'Obsidian' Is an Intriguing Debut From Promising Young Jazz Talent Kit Downes
Comprised almost entirely of organ solos, Obsidian is an unusual and beautiful record from rising star Kit Downes.
19 Jan 2018
One of the most promising young British jazz pianists of his generation, Kit Downes can't be accused of lacking ambition. After making his ECM debut with Time Is a Blind Guide, Thomas Stroønen's eclectic ensemble, the questions became how to carve his path as a solo artist in his own right. Jazz is stocked with young pianists filled with potential, each making a name for themselves in a unique way. Joey Alexander is a shockingly young bebop virtuoso, Eldar Djangirov writes forward-thinking compositions while also burning through classical repertoire, and Gerald Clayton takes a multi-faceted approach to exploring the past and present of jazz, most recently with his Piedmont Blues project.
For Obsidian, his debut solo outing, Downes subverts expectations by recording entirely with church organs. Recorded on three separate organs of varying sizes found throughout the UK, Obsidian isn't the most obvious project a jazz pianist would undertake. This notion, however, neglects the vast tradition of mastermind organists and their penchant for musical structures, improvisation, and textures – vital elements in both jazz and modern classical alike. It's a record of considerable complexity and virtuosity, one that delightfully subverts the critical expectations for a rising jazz pianist.
Opening track "Kings" was recorded on the three-manual organ of Union Chapel in London, an instrument dating back to 1877. Instrument details aside, it does not take an organ aficionado to appreciate the lush textures Downes evokes on this behemoth of a keyboard. It's a pensive track of skittering melodies atop a low murmuring accompaniment, dreamlike in its impressionistic sensibility. "Rings of Saturn" is an improvisation that honors both the jazz and classical organ traditions in the stream-of-consciousness way it examines melody and tone color.
As stunning as the record is, some songs seem to lack focus. The counterpoint and dissonant motifs of "The Bone Gambler" teeter on sounding weary and meandering at times. Likewise, the jumbled melodies of "Flying Foxes" evoke the soaring creatures of its title, yet aside from occasional reassuring major chords, the work feels unsettled. Of course, this is the risk of open-ended improvisations: the direction is at the discretion of the performer's fancy, and while it may inspire awe in some, it doesn't prevent confusion in others.
Downes exploits the possibilities inherent in recording on three organs of different builds and sizes. The grandiosity of "Kings" is contrasted with the intimacy in his setting of "Black is the Colour", recorded on a smaller instrument. In the liner notes Downes reflects on the "push and pull" each instrument gives the record, a conflict between size and scope that gives the album multiple dimensions and emotive qualities. Regardless of his musical quality, "The Bone Gambler" sounds unavoidably raw and intimate, a result of recording right up against the instrument to document the clicks and sighs of the organ's mechanical sounds.
Obsidian is a beautiful album in part of how Downes explores the grand potential of his three instruments without falling too deep into musical abstraction. The influence of modern jazz improvisation is evident, yet while a lesser musician would explore dense harmonies and dissonant melodies purely for the sake of complexity, Downes never loses sight of the song. Even if a track essentially feels like extended an improvisation there always seems to be a narrative and consideration of contrasts. Adeptly closing the album with heart, final track "The Gift", an original by Downes' father Paul subsequently arranged by Kit, is a sweet folk-inspired track complete with bird chirps and ambient noises captured with stirring effect.
Obsidian may not be too far removed from the esoteric recordings ECM typically champions, but it's an unavoidably bold choice for a young jazz pianist's solo debut. With this honest and thought-provoking record, Downes marks himself as a valuable and promising improvising musician, regardless of genre or style.