Kit Downes: An Organ Odyssey

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Organs come in a variety of sizes and shapes, each with its own sonic signature and personality. The grandest pipe organs can be found in European cathedrals, where the big sound and environment create a sacred space to enhance spiritual experiences. Other types include the portative organ, a small pipe organ that can be carried around, and the harmonium, a pump organ heard in the Pakistani sufi devotional music known as qawwali. There is also the bandoneon, a squeezebox invented by Heinrich Band in the mid-1800’s and manufactured by Hohner for use in provincial churches that couldn’t afford a pipe organ. And we commonly hear the electric Hammond B-3 organ used in jazz, soul, and funk.

My own introduction to the magnificent pipe organ came when I lived in Paris in the 1970’s. I used to head to Notre-Dame Cathedral on late Sunday afternoons to hear the great organist Pierre Cochereau play the mighty instrument, which was built between 1730-33. It was overwhelming to hear Cochereau play Bach classics as well as modern pieces by Olivier Messiaen and Maurice Duruflé. Such a powerful sound, such beautiful stained glass, such an old church that witnessed so much history. I sometimes openly wept, unashamed to show my emotions in this medieval temple.

The new ECM album Obsidian from British jazz musician Kit Downes features the pipe organ—but don’t expect any Bach, Messiaen, or your standard organ repertoire. All compositions are originals by Downes, save John Jacob Niles’ Kentucky adaptation of the Scottish folk song “Black is the Colour” and a hymn tune composed by Downes’ father. Many pieces were improvised. In the CD booklet, Downes explains that the album title reflects how the “eruptive processes at work derive from improvisation, its flowing river re-channeled into a unique set of compositions for church organ.”

Downes sang in a church choir and learned to play the church organ in his early years, ­but he became more interested in jazz and piano. He left the organ behind until a 2014-15 experimental project with tenor saxophonist Tom Challenger called Vyamanikal, for which he travelled around Suffolk exploring the area’s church organs and acoustics. For Obsidian, Downes “started writing with the idea of getting these organs from different parts of the UK speaking to each other. All built at different times, with different stops and different sounds.” He compares playing them to a form of time travel.

The new album features three pipe organs—“one large, one medium sized, and one small,” according to the liner notes. Each instrument has its own timbre and sound, and no two tracks sound the same. On the opening “Kings,” we hear the 1877 grand 3-manual (keyboard) organ of London’s Union Chapel. Downes then travels to the countryside and plays the smaller 2-manual organ of the 13th-century church of St. John’s in Snape, Suffolk. Finally, he performs on the smallest of the three, a single manual instrument with no pedalboard, making it resemble a harmonium rather than a larger organ requiring both hands and footwork. It sounds the most personal of the three.

The big pipe organ on “Kings” is my favorite; it’s unusual to hear improvisations like this on a pipe organ. The pipe organ is and always has been the world’s most complex instrument. The physical energy required to play it, the sound of the air being pumped into it by legs and feet, plus the infinite sound settings, pull-stops, and knobs, combine to make it truly unique. The sound can be both huge, as in “Kings,” or more intimate. Many of the tracks feature the organs miked close up, so the listener gets a sense of the mechanical noises coming from the instruments.

I love the variety of music on the album and Downes’ fresh, improvisational approach to the music. He’s an experimenter, changing the stop positions and footwork, and exploring the myriad sounds of the organs. Just like with Keith Jarrett’s 1976 album Hymnes/Spheres years ago, I have been listening over and over to Obsidian and still discover new gems each time.

Here is “Rings of Saturn,” a composite of multiple improvisations recorded on the 2-manual organ in Snape:

Banner and image above of Kit Downes © Alex Bonney / ECM Records.