After a lifetime trying to get on an equal footing with its American parent, British jazz has finally come of age. Since around 2015, a community of young, London-based musicians has forged a style which, while anchored in the American tradition, reflects the Caribbean and African cultural heritages of many of its vanguard players. The scene demographic also corrects the gender inequality which continues to be a feature of life in Britain and which has, historically, been reflected in the jazz world.
Jazz was created by black musicians and black musicians have always been present in British jazz. Historically, however, they have experienced far less visibility than is the case in 2020. The same is true of women. Many of today's most prominent players and bandleaders are women. There is much to celebrate.
None of this came out of nowhere. The post-2015 radicals owe a debt to previous generations of trailblazers, most recently including Denys Baptiste
, Jason Yarde
, Steve Williamson
, Nikki Yeoh
, Courtney Pine
, Byron Wallen
and Soweto Kinch
, all of whom are continuing to help take the music forward.
An immeasurable debt is also owed to Gary Crosby
and his partner Janine Irons, who, since 1991, have run the Tomorrow's Warriors outreach progamme, bringing conservatoire-level teaching to aspiring jazz musicians regardless of their ethnicity, gender or ability to pay. Most of the musicians cited in the Top 20 below are graduates of the scheme, and many of them have repaid the debt by teaching Tomorrow's Warriors classes. "Each one teach one," as the saying goes.
In London in 2020 you can hear technically accomplished young musicians hybridising jazz with dancehall, dub, kumina, Afrobeat, highlife, mbaqanga, grime, garage, broken beat, electronica, techno, deep house and drum 'n' bass. A progressive socio-political sensibility runs through the scene. Like the first stirrings of jazz in New Orleans a century ago, this is rebel music which has not forgotten how to have a good time.
This Top 20 lists, in chronological order, some of the essential albums which have come out of the new London scene since 2015.
NEW JAZZ FROM LONDON: SHAKING THE WALLS
Binker & MosesDem Ones
No revolution starts anywhere as neat and tidy as a single artefact or event, but the debut album from the ferocious semi-free duo Binker and Moses
is totemic, and 2015 was also the year the scene started to inch out of the underground. Tenor saxophonist Binker Golding
and drummer Moses Boyd
met as members of singer Zara McFarlane
's backing band, and the idea of Binker & Moses began during pre-gig soundchecks. By turns intensely visceral and elegantly lyrical, and always in the groove, all three Binker & Moses albums are essential listening and reveal new treasures with every repeated spin. Dem Ones
was followed by Journey To The Mountain Of Forever
(2017) and Alive In The East?
(2018). Hopefully the saga is not over yet.
Denys BaptisteThe Late Trane
A set of brilliantly realised reimaginings of John Coltrane
tunes, The Late Trane
finds tenor saxophonist Denys Baptiste searching for the inner melodicism in Coltrane's often abrasive late-period musicand finding it. Baptiste is a generation older than Golding, Boyd and the other movers and shakers of the new London scene, for whom he has been an inspiration. His totally killer band on The Late Trane
is formed of other scene godparents: saxophonist Steve Williamson, pianist Nikki Yeoh, and Rod Youngs
, for many years Gil Scott-Heron
's first call drummer. Gary Crosby is on bass.
Nubya GarciaNubya's 5ive
Jazz Re:freshed, 2017 Nubya Garcia
has become one of the most prominent international calling-cards for the new London jazz. While many of her peers prioritised European tours, Garcia early on took on the logistically more demanding, and more costly, option of performing in the US. Her determination has been rewarded, not least by creative partnerships with US musicians. Back home, Garcia has recorded extensively as a guest artist and as a member of bands such as Maisha
. Her altogether blinding debut album, Nubya's 5ive
, is long overdue a follow-up. It features a stellar lineup which includes tuba player Theon Cross
, Moses Boyd and keyboard player Joe Armon-Jones
on four originals and a cover of McCoy Tyner
Sarathy Korwar & The UPAJ Collective My East Is Your West
Indo-jazz fusion took shape in Britain in the mid 1960s with a string of adventurous albums by guitarist Amancio D'Silva
and violinist John Mayer. Their experiments were followed a decade later by those of John McLaughlin
and in the 1980s by Tony Haynes' Grand Union Orchestra
. Sarathy Korwar
's My East Is Your West
has one foot in Indian raga and the other in American astral jazz and this terrific double album includes covers of Pharoah Sanders
and Leon Thomas
' "The Creator Has A Master Plan" and Alice Coltrane
's "Journey In Satchidananda." D'Silva's "A Street In Bombay" also gets a reboot.
Zara McFarlane Arise
Zara McFarlane coproduced her third album with her longtime drummer, Moses Boyd. Like its predecessors, Arise
reflects McFarlane's Jamaican heritage and is an elegant blend of jazz and reggae, kumina and nyabinghi. But the music eschews simply sticking jazz vocals and instrumental solos on top of Caribbean rhythms. It goes much deeper than that. The band includes London luminaries such as reed player Shabaka Hutchings
, Binker Golding, trombonist Nathaniel Cross and guitarist Shirley Tetteh
. Special mentions go to "Silhouette," a Hutchings feature, "Allies Or Enemies," on which McFarlane overdubs a layered vocal-arrangement of exquisite beauty, and "Fisherman," a cover of the breakout single on the Congos' Lee Perry-produced classic, Heart Of The Congos
(Black Ark, 1977).
Sons Of Kemet Your Queen Is A Reptile
Sons Of Kemet's unusual lineupreeds player, tuba player, two drummerscombines with Shabaka Hutchings' writing to sound both modernistic and rooted in ancient tradition. A case could be made for placing the band's 2013 debut album, Burn
(Naim), at the head of this Top 20, before Binker & Moses' Dem Ones
. But Sons Of Kemet really came of age on record when Hutchings took over as producer on Your Queen Is A Reptile
. The album marks the year when the new London jazz went overground, following Sons Of Kemet's signing to US label Impulse!. Two other highly recommended Hutchings bands, Shabaka And The Ancestors and The Comet Is Coming
, have followed Sons Of Kemet to Impulse!.
Sean Khan Palmares Fantasy
Far Out, 2018
Saxophonist Sean Khan
has been recording for as long as Denys Baptiste, and although his socio-cultural outlook and penchant for genre mash-ups chime with the new London scene, Khan stands somewhat aside from it and his profile is correspondingly lower. Palmares Fantasy
is named after a settlement established by escaped African slaves in Brazil in the seventeenth century. To make it, Khan travelled to Rio de Janeiro to collaborate with multi-instrumentalist Hermeto Pascoal
. The rapport between the two outsider artists is brilliantly showcased on the unaccompanied duet, "The Conversation." Other musicians include Azymuth drummer Ivan Conti
, Cinematic Orchestra vocalist Heidi Vogel
and British guitarist Jim Mullen
MaishaThere Is A Place
Led by drummer Jake Long
, Maisha surfaced in 2016 with the download-only album Welcome To A New Welcome
(Jazz Re:freshed). In 2018, Maisha acquired a bigger profile as the group chosen to open the movement-defining, various artists London-scene compilation, We Out Here
(Brownswood), curated by Shabaka Hutchings. There Is A Place
is rooted in the astral jazz of Pharoah Sanders and Alice Coltrane. The core line-up notably includes Nubya Garcia, Shirley Tetteh and keyboardist Amané Suganami
. They are augmented by a string quartet and harpist Maria Zofia Osuchowska. Long's arrangements and David Holmes' mixdown suggest a much larger string ensemble. The 2020 album Gary Bartz & Maisha
(Night Dreamer) is also recommended.
Camilla George The People Could Fly
Alto saxophonist Camilla George
's second album brings the soulful melodicism of Cannonball Adderley
and the edgier vibe of Arthur Blythe
to an eight-piece suite inspired by a book of folk tales about slavery, also called The People Could Fly
, which George's mother used to read to her as a child. The album closes with Curtis Mayfield
's "Here But I'm Gone." The band includes some of London's most distinctive new musicians including keyboard player Sarah Tandy
, Shirley Tetteh, singer Cherise Adams-Burnett
, bassist Daniel Casimir
and drummer Femi Koleoso
. Much the same lineup is heard on George's 2016 debut, Isang
(Ubuntu), which is also highly recommended.
Sarah Tandy Infection In The Sentence
Jazz Re:Freshed, 2019
Sarah Tandy is the most thrilling and singular keyboard player to emerge in London since 2015. Her style is a unique combination of spacey harmonic invention and raw visceral funk, a double whammy rammed home by virtuosic technique. Sadly, Tandy's sole own-name album to date, Infection In The Sentence
, falls short of capturing the full extent of the magic. But it is still worth having. Tandy leads a cracking quintet featuring Binker Golding, trumpeter Sheila Maurice Grey, bassist Mutale Chashi
and Femi Koleoso through six originals which progress more or less chronologically from classic-era American hard-bop to the modern scene. Tandy is featured on albums by SEED Ensemble and Yazz Ahmed
, listed below.
Theon Cross Fyah
We have encountered Theon Cross already, on Sons Of Kemet's Your Queen Is A Reptile
and Nubya Garcia's Nubya's 5ive
. Cross' Fyah
, made by a trio with Garcia and Moses Boyd, is similarly essential listening. From the startling low-end rumble of the first moments of opening track "Activate," your instinct tells you the album is going to be the coyote's cojones, and your instinct is right. Gritty, passionate and irresistibly danceable, the music romps on until the album ends 45 minutes later. The penultimate track, "CIYA," which features guests Wayne Francis on tenor saxophone, Artie Zaitz
on electric guitar, and Cross' brother Nathaniel on trombone, delivers eight minutes of honeyed recuperation before the final climax, the appropriately titled "LDN's Burning."
Joe Armon-Jones Turn To Clear View
A cornerstone of the London sceneas well as leading his own band he plays in Ezra Collective
and groups led by Binker Golding and Nubya Garcia the keyboard player Joe Armon-Jones
released his first own-name album, Starting Today
(Brownswood), in spring 2018. A jewel of nu-fusion which owes almost as much to the Los Angeles R&B and funk scene as it does to London, the album features Armon-Jones leading a lineup of fellow luminaries including Garcia, trumpeter Dylan Jones
and Moses Boyd. Turn To Clear View
was slow-cooked over the same weed-stoked fire and features a near identical lineup. A stone delight.
Originally a women-only lineup, Nérija is a collective featuring alto saxophonist Cassie Kinoshi
, Nubya Garcia, Sheila Maurice-Grey, trombonist Rosie Turton
, Shirley Tetteh, bassist Rio Kai
and drummer Lizy Exell
. A characteristic of the London scene is its collegiate nature. This did not come about by accident: the influence of Gary Crosby's Tomorrow's Warriors outreach project is writ large. Tomorrow's Warriors' prioritisation of co-operation over competition is part of Nérija's creative process: Blume
contains two group compositions plus one from each musician in the band, and solos are allotted in a similarly even-handed fashion. Unlike many leaderless lineups, this one works.
SEED Ensemble Driftglass
Jazz Re:freshed, 2019
Cassie Kinoshi's SEED Ensemble's Driftglass
is distinguished as much by Kinoshi's compositions as by the performances of the all-star ten piece. "It is my way of celebrating the vibrant and distinctive diversity that has significantly influenced what British culture has become over the centuries," says Kinoshi. There is joy and there is pain. On "W A K E (for Grenfell)," featuring Cherise Adams-Burnett, Kinoshi adds lyrics to address the scandal of a fire which swept through a poorly maintained, jerry-built public housing high-rise in London in 2017, killing at least 72 people. Some of the music is unreconstructed AfrobeatKinoshi is a member of the Afrobeat band Kokorokobut she paints on a broad canvas.
Mark Kavuma The Banger Factory
Trumpeter Mark Kavuma
stands a little apart from many of his peers. The core strand of Ugandan-born Kavuma's music is hard bop. The Banger Factory
, his second album, is another outstanding essay in the genre, anchored in tradition, yet sounding present tense within it and stretching the definition by nods to bossa nova and Pharoah Sanders' astral jazz. A kicking lineup includes tenor saxophonists Kaidi Akinnibi and Mussinghi Brian Edwards, vibraphonist David Mrakpor and guitarist Artie Zaitz
Yazz Ahmed Polyhymnia
The British-Bahraini trumpeter and flugelhornist Yazz Ahmed
went clear in 2017 with La Saboteuse
(Naim), an otherworldly mix of jazz, electronics and Arabic folk music which carries traces of Miles Davis
' Bitches Brew
(Columbia, 1970) and Jon Hassell
's Dream Theory In Malaya
(E.G., 1981). Polyhymnia
is not so much otherworldly as purposefully earthbound. It is a suite inspired by six courageous and influential women including Lahan Al-Mansour, Saudi Arabia's first female film director and Barbara Thompson
, the pioneering British saxophonist. The 26-strong collective lineup is a roll call of London's finest.
JZ Replacement Disrespectful
Rainy Days, 2020
JZ Replacement is alto saxophonist Zhenya Strigalev
and drummer Jamie Murray
, who have been frequent collaborators since 2018. They are joined, in a supporting role, by American bass guitarist Tim Lefebvre
, with whom Strigalev has toured and recorded since the early 2010s. Disrespectful
is edgy, serpentine and often furiously paced. Contrary to what the sleeve art and title might suggest, there is nothing ugly or knuckle-scrapingly punkish about the album. It is no simple head-charge. Much less is it on the spectrum free-improv. All seven Strigalev tunes have form and structure, to which Murray adds danceable beats.
Moses BoydDark Matter
As one half of Binker & Moses, Moses Boyd is among the most prominent of the musicians on the London scene. His first commercial success was the dance single "Rye Lane Shuffle" in 2016, and the breathtakingly inventive and politically savvy Dark Matter
builds on its eclectic blueprint. The album features Nubya Garcia, Joe Armon-Jones and Theon Cross, though you would hardly recognise them, such is the extent of Boyd's post-production. In years to come we may point to Dark Matter
as the start of Boyd's emergence as a kind of new Quincy Jones
, a hit maker with jazz sensibilities, as much at home in dance music as he is in jazz, weaving them into a smoking-hot new synthesis.
Rob LuftLife Is The Dancer
Guitarist Rob Luft
's debut album, Riser
(Edition, 2017), was greeted with huge acclaim. Some observers likened his arrival to the emergence of Pat Metheny
, with whom he shares some qualities. Another yardstick is the pianist Bill Evans
: Luft conjures up degrees of seraphic beauty akin to those created by Evans during his purple period with bassist Scott LaFaro
and drummer Paul Motian
. He really is that good. Life Is The Dancer
was recorded with the Riser
band, augmented on two tracks by Byron Wallen and vocalist Luna Cohen
. Every aspect is sublime, from the compositions through the performances to the production and mix.
DinosaurTo The Earth
Dinosaur is led by trumpeter Laura Jurd
, who formed it with three fellow conservatoire students as the Laura Jurd Quartet in 2010. The band's first two albums were plugged-in affairs using plenty of through-composition, while To The Earth
has a deep acoustic vibe and is simpler in structure. The clearest influence on Jurd's playing is Miles Davis. But she is in no sense derivative, blending the best of Davisheightened lyricism, embracing tone -with her own signatures, notably including a delight in low-register smears and growls. Sometimes edgy but mostly playful, To The Earth
is a lovely and absorbing album which, like much of the best jazz, combines knowledge of the tradition with the breaking of new ground.
P.S. And that makes twenty. A twenty-first essential is goodtime guys Ezra Collective
's romping You Can't Steal My Joy
(Enter The Jungle, 2019), featuring Dylan Jones, Joe Armon-Jones, tenor saxophonist James Mollison
, bassist TJ Koleoso, Femi Koleoso and percussionist Juan Pablo. Members of Kokoroko, including Cassie Kinoshi, join in on Fela Kuti
Photo: Nubya Garcia