Everyone’s talking about British jazz at the moment. It’s exciting, fresh and genre-bending! The ‘jazz police’ and the purists might not get it, but it sure is telling its own unique story, and the audience are loving it.
British jazz has always had its ambassadors who have flown the flag around the world; Courtney Pine, Jamie Cullum, Soweto Kinch, Jacqui Dankworth and many more. Now there is a new generation of musicians with their own voice, so what’s different this time?
Most of the acts have grown up through fantastic music platforms such as Tomorrow’s Warriors, run by Gary Crosby and Janine Irons, which was the stable for the growth of the recent crop of jazz musicians making headlines. They forged relationships, learnt about music and most importantly about teamwork and unity – an important ingredient for any music movement, Motown being a good example of this.
Another organisation, Jazz Re:freshed, is run by Yvette Griffith and Justin McKenzie. It started as a weekly performance residency and has grown and evolved into so much more, and now features its own record label and promoter. It gives the musicians an important platform to gain performance experience, collaborate and learn to celebrate each other. If you put a mic in front of 95 per cent of the new generation of British jazz musicians, they will speak of at least one of these organisations being a catalyst to their careers.
It can’t be just about the organisations and their work though, the musicians must have something about them too. And that they do. They are influenced by hip-hop, house music, grime and you can hear these elements in their music. Shabaka Hutchings and his different bands such as Sons of Kemet are definitely pushing the envelope. They’re made up of two drummers with kicking rhythms that entrance you with the beats and syncopations, Theon Cross keeps the bass thumping on the tuba and Hutchings’ saxophone jumps around every imaginable time signature and musical iteration. They are amazing to experience live and definitely unique. They are touring around the world, winning awards and you need to see the moshpits at their gigs. Is it jazz? Oh yes it is!
Nérija are an all-female band based in London who have been getting a lot of love over the past couple of years. Many projects have come out of individual artists from what is now a supergroup. Saxophonist Cassie Kinoshi formed Seed Ensemble – their debut album Driftglass features the track Afronaut, which won the Ivors Academy Award 2018 for Jazz Composition for Large Ensemble, and the album is now nominated for the Mercury Prize. Nubya Garcia [pictured above], also on saxophone, has had similar success. Her tour diary is bulging at the seams with dates around the world, she recently successfully went round the States and Canada and won the Sky Arts Breakthrough Act of the Year Award. I am sure there will be many more success stories from members of Nérija.
The perception of jazz being the preserve of small basement clubs has also changed. You have groups like Ezra Collective and Steam Down who are selling out 2,000-capacity venues, with their audiences buying up the available vinyl and T-shirts. Jazz FM Vocalist of the Year Cherise Adams-Burnett is cooking up something exciting for her debut album, and drummer Moses Boyd has established himself not just as a musician but a broadcaster too, presenting on BBC Radio 1.
What the new-age British jazz artists have in common is that they know each other well, they are friends. They play on each other’s records, guest at their gigs, promote their concerts or album releases on social networks and feel that they all have their own space. There isn’t a crabs-in-the-bucket mentality here, which is evident in their success.
Is it a new wave of jazz or just an evolution? I think it’s a bit of both; a new wave of artists with their own ideas and influences carving a career for themselves, while remembering the many artists before them who kicked down some weighted industry doors to carve a path. I say enjoy it all. It will evolve again and ask the next generation in 10 years’ time. Is it jazz? Oh yes it is!
YolanDa Brown is a musician and broadcaster. Follow her on Twitter