Death, Rebirth & New Revolution
Jazz in my native Northern Ireland in the 1980s was restricted to Sunday afternoon trad-jazz in hotels and clubs frequented by the elderly. Nobody wanted to come and play in Belfast. And little wonder; the Irish Republican Army, in its war for independence from Britain, had declared visiting bands to be legitimate targets, and consequently most stayed away. The closest thing to jazz I saw was a concert by Sting in 1986, when his band included saxophonist Branford Marsalis, drummer Omar Hakim, keyboardist Kenny Kirkland and bassist Darryl Jones. It was good, but it wasn't enough.
In 1987 I moved from Northern Ireland to London, where I spent the next four years. I soon learned that there were exciting new things happening on the UK jazz scene. There was the irreverent, iconoclastic big band Loose Tubes, which included multi-instrumentalist Django Bates, saxophonists Iain Ballamy, Julian Arguelles and Mark Lockheart and guitarist John Parricellian exciting new generation of British jazz musicians who played in their own language, without aping the American tradition.
There was Earthworks, drummer Bill Brufords' highly original band that fused electro and acoustic percussion, and which would forge a very distinctive path for the next twenty years, introducing talent such as Loose Tubes' Ballamy and Bates to a world-wide audience, and later saxophonist Tim Garland and pianist Gwilym Simcock.
And of course, there was Courtney Pine. Shortly after that concert in Nice, in the car park with Ginger Baker, Jack Bruce and Biréli Lagrène, Pine released his debut recording, Journey to the Urge Within (Verve, 1986), which reached 39 in the British pop charts, selling over 250,000 copies, an unprecedented commercial success for a British jazz album.
Around that time Pine was also a member of the all-black, hugely energetic British jazz group the Jazz Warriors. This band launched the careers of black musicians such as saxophonists Steve Williamson, double bassist Gary Crosby, pianist Julian Joseph, trombonist Dennis Rollins and drummer Mark Mondesir.
These three bands, more than any others, illustrated that British jazz could be brilliant and original without having an American accent. The UK jazz scene today is probably one of the most vibrant and original anywhere in the world, and the emergence of confident individual and collective voices in these last three decades has been very exciting to watch.
Meanwhile in America, at roughly the same time, the M-Base collective of saxophonists Steve Coleman and Greg Osby, pianist Geri Allen, singer Cassandra Wilson and trumpeter Graham Haynes were also defying Miles Davis' mid-'80s pessimism regarding jazz, with their refreshing ideas on creative expression. Coleman, more than most of the M-Base musicians, has pursued a fiercely independent path, producing some of the most strikingly original music of the last 25 years.
M-Base, Loose Tubes, Earthworks and the Jazz Warriors were four highly distinct creative ensembles/collectives and proof that that jazz's history has never been strictly linear. Movements overlap, new developments have many well-springs, inspiration comes from myriad sources and the knock-on effects are impossible to calculate. Movements of jazz may have died or become antiquated, but there has always been renewal, and there are always individuals, many of them, who carry the music to new and exciting places.
Old Heroes, New Heroes
But even the newest, most exciting modern music draws its inspiration to some degree from the past. Pianist Esbjorn Svensson, who died in a scuba diving accident in 2008, remains one of the most influential jazz musicians of the last twenty years, inspiring countless piano trios to evolve a modern European approach to the formula. Svensson was influenced in turn by Jan Johansson, the Swedish jazz pianist active in the 1950s and '60s, and told me in an interview shortly before he died: "Jan Johansson is a very, very big influence."
Inevitably, Johansson himself was initially influenced by American jazz musicians, but he moved beyond that, recording jazz workings of old Swedish folk songs in 1963 and 1964. In a tiny country like Sweden, population 9.4 million, his album Jazz Pa Svenska (Megafon, 1964) has sold 400,000 copies. Apart from Svensson, Johansson has been a major influence on pianists Tord Gustavsen, Andreas Ulvo, Jan Lungdren and Bobo Stenson, electronic duo Koop and a host of nu-jazz/electronic jazz piano trios.
These days in Europe, a great number of bands play jazz without a trace of an American accent, and this may well represent the greatest change in jazz in the last thirty plus years.
In London, where I studied in the late '80s, the London Jazz Festival used to throw up trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Freddie Hubbard, saxophonists Stan Getz and Joe Henderson, drummers Max Roach and Elvin Jones, pianists Hank Jones and Oscar Peterson. These musicians have all since passed away. In 2013, there are only a handful of musicians alive who were contemporaries of saxophonist Charlie Parker. Perhaps this passing of so many of jazz's iconic figures has, ironically, had a liberating effect on young jazz musicians around the world.
The jazz greats will always be lionized, but there's a new generation of jazz greats to look up to; all over the world musicians and fans are inspired by the likes of saxophonists Steve Coleman, Joshua Redman and Chris Potter, pianists Esbjörn Svensson, Brad Mehldau, Stefano Bollani, Hiromi and Craig Taborn, bassist Esperanza Spalding, singers Gretchen Parlato and Melody Gardot, and bands like Medeski, Martin & Wood, The Bad Plus, Phronesis, and the Neil Cowley. Talk of jazz's so-called Golden Age appears nostalgic. In terms of jazz's world-wide appeal, the sheer numbers of incredible musicians to be found everywhere, and increasingly fertile adventures in cross-pollination, this is a surely a great age of music in which we are now living.
There may not be a significant new movement going on but there's arguably greater diversity and greater individualism than ever beforejazz is living a very quiet form of revolution, where anything goes.