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Xero Slingsby: The anarchic spirit of British jazz being discovered by a new generation

"Yorkshire's Ornette Coleman" is being discovered by a new generation of jazz musicians

Fergus Quill with his copy of Xero Slingsby and The Works’ first album, Shove It

Lubi Jovanovic Fergus Quill with his copy of Xero Slingsby and The Works’ first album, Shove It

Sonny Rollins, known as the ‘Saxophone Colossus’, famously practised for hours on the Williamsburg Bridge in New York, vying to be heard over roadworks and urban din. On the streets of Leeds in the 1980s a gifted sax player called Matthew Coe attempted to hone his craft in a similar fashion and found his performances routinely interrupted by the police, eventually clocking up over 40 arrests and court appearances for illegal busking. 

Coe, known by his stage name Xero Slingsby, became a local hero and an advocate for buskers’ rights, and is finally beginning to earn his place as an emblem of the rebellious spirit of British jazz. 

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Xero Slingsby’s music has drawn comparison to Hendrix, Coltrane, Sidney Bechet and Boredoms. He cut two albums with his band, The Works: 1985’s Shove It (featuring the anti-Thatcher anthem of the same name, perhaps his best-known track) and 1986’s Up Down. Both records are smart, punchy and confrontational, drawing influence from post punk and free jazz with an anarchic, political edge. The band played frequently around the UK and Europe, although Slingsby still busked regularly, explaining in a short film for Yorkshire TV in 1982: “It’s good for music in general. If it’s on the street, then people can see it and they can participate.” Tragically, on the precipice of mainstream success, Slingsby died of a brain tumour at just 30 years of age. 

His music is beginning to resurface. Last year a crowdfunded independent documentary, Shove It – the Xero Slingsby Story premiered at the Leeds International Film Festival, and this November saw fellow Leeds musician and bandleader Fergus Quill release a tribute LP called ¡Up Yours! Fergus Quill Plays Xero Slingsby. The album, a result of Quill’s fascination with Slingsby and a serendipitous encounter with a former member of The Works, was created with the support of Slingsby’s widow Sally Coe, who provided some of his original homemade instruments for the project (including the ‘Bikepumpaphone’ and the ‘Bikewheelatron’).

“In jazz and improvised music a composer can be said to ‘enter the canon’ when other – usually younger – musicians start to play their music,” Quill tells me. “Interestingly, nobody has recorded any of Xero’s music which is a real shame as his tunes are frankly amazing, and are definitely deserving of a wider audience. 

Fergus Quill Trio
The Fergus Quill Trio. Credit Jon Lodder

“At the same time, I was also very influenced by John Zorn’s album Spy vs Spy where he interprets Ornette Coleman’s music through the prism of hardcore. He spoke about trying to make the music feel as fresh and startling as Ornette’s music would have sounded to people in the ’50s, but for listeners in the ’80s. I wanted to do something similar with this album and try to make the music as jarring and exciting for today’s audience as it would have been for people listening at the time. 

“I also wanted to draw the comparison between Xero and Ornette. Xero is Yorkshire’s Ornette Coleman!”

Harvey Parkin-Christie and Bess Shooter both play sax on the record, with Theo Goss on percussion and Quill himself on double bass, guitar and piano. All four are also credited as playing various homemade instruments as well as ‘Associated Cacophony’. The record, true to Slingsby’s vision, is certainly cacophonous in places but in the spirit of riotous fun rather than avant garde incoherence. True to its subject’s passion for street performing, the recording crackles with spontaneity, owing in part to the project’s tight deadline. 

“We agreed that the album launch should be on Xero’s birthday (23 November), which gave us about eight weeks to complete the whole project,” Quill says. “This is not a very long time to make an album. I transcribed and notated the tunes I wanted to perform and then we had one rehearsal followed by a single, mammoth recording session from 10am to 4am – and came out with the album.”

The kinship that Quill feels with Slingsy inspired the homage, but Quill also artfully joins the dots between Slingsby’s punk rock sensibilities and the vibrant DIY jazz and improvised music scene in Leeds today, hosting a launch party for the record at Hyde Park Book Club, a buzzing art space and bar near the city’s student district. 

“I really want to emphasise that link between Xero’s music and the music of the vibrant, organic, DIY jazz scene that is thriving in Leeds today,” says Quill. He tells me of his hope for the project’s wider impact. “This would perhaps be the best way to cement Xero’s reputation. He produced a profound body of work that should find its rightful place in the jazz canon and be played regularly – just like the music of Thelonious Monk or Duke Ellington.”

Find the album on Fergus Quill’s Bandcamp. Deb Grant is a radio host and music critic.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine out this week. Support your local vendor by buying today! If you cannot reach your local vendor, click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue or give a gift subscription. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop. The Big Issue app is available now from the App Store or Google Play

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