The Liverpool International Jazz Festival plays host to a wide variety of performances, bringing in musicians from around the world. They also spotlight musicians who represent some of the more off the beaten path strands of the British jazz scene. Pianist Kit Downes and saxophonist Tom Challenger are long-time collaborators who have picked up the reins left, following the fairly recent deaths of luminaries of the British avant-garde, John Taylor and Kenny Wheeler. Downes and Challenger convey in their music the same profundity and wistfulness that some feared lost following John Taylor’s death in 2015.
If I may be permitted a brief moment to share a personal experience, I was lucky enough to see Taylor in a rare solo piano concert a few months before he passed away, and it wasn’t until this aesthetically unassuming performance by Downes and Challenger at the Cornerstone Theatre on Liverpool Hope’s Creative Campus, that I experienced anything close to the emotional response I had seeing Taylor live.
The setup for this performance was barebones in an effective way; the room was laid out simply, with a few rows of chairs, and the musicians placed on the same level as the audience, entirely without amplification. Downes and Challenger walked out into the room with little fanfare, quietly took their places at their instruments, and began to play. The lack of amplification had a tangibly positive influence on the atmosphere in the room, providing an intimacy between the musicians and the audience, and using the natural acoustics of the room for a powerful musical effect. The reflective surfaces added dramatic weight to sustained notes and made changes in volume and intensity much more visceral.
The first piece of the afternoon began with an erratic, conversational, dissonant back and forth between the duo, which eased into a softer, more unified composition wherein both musicians were communicating phrases from their instruments with gloriously soft expressiveness. Challenger’s tone was particularly beautiful in this number, exuding wondrously breathy notes from the bottom of the tenor saxophone’s range, contrasting with poise against Downes’ busier, lyrical piano motifs.
It was after the second number – another stunner which, stylistically, was like George Gershwin meets Evan Parker – when Downes disclosed that both pieces were as yet untitled, revealing that this performance was something of a proving ground for new material. The two instrumentalists are usually a church organ and saxophone duo, so it’s not often than they perform this kind of material with piano. What made this setting work so well, however, is that there’s more clarity in the sound of the piano than that of the organ. As a result, these pieces felt more open and exposed than the pair’s recorded work for organ and saxophone, which made the clarity and apparent effortlessness of Downes’ playing all the more stunning.
With that in mind, the midpoint of the set featured a solo performance by Downes of the folk tune, ‘Black is the Colour’, which he had previously recorded for solo organ on his excellent album, Obsidian (2018). This version, rendered with crystalline beauty on piano, was even more striking than the recorded version, with the pianist highlighting the simplicity and the strangeness of the original melody with subtle embellishments and sinister reharmonisation. Downes showed his clear admiration for the folk song, and his awareness of his surroundings, by taking his hands away from the keys in order to let particular notes ring out. Moments like that were especially John Taylor-esque.
Two further pieces concluded the short, 45-minute set. The first was a lengthy journey of musical development, penned by Challenger, which began with a series of delicate flourishes that grew into a lively, rhythmic epic. This was facilitated by dramatic crescendos, delivered spectacularly through Challenger’s impressive use of circular breathing. The final piece was a previously recorded one, referred to affectionately by Downes as ‘Birdies’ (although neither could recall the name under which it was actually recorded). The piece was so called because the original church recording was interrupted by the loud tweeting of blackbirds. Conveniently, this performance was accompanied by the loud squawking of seagulls flying over the venue, which was met with laughter from the audience, but also an additional sense of artistic appreciation for nature’s contribution to the piece.
What Downes and Challenger achieved with this set at the Cornerstone Theatre was a short performance, packed densely with a series of expressive profound musical experiments. Downes commented afterwards that this was a new format for the pair, and there were still some corners that needed tightening up, but with that uncertainty came spontaneity and a cohesive, genuine feeling that one rarely finds in live music. Performances like this don’t come around often, but when they do, they deserve to be cherished.