Jazz’s New British Invasion
“I didn’t even know there was jazz in England,” said one attendee at the opening night of New York’s Winter Jazzfest in January.
Hosted by influential BBC DJ Gilles Peterson, the concert – a showcase of British jazz held at downtown club Le Poisson Rouge – was America’s introduction to a small but mighty group of young musicians who during the past three years have helped turned South London into a new jazz epicenter. There was tenor saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings, at 33 the scene’s elder statesman, leading the Comet Is Coming, his psychedelic electronic-improvisation trio, toward the music’s dance-oriented outer reaches. Also on tenor was Nubya Garcia, whose quartet embraced classic postbop, but with a fiery group interplay that transcended rote chorus-solos-chorus structures. Trumpeter Yazz Ahmed’s group offered fluid melodic lines bathed in electronics and polyrhythms, and evoked the leader’s Bahraini heritage. And guitarist/vocalist Oscar Jerome led a good-time R&B-adjacent quartet, and even rapped a bit.
These artists are reaching U.S. audiences at an opportune time, a few years after Kamasi Washington and his Kendrick Lamar–approved compatriots helped to generate a rare mainstream buzz for jazz. And with a pair of high-profile new releases – We Out Here, an exceptional compilation surveying the London scene, and Your Queen Is a Reptile, the upcoming major-label debut by Sons of Kemet, one of Hutchings’ numerous projects – they’re uniquely positioned to lead another breakthrough jazz movement, one rooted far from the music’s American birthplace.
“Jazz is becoming the alternative music of the 21st century,” says Danny Bennett, president of the Verve Label Group, whose fabled Impulse! imprint, home to John Coltrane’s classic work among other Sixties and Seventies jazz essentials, is relaunching with Your Queen Is a Reptile. The question, though, is whether the artists behind these sounds even identify them as jazz.
“It’s a strange word, ‘jazz,'” Hutchings tells Rolling Stone two days after the showcase, when asked if he’d describe his own music that way. Born in London but raised in his parents’ native Barbados, Hutchings picked up the clarinet at nine, practicing it by mimicking the flows of Nas, Biggie and Tupac verses he was hearing on American radio, and the hyper rhythms of the local Carnival, before returning to England to receive a classical-music degree on the instrument. Slightly older and more experienced than his London peers, he’s given more contemplation to where they fit in the musical landscape, while also being the first to transcend his niche, via his Impulse! signing. “The people I revere as master jazz musicians have said they don’t want the word,” he continues. “It’s limiting. It tells them more what they can’t be than what they can. So – do I consider myself a musician who is limited?”
Like Hutchings, his younger colleagues – first- and second-generation Afro-Caribbean immigrants, multi-hyphenated in their cultural backgrounds and in their music – uniformly reject a narrow definition of their chosen style. London’s sound is less a riff on classic African-American jazz than a polyglot party music of the city’s minorities – with calypso and dub, grime and Afrobeat as much its building blocks as Coltrane’s “Giant Steps.”
“It’s all connected,” says Gilles Peterson. He should know: In the late Eighties, Peterson and fellow DJ Patrick Forge created a Sunday afternoon party that linked up then-emerging new-school jazz to dance culture – the Northern Soul and jazz-dance scenes long in vogue in the U.K., and the fresh black American music (hip-hop and house) then reshaping England’s clubs. In London’s vibrant Sixties jazz scene, future stars like Ginger Baker, John McLaughlin and Dave Holland mingled on gigs and sessions. But Peterson and Forge’s historic party – “Talking Loud and Saying Something” at Dingwalls – acted as a new kind of nexus, bringing together DJs (playing everything from spiritual-jazz records to horn solos over house beats) with improvising live instrumentalists, and spawned a scene damned to be known as “acid jazz,” a moniker which Peterson says “took me 20 years to get over.”
Acid jazz connected clubbers and musicians, providing an outlet for “young Afro-Caribbean musicians to get together and express a connection to this thing called jazz,” says Paul Bradshaw, who was so enraptured by these sounds that in 1988 he started publishing Straight No Chaser, a zine named after a Thelonious Monk song that would document the scene. Though the short-attention-span cycle of the mainstream British press stunted the music’s development (“some really great musicians weren’t given enough time to build their communities to survive the hype,” says Peterson), many musicians who emerged from that movement went on to have stellar British jazz careers. And a few have been instrumental in helping the new generation blossom – most specifically, bassist Gary Crosby, once of the group the Jazz Warriors, whose youth-music program, Tomorrow’s Warriors, counts an overwhelming percentage of the current scene’s players as graduates.
“There’s a rebirth,” says Bradshaw, who relaunched Straight No Chaser last year after a decade-long sabbatical. “Young artists are again coming up listening to their groundings – grime or drum ‘n’ bass – but opting to work in the framework of jazz.” In fact, for many, jazz is the grounding, and Tomorrow’s Warriors, the place where they first became grounded. To a person, they cite the workshop co-founded by Crosby and Janine Irons in 1991 as the place they not only discovered their community, but also first realized they could remake the jazz scene in their own image.
“Its ethos is creating, supporting and furthering the diversity of the music, with a push towards ethnic minorities and women,” says Nubya Garcia. She was a saxophone-playing 17-year-old when she walked into her first Tomorrow’s Warriors session, a blues workshop led by expat New Orleans trumpeter Abram Wilson. The differences with previous jazz-education experiences were striking: “It was the first time someone had gone in on feeling over chops,” she says. “But also, I wasn’t the only woman in the room, and it was predominantly black.”
The musicians Garcia was then surrounded by – many of whom arrived at Tomorrow’s Warriors from a few South London neighborhoods, like Peckham and Lewisham – are the same ones she still plays with a decade later: pianist Joe Armon-Jones; drummers Femi Koleoso and Moses Boyd; tuba player Theon Cross and his trombonist brother Nathaniel (whose arranging skills have earned him the moniker “the Quincy Jones of Catford”); guitarist Shirley Tetteh, trumpeter Sheila Maurice-Gray and trombonist Rosie Turton (all of whom play with Garcia in the all-female septet Nerija); and saxophonist Binker Golding. Hutchings and Ahmed had passed through the program a few years earlier.
“Even at the time, I knew it was significant,” the 26-year-old Boyd tells Rolling Stone. “At its peak, a solid 15 of us were trying to play bebop. It was strange knowing ‘I am not on my own,’ that there is a small community of us trying to be good musicians, get into this jazz thing and understand it.”
Even as they were learning jazz basics, the musicians were honing unique vocabularies. Handed a tuba at age nine and schooled as a teen in a Brazilian-style bloco (the drums-and-brass ensembles popular at Carnival, which perform on the U.K.’s street-festival circuit), Theon Cross “had a point to prove,” making his horn fit into jazz structures. So he not only spent time transcribing trumpet solos but also classic bass lines (by the likes of Paul Chambers, a reformed tuba player himself), developing a unique rhythmic approach to the tuba. He now provides low-end for Garcia, Boyd and Sons of Kemet, among others. Cross is also one of the connections between the city’s jazz and grime scenes, playing in the live bands of rappers like Kano and Ruff Sqwad.
For Boyd, the lesson of “understanding that [jazz] is not a British art form,” and “trying to learn from it, assimilate it,” was solidified after a chance conversation with a jazz figure often identified with strict musical orthodoxy.
“I talked to Wynton [Marsalis], and I’m like, ‘Well, I can’t be you, I wasn’t born in New Orleans to a jazz-musician father. I was born in Catford and picked up the drums at 13,'” he recalls. “I have a completely different trajectory and arc. Hearing him say, ‘I can’t be you, you can’t be me, [but] you have something to offer,’ crystallized that I can’t be my heroes, [but] that maybe we have something to say that they don’t.”
The community’s liberated spirit allows the same overlapping cast to collaborate on a wide variety of projects. Currently, these musicians can be heard accompanying Garcia on covers of pieces by Coltrane pianist McCoy Tyner; sculpting Kokoroko’s brass-heavy Afrobeat/highlife; informing the Max Roach–meets–Aphex Twin work of Moses Boyd’s solo recordings; assisting singer Zara McFarlane in bringing the interpretive weight of 20th-century jazz standards to Jamaica’s reggae-era songbook; and providing raw materials for Armon-Jones and producer Maxwell Owin’s studio cut-and-paste project Idiom – as well as Sons of Kemet’s double-drum–driven soca and Ahmed’s Fourth World folk experiments. Says Bradshaw, “There’s a freedom that a lot of these young musicians are tapped into.”
That freedom is all over We Out Here – recorded at a single three-day session in August 2017, and released by Peterson’s Brownswood label – which captures London’s current moment in full stride. There’s drummer Jake Long’s Coltrane-esque Maisha ensemble, with Hutchings on bass clarinet, Garcia on flute and wonderful piano flourishes by Amane Suganami. There’s Jerome’s guitar leading Kokoroko through a percussive highlife ballad. There’s Boyd diving deeper into his electronics-and-percussion experiments with Garcia’s tenor pealing over the top. And there’s Ezra Collective, the group that Armon-Jones and Koleoso have formed with Koleoso’s bassist brother TJ, trumpeter Dylan Jones and saxophonist James Mollison, and which plays like an Afrobeat fusion combo.
And it’s not just musical forms that this new generation is helping to revolutionize around London. As Peterson proudly puts it, “They’ve kind of learned how to DIY their scene.”
“If you look back at London 10 or 15 years ago, the demographic that was listening to jazz was very different,” says Hutchings. “It was music [for] an audience that sits down and takes it in. Most people from my generation would probably say, proudly, that they didn’t like jazz, but that they like funk and fusion music because there is that connection, bodily, between the music and the audience. Recently, there’s been a reconnection between a young audience and music that has a jazz base.”
It’s a reconnection that’s been all but ignored since Peterson’s acid-jazz days. Before the current wave, only Jazz Re:Freshed, a weekly Notting Hill party (and more recently, label) founded by Justin McKenzie and Adam Moses in 2003, treated jazz as club music, connecting improvising live performances to the neighborhood’s broken-beat DJs. It became a go-to live outlet for all the hungry Tomorrow’s Warriors graduates honing their skills in the music programs of London’s Guildhall and Trinity College. Soon though, it wasn’t alone.
Says Boyd, “We understood that the [jazz] infrastructure, at that time, did not really represent what we were about and what we liked. The people I was playing for did not look like me – they weren’t my age, weren’t from where I was born, [and] didn’t talk the way I talk. I realized I’d rather set up my own thing for two people than play to a roomful of people there just for the sake of it. And it was great to see that this ethos wasn’t just me but Steez.”
A floating party night established in 2013, Steez is one of the main sessions around which the South London scene coalesced. A DIY Peckham all-nighter, it would begin with spoken-word performances and mutate into bring-your-instrument jam sessions, followed by live bands and DJs until the morning.
“With Steez, it seemed like it all lined up,” says Theon Cross. “We had the space, the opportunity, and we got the younger audience of people coming. So then, what do we play? So we started incorporating all these different styles. You can keep an audience and keep them dancing.”
Musician- and DJ-led indie labels and outlets began documenting what was obviously bubbling under. DJ Bradley Zero, whose Rhythm Section parties were making the same jazz-dance connections that Peterson did 20-plus years earlier, started a radio show on then-budding Internet station NTS in 2012, and soon after a label. The saxophonist Tenderlonious (a.k.a. Ed Cawthorne) began the 22a label in 2013, debuting music from producer Al Dobson Jr. and a pianist who records as both Henry Wu and Kamaal Williams. (In 2016, Williams and drummer Yussef Dayes released Black Focus, a fusion album already considered a classic, under the name Yussef Kamaal, before splitting mere months later.) In 2016, Peterson launched his own Internet radio station, Worldwide FM, which regularly featured London’s jazz talent.
With a growing scene came the need for additional venues. Existing spots such as Cable Café and the Jazz Café began opening nights up to young musicians. Prominent new hubs developed as well, like Total Refreshment Centre, a former West Indian social club in Dalston, whose multi-artist nights developed a dance-oriented audience; and Church of Sound, an active Lower Clapton church in a neighborhood once labeled “murder mile,” which began staging specialty jazz events, with proceeds going to the church’s homeless organization and food bank.
According to Peterson, the burgeoning scene also got a key boost from left-field club experimentalists.
“The flipside of club culture being this massive industry is, suddenly, a lot of the DJs that would’ve been backroom DJs back in the day – Ben UFO, Dan Snaith [Caribou], Four Tet – are now the headliners,” he explains. “That’s been amazing in terms of how people perceive music. Now you’ve got Four Tet playing a Jackie McLean record with Michael Carvin on drums for the full eight minutes. He’s playing the kind of shit I was playing in the backrooms of festivals 20 years ago. I’m going around the U.K., playing in big rooms, and audiences don’t want to hear generic house music now. As long as there’s an underlying rhythm, [they’re open] – that’s been a massive change in the last two or three years – and I think jazz, as a form, fits into that very easily.”
The city’s open-minded music culture is also a magnet for what’s happening elsewhere. Kamasi Washington released his latest EP not on Brainfeeder or Leaving, two Los Angeles labels that are part of his hometown community, but on Young Turks, the London-based record company responsible for FKA Twigs and the xx. And Chicago’s International Anthem label is cultivating an energy similar to London’s, building on the Windy City’s rich legacy of jazz both straight-ahead and progressive – while releasing albums by drummer Makaya McCraven, trumpeter Jaimie Branch and guitarist Jeff Parker, with others like cellist Tomeka Reid, trumpeter Marquis Hill and Joshua Abrams’ Natural Information Society also a part of its expansive community. (In October 2017, the London and Chicago scenes came together at “Chicago x London,” two evenings at Total Refreshment Centre featuring musicians from both cities playing their own sets and then jamming.)
According to Danny Bennett, this international synergy is one reason Impulse! is taking a chance on Shabaka Hutchings. “It’s not just happening in London, it’s happening all over the world,” he says of the current jazz renaissance. He calls Hutchings “the Trent Reznor of jazz, completely pushing the envelope.”
And while it’s easy to accuse a record company exec of hyping his newest signing, in this case, Impulse!’s investment matches the artist’s ambition, with a contract that encompasses all the different groups that Hutchings leads. At last count, this includes Shabaka and the Ancestors, a South Africa–based octet that in 2016 released Wisdom of the Elders, a tribute to that country’s jazz legacy; the Comet Is Coming, a trio with drummer Maxwell Hallett and Dan Levers on electronics, channeling Suicide, Morphine and acid house; and the power-soca grooves of Sons of Kemet, with Cross’ tuba alongside Tom Skinner and Eddie Hicks’ drums.
Maybe some of these sounds are too far out for a general audience. Back at Winter Jazzfest in January, the same crowd that basked in guitarist Oscar Jerome’s soul- and hip-hop–inflected grooves, relaxed during Ahmed’s Middle Eastern soundscapes and was visibly rocked by the volcanic rise and fall of Garcia’s quartet, didn’t hold on throughout the night. Hutchings’ Comet may have blazed with psychedelic punk insistence, but by set’s end, the room was only half-full.
Yet a few days into Winter Jazzfest, these musicians seemed to find their place. After Sons of Kemet’s U.S. debut packed Le Poisson Rouge with the kind of positive energy one expects to encounter in a festival tent (prediction: they’ll go over great at Bonnaroo), Hutchings and Cross made an appearance crosstown, at an impromptu 30-minute jam. Also featuring Makaya McCraven, keyboardist Jason Lindner and saxophonist Donny McCaslin (the latter two both backed David Bowie on Blackstar), as well as saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin and members of her Soul Squad, it was an unlikely supergroup, with all involved wondering where their common musical ground might appear.
When, suddenly, it did. With McCraven finding a deep pocket, the New York pros and the London cats started going around the horn; Hutchings blew single-note blasts and initiated oddly thorny ensemble harmonies, allowing Cross to escape his bass duties and solo with gusto. It was an off-the-cuff groove party, traditionalism injected with something fresh. England’s jazz, yes – but the rest of the world’s too.
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