap, a change in in just a matter of a few months has been the development of drummer James Maddren. He still has his characteristic watchfulness and astonishing responsiveness. But what seemed new to me was the sheer rhythmic freedom he now has in this group. The three players of the trio can now go, separately it seems, miles away from the contours of a tune and then suddenly rejoin in an instant. A moment like this happened just after the tricksy head to "Fritzi Patzi."
The music of last year's Mercury Prize nominee is neither flamboyant nor attention-craving, that is simply not Dwnes' way; but it does speak increasingly for itself. And on the evidence of Saturday's concert at Kings Place, to launch the new CD "Quiet Tiger," it is developing in new and fascinating directions.