Kit Downes

Pianist Kit Downes, who has been selected in the jazz category for this year’s Mercury Prize, discusses his nominated album Golden

There’s been some big jazz names nominated for the Mercury Prize in the past, such as Courtney Pine and Portico Quartet. Is the prize good news for jazz?

Yes, it’s such a brilliant thing that jazz is represented in the prize. Even if people go and listen to all the Mercury bands, and they only listen to one jazz album a year I think that’s still a lot better than listening to no jazz albums a year! It’s so important that the wealth and breadth of the amazing bands in the UK are reflected in something like the Mercurys. It’s such a good scene here and although it may not be the massively populist music, the quality of music is so high and it influences people all around the world. It’s very important that it’s reflected in a prize like that.

How did your trio album Golden come about?

Originally it started out with me and the guys – James Maddren (drums) and Calum Gourlay (bass). We all studied together at the Royal Academy of Music for four years and played together a lot. I just wanted to document it, and record it, no matter what it was going to be. I decided I was going to put some money into it and record it. And a couple of weeks before we did it, Christine Allen from the Basho label suggested that we put it out. So every step was not planned, it was just designed to be a way of consolidating that whole time that we spent together, documenting it in a way, so we could move forward artistically. And then it ended up being an album.

How much of the album is composed and how much improvised?

It’s about a 50/50 split. The way I write for it is that there are strong melodies within it and there are strong harmonies that define the general sound of the piece. But everything in the written material is always optional for anyone at any time. We’re free to leave bits out, or play different bits, or shape it in different ways, or take it to new places; so everything that I’ve written is a signpost or suggestion, more than something set in stone.

Can you talk a bit about the process of the Mercury nomination?

I didn’t really know anything about it. Christine Allen, the manager at Basho, entered our album. I knew of the Mercurys generally and I knew other people who had been jazz bands in it but I didn’t really know what sort of prize it was. I didn’t think twice about it when Christine said she’d entered us. I forgot about it and then she rang up when I was on holiday and told me that we were in it!

What is happening on the Golden album cover?

The guy falling over in the snow is me. All those photos were taken up in the mountains in South Tyrol (Italy). My girlfriend Ruth took the picture – we found this little spot where the sun was still setting, so the light was going all golden and bouncing off the snow. It made it look like sand. It looked very magical and when I was thinking of a front cover it seemed fairly suitable.

What got you into jazz in the first place?

Oscar Peterson got me into jazz. My mum bought me the album Night Train, which is very bluesy but has a really good feel and nice swing. From there I started listening to Keith Jarrett and Bill Evans. You know how you listen to one album and it takes you on to another ten. And then you listen to another and it takes you somewhere you never thought you’d end up. I was playing the church organ as well at the time and I was improvising a lot but in a classical idiom, and it was a mixture of the two things happening together at the same time, which meant that I got pretty obsessed with it.

Interview by Neil McKim

This year’s Mercury Prize ceremony will take place on Tuesday 7 September

Related links:

CD Review: Troyka from Kit Downes, Chris Montague and Joshua Blackmore
CD Review: Empirical