After a lifetime in the shadow of its American parent, British jazz is finally coming of age. A community of young, London-based musicians is forging a style which, while anchored in the American tradition, reflects the modern Caribbean and African cultural heritages of the majority of its vanguard players. The music also addresses the race, class and gender inequalities which are features of life in Britain.
The new London scene is by no means racially exclusive, but it is black musicians who are leading the way. 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 2019. For the first time, too, many of the most prominent players and bandleaders are women. There is much to celebrate. It is all change for British jazz, all change for the better.
This overview of the scene traces its recent history and includes interviews with some of its leading musicians.
- FIRST SET: What it is
- INTERVAL: Larry Stabbins bows out
- SECOND SET: Tomorrow's Warriors and other enablers
- PERSONNEL: Binker Golding, Sarah Tandy, Theon Cross, Camilla George, Cassie Kinoshi, Ahnansé, Zara McFarlane, Sheila Maurice-Grey, Shirley Tetteh, Axel Kaner-Lidstrom & Eriksson Kaner, Nubya Garcia, Ife Ogunjobi, Kaidi Akinnibi
- ENCORE: Recommended listening
First Set: What It Is
The developments which are reconstituting British jazz began to make themselves felt around 2013. That year, reed player Shabaka Hutchings
' Sons of Kemet
released its catalytic debut album, Burn
(Naim), and singer Zara McFarlane
released If You Knew Her
(Brownswood), which included two soon-to-be scene auteurs, saxophonist Binker Golding
(pictured above) and drummer Moses Boyd
. Also around 2013, a cadre of musicians began emerging from London's music colleges and community projects with heritages similar to those of Hutchings, McFarlane, Golding and Boyd.
None of this came out of nowhere. The post-2013 radicals owe a debt to previous generations of trailblazers, most recently including Denys Baptiste
, Jason Yarde
, Steve Williamson
, Courtney Pine
, Byron Wallen
and Soweto Kinch
, all of whom are continuing to help take the music forward.
Right now, the new scene exists in a parallel universe to the established jazz world, but it is shaking the walls and bricks have started to fall. The new music has an energy and sense of community that could free British jazz from the sizeable wasteland of museum-piece repertory music for audiences looking to relive the past. The new jazz mixes cerebralism with soul and is successfully bringing jazz back to the people. 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.
In London in 2019 you can hear passionately engaged, 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. It is an approach neatly encapsulated by Zara McFarlane's spring 2019 single, "East Of The River Nile" (Brownswood), a reimagining of the title track of Jamaican dub wizard Augustus Pablo's 1977 album. The single was produced by McFarlane in collaboration with Moses Boyd and was mixed with the help of Brit-reggae pioneer and lovers rock originator Dennis Bovell.
Nothing like this has happened in Britain before. The closest comparison is with the jazz-dance movement of the 1980s. But that was on a far smaller scale.
Interval: Larry Stabbins Bows Out
The backstory to all this is encapsulated in a seemingly unrelated 2013 event. That autumn, saxophonist Larry "Stonephace" Stabbins announced his self-imposed retirement. Stabbinsby 2013 a high achiever in jazz dance, post-John Coltrane
spiritual jazz, free jazz and electronicist experimentalismbegan playing in his father's big band in the 1960s. His breakthrough came two decades later, when he was a leading face on the jazz-dance scene as co-leader of the politically engaged band Working Week
In the years immediately before his retirement, Stabbins collaborated with Portishead's Adrian Utley on the electronica-infused album Stonephace
(Tru Thoughts, 2009) and was a member of Jerry Dammers' Spatial AKA Orchestra. Stabbins' final album, Transcendental
(Noetic, 2012), made with Spatial AKA colleagues including the British / Bengali pianist Zoe Rahman
, was released in 2012. It kicked off with a rousing recalibration of "Africa," the Coltrane tune which had ignited Stabbins' enthusiasm for jazz when he first heard it at the age of 13.
By 2013, Stabbins had become profoundly disenchanted with the British jazz worldby the conservatism (musical and otherwise) of its establishment, by the jazz police's put-downs of commercially successful bands such as Working Week, and by the dead-hand grip of funding bureaucracies such as Arts Council England, an obsessively prescriptive, tick-box organisation (one of ACE's few indisputably valuable initiatives has been supporting the Tomorrow's Warriors project, of which more later).
A press statement Stabbins issued announcing his retirement describes a British jazz ecology in dismal contrast to the one coalescing today. The gentrification, bleaching, intellectual isolationism and subservience to quasi-governmental funders which dismayed him are now being reversed by the new wave of musicianswho are also building careers using the online platforms which Stabbins, and other musicians of his generation, believed were destroying earning opportunities.
Some extracts from Stabbins' statement...
"The music scene has changed drastically over the last 50 years and the cultural role of jazz is entirely different," wrote Stabbins. "It attracted me when I began playing because it was rebellious, alternative, had a veneer of danger to it (drugs and debauchery) and it identified with the underdog (black people in racist societies) and had a generally anti-rightwing, anti-authoritarian political agenda. It also felt groundbreaking and exploratory. None of that seems to me to apply any more either to jazz or its spin-offs, such as improvised music. (I think I prefer Flying Lotus for the groundbreaking exploratory stuff).
"To some extent it's also a question of economics. I'm very lucky to have been working at a time before music was devalued by internet access.... The lack of any proper touring circuit for jazz in the UK [also] means the work involved in setting up gigs is enormous and one-off gigs just don't make financial sense. I've always found funding bodies (such as the Arts Council) arcane and intimidating (and I think I'm of at least average intelligence) and I dislike their utilitarian requirements... I've never had any money directly from the funding bodies. The funding they offer never seems to be worth the effort of applying unless you enjoy, and are particularly good at, dealing with bureaucracy and authority. I probably originally became a musician to avoid both.
"I also have a strange relationship with the British music scene because of the variety of music that I've played over the years. It makes me difficult to pigeonhole.... You know exactly what you're getting if you book Peter Brötzmann
or Evan Parker
or even John Surman
for instance. As a consequence I have the feeling that the 'avant-garde' / improvised music end of the scene regard me as too populist and therefore mercenary and think I sold out, while the more general jazz scene think I'm... too populist because of Working Week."
Now living quietly in the rural west of England, Stabbins is much missed. Meanwhile, much of what he deplored in British jazz in 2013 is being challenged. Stabbins would undoubtedly welcome the presence of higher profile black and women musicians and the new scene's engagement with political issues.
Second Set: Tomorrow's Warriors & Other Enablers
The story of the new London scene would be incomplete without recognising the enormous achievements of two community projects, Tomorrow's Warriors, founded in 1991 by bassist Gary Crosby
and Janine Irons, and Kinetika Bloco, founded in 2000 by the late multi-instrumentalist Mat Fox. Crosby and Irons are, and Fox was, inspirational figures whose love of jazz and enthusiasm for nurturing new generations of musicians has been hugely influential.
Most of the musicians making a name for themselves today studied at one of London's music conservatoiresbut most of them also passed through Tomorrow's Warriors and / or Kinetika Bloco, where, crucially, they learnt about the wider context of the music, in particular its position in African American and black British history and culture.
Even musicians who did not pass through Tomorrow's Warriors or Kinetika Bloco have felt the projects' impact. "Four or five years ago at Ronnie Scott's I met Camilla George
[saxophonist and Tomorrow's Warriors alumnus]," says pianist Sarah Tandy
. "Following that I met all the Tomorrow's Warriors guys in the space of about two weeks. I met everybody. And my playing life changed massively. And then I met Gary Crosby and I thought, I wish I had found you guys when I was 15. I was like, where have you been all my life?"
For guitarist Shirley Tetteh
, Tomorrow's Warriors was conservatoire and finishing school combined. "I didn't go to a conservatoire," says Tetteh. "Colleges just seemed a bit dead. When I got into jazz, I heard about the Tomorrow's Warriors sessions at the Spice of Life [pub] in Soho. I went down a couple of times and eventually met Gary Crosby. It was a massive opportunity. There was a lot of help, a lot of support, a lot of information, and all done with a family feeland with an emphasis on the history of the music, not shying away from the fact that slavery played a massive part in it."
The new music resonates strongly with young Londoners, and one of the reasons is that it references histories other than just the white, male European one, and addresses modern social issues. Saxophonist Cassie Kinoshi
, leader of the SEED Ensemble, wrote about this when the band's debut album was released in spring 2019.
"SEED Ensemble is my way of celebrating the vibrant and distinctive diversity that has significantly influenced what British culture has become over the centuries," wrote Kinoshi. "I also hope that aspects of the music succeed in planting a 'seed' of awareness within the current climate of our society. It's important to me that I shine a light on political subject matter which is often disregarded by the masses and highlight what it means to exist as a young Black British citizen today."
Tomorrow's Warriors and Kinetika Bloco actively encourage a spirit of unity among the musicians they tutor, and this is in part responsible for the collegiate atmosphere which is such an attractive feature of the new London scene.
[On 10 July, 2019, Gary Crosby was awarded The Queen's Medal for Music, making him the first jazz musician and the first person of colour to receive the honour. What Tomorrow's Warriors needs next is a bigger grant from the box tickers at Arts Council England].
The idea of co-operation rather than competition goes back to the African American spiritual-jazz milieu of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Chicago-born tenor saxophonist Idris Ackamoor
, a leading light of first-generation spiritual jazz, talked about the genesis of co-operativism in an interview with this writer last year.
Earlier generations of jazz musicians had been raised "like crabs in a bucket," said Ackamoor. "From the 1920s onwards, they were brought up on the idea of the cutting school, where you'd try and best each other in head-to-head jam sessions. 'I'm badder than this cat, I'm badder than that cat.' But my generation felt that the priority had to be unification. Competitive cutting was opposed to unity. It was opposed to 'each one teach one' as the motto went. There was a race war going on in the US and we needed to present a united front." Years later, Crosby and Fox picked up the "each one teach one" baton and carried it forward in London.
The growth of the new scene has also benefited from the rise of the online culture which Larry Stabbins so regretted in 2013. Social media has many noxious aspects, but musicians who are at home with digital technology can now record and market their music for a fraction of what it cost during the analogue age and without record-company pressure to make artistic compromises. And you don't have to be twenty-something to do it. Take US trumpeter and Fourth World-music originator Jon Hassell
. In 2018, Hassell formed a new label, Ndeya, and released his career defining Listening To Pictures (Pentimento Volume One)
The interviewees who follow are a sample of the many voices on the new London scene.
Among several other incarnations, tenor saxophonist Binker Golding
(pictured above) is one half of the ferocious semi-free duo Binker and Moses
, who have released three landmark albums on Gearbox Records. Golding and Moses Boyd
first got together around 2014, as members of singer Zara McFarlane
John Coltrane and Elvin Jones
' 15-minute duet on the title track of Coltrane's live album One Down, One Up
(Impulse, 2005) is possibly the apotheosis of 20th-century tenor saxophone and drums two-handers. But the blazing workouts on Binker and Moses' albums can be played right after Coltrane and Jones' mastermoment without being diminished by it.
Golding takes a different tack on his upcoming quartet album, Abstractions Of Reality Past And Incredible Feathers
, scheduled for release at the end of September 2019, which explores the British jazz tradition from the 1970s onwards.
A Tomorrow's Warriors alumnus, Golding now teaches on the project as well as maintaining busy recording and performance schedules with his own groups and with other bandleaders.
"Both my parents are jazz enthusiasts and dad had a hell of a lot of records," says Golding. "He loved Stan Kenton
. I remember him playing one and saying, 'That's how jazz ought to sound.' And I was thinking, 'No, that's exactly how it should not
sound.' I still think that. When I was about eight, I was turned on to jazz by one of dad's Charlie Parker
records. I'd just started playing alto. At first I thought it was two saxophones playing, switching from one to the other, because I couldn't imagine one person could play that fast. I didn't understand the music theoretically, but it made sense to me.
"I think there's always been something going on with jazz in London but perhaps now is the first time it's being paid attention to in such a big way. A lot of that is to do with the harnessing of the internet and the way culture in this country is going now, specially in regards to race and gender issues. And music can provide a very fair playing field. Music itself doesn't discriminate about who you are or where you're from or how tall you are or whether you be white, black, male, female, whatever. If you can get access to an instrument and learn how to play it and perhaps be around people who are similarly minded, you can put yourself on a level playing field with someone who has come from a background that is maybe more conducive to doing that.
"The teaching that I do [with Tomorrow's Warriors] is free to students. So if they're interested in this sort of thing they can be put in a situation where they're getting conservatoire-level tuition for free at the weekends. And all of a sudden the playing field is more level."
Golding says London jazz is also getting attention because audiences respond when they see themselves reflected on stage. "It's the same reason why people still read the Greek tragedies," he says. "The situations those characters were in may not be the same as your own but there is a shared human thread there which is appealing. If you can reflect an audience in a real wayI don't mean superficially, with nonsense like an imagethen you are representing them and you have made the connection. Then all you've got to do is convince them with the music." Binker Golding's quartet album,
Abstractions Of Reality Past And Incredible Feathers , will be released on Gearbox on September 27, 2019.
Keyboardist Sarah Tandy
has enhanced the music of practically every leading band on the London jazz scene. Not before time, her own-name debut, Infection In The Sentence
, has recently been released. The album's title is borrowed from Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar's feminist classic, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination
. Before she became a fulltime musician, Tandy read English at Cambridge University.
With the album, Tandy says she is seeking to find "a continuum between the jazz music which I grew up listening to, and the multi-faceted, genre-melting sounds of present day London."
Tandy says that the first jazz album she can recall hearing, when she was still a child, was Erroll Garner
's Concert By The Sea
(Columbia, 1955). Her piano-teacher mum would play it when she was baking and Tandy would dance around the kitchen in delight because, she says, the performance was so "vibey." Tandy's style is different from Garner's, but it is every bit as vibey and uplifting. Tandy is special.
Tandy later went to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. "But I got expelled after two years," she says. "I couldn't cope with the system so I stopped going to classes and turning up at exams. [She later took a Master's in Jazz at the Royal Academy of Music.] I think jazz always appealed to my rebellious nature. Its tradition is rebellious musically and also for what it stood for socially. I don't think you can separate the two."
Tandy was interested to hear the reasons Larry Stabbins gave for his retirement. "I completely understand where he was coming from with the whole bureaucracy thing," she said after reading the complete text. "It's not just the time-consuming logistics of making funding applications, but the fact that when a scene is kept alive by funding bodies, musicians applying for grants have to toe the line. I think this inhibits people creatively and makes for an inherent systemic bias towards certain styles of music.
"Back when I was at the Academy, I felt like it had reached an emperor's-new-clothes situation. Some of the music receiving funding had disappeared so far up its own ironic backside that I simply couldn't believe that anyone wanted to listen to it, which is probably why it needed funding in the first place.
"One exciting thing is how much more diverse the scene is now compared to when Larry retired. When I was at the Academy there was a very specific student demographic. It was privately educated, often Oxbridge. Basically it was people from financially comfortable backgrounds. So in a way they had the luxury of treating their music like high art. I got the sense that they saw any considerations of popularity or marketability as a corruption of the supposed purity of their music. But a lot of the guys I play with now never had that luxury. They never saw the will to make money from music as a bad thing.
"There are also many more women making an impact now. I was literally the only girl on the jazz course at the Academy the whole time I was there. All the people who studied there were white and all the people we studied were whiteand this is black music! The last five years have seen a total transformation in that respect.
"I think that one of the things that's really special about the current wave of musicians is that we're the first generation to have so much power in our own hands. You can record an album yourself and put it out through streaming, Spotify, social media, all this stuff, and make a career for yourself. I hate social media but I recognise what a powerful force it is and I've seen people build careers off the back of it. And I think because of that this generation of musicians has a confidence that previous generations maybe didn't. We don't have to make records that the white media will like. We can make albums that we like. We don't need the old gatekeepers. We don't need their blessing anymore. We can do it ourselves.
"A lot of the musicians around me have an extraordinary flare for business. That's one area where I think the new London jazz scene is close to the US. Until recently in this country, we have tended to believe that if something is popular it can't have artistic value and vice versa. But when I look at some of the great entertainers from America, their most popular work was often also their best artistically. I'm even thinking of the Quincy Jones
-produced Michael Jackson albums here. The younger London generation is going some way to closing that gap." Sarah Tandy's album
Infection In The Sentence is on Jazz Refreshed.
Tubaist Theon Cross
, leader of Fyah and a member of Sons Of Kemet, is among a handful of musicians who render the generously proportioned instrument as nimble as a ballet dancer while also keeping it deep-down dirty and fundamentalCross' own-name long-form debut, Fyah
(Gearbox, 2019) is a shamanistic delight.
Cross started playing big brass at school. A storeroom full of marching-band instruments had been left behind by a World War 11 military band and the music teacher divided them up among the boys learning music. (The girls were given violins, says Cross).
"I started on tenor horn, which is a kind of smaller tuba," says Cross. "I got into jazz when I was about 14, playing in Kinetika Bloco. I was playing the euphonium by then. Kinetika exposed me to lots of different kinds of music Sun Ra
, Fela Kuti
, Duke Ellington
. I wasn't really aware of jazz before that. The band was led by Mat Fox, Claude Deppa
and Andy Grappy, a tuba player who was a member of the Jazz Warriors and became my mentor. It was Andy who encouraged me to switch to tuba. He also lent me loads of records. What really turned me on was the brass bands. Voodoo
[CBS, 1989] by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band
was important and Unlearn
[E Pluribus Bumpus, 2000] by the Youngblood Brass Band
. Anything with a tuba in it where they were improvising.
"My brother [trombonist Nathaniel Cross] was in Kinetika, and Femi Koleoso
from Ezra Collective
and when she was a bit older Nubya Garcia
participated in it. Shelia Maurice-Grey too, she was in the same summer school as me. Around the end of the 2000s a lot of us were hitting our twenties and we consciously started including the musics we'd grown up with in our jazz. I respect the jazz tradition, and it feeds into the way I improvise. But when I formed Fyah [with Garcia and Moses Boyd] I started thinking, what if I use some dancehall rhythms? Because that was the music I grew up around. My father's Jamaican, my mother's Saint Lucian.
"Around that time we all started bringing into the music those things that formed our identity as black British people. For Moses it was garage influences. Nubya the same. And Sheila has West African heritage so she'd be bringing that in. And Zara McFarlane with lots of Caribbean music. It all flowed into the music and it built a fan base that wanted to relate to that experience, because that was their identity too. We started to realise, wow, there are people like us that we can play to. So the black British experience is in there. A lot of our cultural experiences started coming through in the way we playedhow we improvise, the kind of bass lines, the kind of melodies. You can have technique but ultimately we all have to ask ourselves, what is my identity?" Theon Cross' album
Fyah is on Gearbox Records.
Camilla George Camilla George
's soul-drenched alto saxophone is one of the most compelling sounds in jazz. She has her own voice but is well versed in the tradition; for this writer she evokes the deep soul of Arthur Blythe
on his 1979 masterpiece Lenox Avenue Breakdown
(CBS). After a recent London concert where she shared the stage with Dee Dee Bridgewater
, the pioneering spiritual-jazz vocalist on 1970s' Strata-East productions said "the world is safe because we have Camilla."
George's politically minded 2018 release, The People Could Fly
(Ubuntu), her second album, was inspired by a collection of African American folk tales published under that name in 1985.
"My mum used to read the book to me when I was a child," says George. "Back then I thought it was just animal stories. But as I got older I realised that they were slave tales and the animals in them were used as metaphors, representing slaves and slave owners and so on. The title of the book presents the idea that African people were magical, but when they were enslaved they lost their magic, half of which was their ability to fly. There are loads of slave tales about people being able to fly away to a better place. That really hit home when I was rereading the book a couple of years ago.
"The message of the book is so important. Although the stories were born out of suffering and sorrow, they are essentially tales of hope for black people and mankind in general, that we can one day live together in harmony."
The final track on The People Could Fly
is an arrangement of "Here But I'm Gone" by Curtis Mayfield
. "This is a great bookend to an album that starts with a tale of famine and suffering," says George. "I see the track as a commentary on the black social condition in America and with recent political events there, I think is even more poignant."
George credits Tomorrow's Warriors with being a major catalyst in getting her and many other musicians into playing jazz. "I remember my mum taking me to see [Gary Crosby's] The Jazz Jamaica All Stars
when I was 11," says George. "I'd just got my first saxophone. I saw Denys Baptiste and Jason Yarde. It was just so.... amazing. And afterwards we waited to meet them, and my mum said 'she's just started saxophone' and Gary and Janine were so nice and said I should come along to the Saturday sessions." Years later, George became a member of Jazz Jamaica.
"There are so many people from different places in London, and through organisations like Tomorrow's Warriors we've got the confidence to embrace where we came from," says George. "All the leaders on the jazz scene now have come from the Warriors, or if they didn't go as a child, they've had some involvement. Sarah [Tandy, who plays with George] may not have gone when she was at school, like I did, but now, they would call her a Warrior." Camilla George's
The People Could Fly is on Ubuntu Records.
Alto saxophonist Cassie Kinoshi
is leader of the SEED Ensemble, a group of 10 (sometimes more) musicians. Some of the band's music is unreconstructed, visceral Afrobeat, but its debut album, Driftglass
(Jazz Refreshed, 2019), paints on a wider canvas.
As a composer, Kinoshi is informed by what has gone before and what is happening right now. There is joy and there is pain. The track "W. A. K. E. (for Grenfell)," for instance, featuring Cherise Adams-Burnett
on vocals, is about a fire which swept through an inadequately maintained jerry-built public housing high-rise in north London in 2017, killing at least 72 people. It begins with the band repetitively intoning the words of a poem by Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes: "Tell all my mourners to mourn in red, cause there ain't no sense in my bein' dead."
"For me, music has always been the best medium to express emotions and to comment on social issues," says Kinoshi. "Jazz allows you to do that very honestly and directly, because through the improvisation you are putting yourself in the music in the moment. I find it is a great way of educating people, of sharing messages and emotions, of making connections. That's probably why a lot of what I write focuses on topics relevant to these times.
"The music is our life. It is there to express what we've experienced. So even if you're not explicitly addressing politics, the music is a way of escaping the politics you live through or of expressing an alternative through joy, pushing aside the oppression you might feel in certain situations. That is still a political statement."
Kinoshi emphasises that, although the London scene includes racial inequalities among the topics it addresses, the millieu is not racially exclusive. "As a community of musicians we have a lot of conversations about the social and political climate and what we can do as creative artists to challenge certain things around us," says Kinoshi. "But it's definitely not a racially exclusive thing. Not at all. It's about the attitude you bring, regardless of the nationality or background you come from. London has so many different communities that it would be a contradiction if it was anything else." SEED Ensemble
's Driftglass is on Jazz Refreshed.
Tenor saxophonist Ahnansé (aka Wayne Francis) is the guiding spirit of south-east London's Steam Down collective, whose Wednesday events at the Buster Mantis bar and performance space under the arches at Deptford rail station are hot spots of the new scene. Steam Down aims to dissolve divisions between audience and performer and foster a sense of community and shared creativity. In the process it is taking jazz back to its origins as dance music, rather like the jazz-dance movement did in the 1980s.
Ahnansé has been using music as a consciousness-raising tool since 2008, when he joined United Vibrations and took on organising that band's community programme. "I'm especially interested in the way music can unify people, on an emotional level if not an ideological one," he says. "On an emotional level we can all feel joy at the same time. So there is a unity that happens at Steam Down if we've done our job properly. We set out to bring people into the creative process, even if it's just through call and response. We encourage that dialogue. We encourage people to participate in the event, not to just be spectators. So I don't call the people who come to Steam Down the audience. I'd say participants or co-creators.
"At the centre of Steam Down is the collective. There are 12 of us [Theon Cross is a member] and at each event there are usually four or five of us who hold the stage. We all have varying interests in music, though improvisation is a linking factor. What we do is a lot broader than what the word jazz usually means. Between us we bring in different styles and different sound palettes. Sometimes I struggle with the word jazz. I actually think we need another word. The word jazz is tied in with the history of America and we are bringing other heritages into our music. We reflect all the different spaces that co-exist in London.
"For me personally, Steam Down is also a way to connect with my contemporaries, people like Shabaka Hutchings or Shirley Tetteh or Nubya Garcia or Moses Boyd, somewhere people know they can sit in or just hang out when they're not on tour. Beyond that, we're giving younger musicians a place where they can play with slightly older and more experienced onesand outside music, they can also have conversations with people who are one step ahead of them about how they have developed their career and how they live as musicians and so on. All these really organic conversations can happen." The Steam Down Orchestra plans to self-release an album later 2019. Wayne Francis guests on Theon Cross'
Singer Zara McFarlane
has presented a singularly uplifting blend of jazz and Caribbean musics on her three albums to date on the Brownswood label. She is well versed in both traditions, having taken a Master's Degree in Jazz Studies (Vocals) at the Guildhall School of Music and grown up listening to a lot reggae, which her parents played at home.
"The first jazz record I can remember really getting into was The Real Me
[Qwest, 1988] by Patti Austin
," says McFarlane. "She's not usually considered a jazz singer but this was a jazz record. I was probably about 10 years old. I got more interested in jazz when I was 16 and was at the Brit School. I was studying musical theatre but we performed many jazz standards. From there I started listening to lots of jazz singers. Nina Simone
was important, although she is not always considered a jazz artist, and Billie Holiday
and Sarah Vaughan
. I later started going to Tomorrow's Warriors and I really enjoyed that whole live band situation you get in jazz, and the improvisational possibilities.
"One reason why today's London scene is so exciting is that we're making music for ourselves. In the past, the people who were playing jazz, even if they were quite young themselves, they were targeting older listeners, because that was where they thought there was an audience. But today we're not trying to make music for a particular audience. We making music that we want to make and it just happens to be jazz. And within that we are also exploring other styles of music.
"The way I see it, jazz traditionally was more of an American art form. What we are doing in London, though it is inspired by that tradition, is true to ourselves. The American artists are making music that is true to them. We're doing the same thing but with different influences and backgrounds feeding into it. So it has a different sound. We are exploring what we see and what we hear around us and that is directly relatable to younger Londoners. We are playing what they know."
McFarlane believes another reason London jazz is happening is that live music has been making a resurgence. "In London we live in a culture where we like to get out and about and do stuff," she says. "Music is a big part of that. Things like Steam Down, that is interesting because people are coming to dance and to move. People there get really involved in the event. It's great to see, because it's not just about the music. It's actually quite a spiritual thing. The audience is a big part of it and the energy they bring. People are dancing and moving and their eyes are closed, enjoying jazz probably like it was originally, as a dance music." Zara McFarlane's single
"East Of The River Nile" is on Brownswood. An album follows on Brownswood in autumn 2019.
Trumpeter Sheila Maurice-Grey
is leader of the Afrobeat-flavoured Kokoroko
, a member of the Nerija
collective and is featured on Sarah Tandy's album Infection In The Sentence
. Grey did not grow up listening to jazz. "I grew up listening to mainstream stuff on the radio and then grime and hip hop," says Maurice-Grey. "I also grew up listening to a lot of gospel. Gospel music more than anything. I grew up a Christian. I'm still a Christian. I got into music through playing in church basically. I started on guitar and piano.
"The first jazz record that I had was Song for My Father
by Horace Silver
. It was given me by the late Mat Fox at Kinetika Bloco. Attending a Kinetika Bloco summer school was my first experience of playing in a large ensemble. I was 14. At the end of the course we had a massive collective performance. All those horns and drums and dancers, that's what really captivated me. Hearing everyone's individual voices but coming together as one. That was a big thing for me. I remember the feeling, the goose bumps. I also remember Claude Deppa playing trumpet with the band and being amazed at how high and how loud he could play. I thought, yeah, I want to do this.
"Eventually I went on to study jazz trumpet at Trinity Laban [conservatoire]. But prior to that I actually studied art at Camberwell College of Art and then fine art at Goldsmiths. So it wasn't a straightforward route into jazz. I still make art as well. Music and art are both important to me. I want to combine them in performances and exhibitions. I plan to bring the two together, to try a completely different concept of bringing art forms together.
"I think the main thing about the London jazz scene is that it's authentic. People today want authenticity. You're getting young musicians who've grown up listening to a lot of different types of music and bringing all their influences together and saying, this is who I am. And their audiences are coming from the same place." Kokoroko have an album out on Brownswood. Nérija have an album out on Domino.
Shirley Tetteh Shirley Tetteh
is the first-call guitarist for bandleaders including Cassie Kinoshi, Sheila Maurice-Grey and Camilla George, and she also is a founder member of the Nérija collective. Hopefully, Tetteh's own-name recorded debut will not be too much longer in arriving.
Tetteh became a jazz guitarist almost by accident. "At school I had no ambition to become a professional musician," she says. "I thought I would be in sport when I grew up. I was playing hockey and football and taking it very seriously. Guitar was a nice break. I'd find I'd been practicing for an hour or whatever and I hadn't noticed the time pass. It was really therapeutic, doing something that no-one was pushing me to excel at. By my late teens I was heavily into blues and rockbut I was looking for something different, something else. It was either jazz or heavy metal. I chose jazz because it felt not so far away from my fingers. The vibe felt close to me.
"I didn't go to a conservatoire. Colleges just seemed a bit dead. When I got into jazz, I heard about the Tomorrow's Warriors sessions at the Spice of Life in Soho. I went down a couple of times and eventually met Gary Crosby and he invited me down to some of the workshops. It was a massive opportunity. There was a lot of help, a lot of support, a lot of information, and all done with a family feeland with an emphasis on the history of the music, not shying away from the fact that slavery played a massive part in it. I remember that first summer just spending whole weekends hanging with people, eating ice cream and jamming and having fun and listening to records.
"That peer group had a lot of people in it who are doing amazing things nowMoses Boyd, Nathaniel and Theon Cross, Nubya Garcia, Sheila Maurice Grey and Zuri Jarrett-Boswell. People don't know much about Zuri, because he hasn't put any music out. But I think he was a massive influence on us all. He was one of the first in our group of people who started to think of playing music outside of be-bop, stretching jazz into new directions. Which is what the London scene is about.
"I think we're the first generation where genre mixing comes naturally. You can hear any sort of music you want on your phone. You can listen to Drake and you can listen to Stan Getz
and it's all on the same playlist. I think that's how music should be." Nérija's eponymous album is on Domino Records.
Nubya Garcia Nubya Garcia
would make a perfect partner with Binker Golding in a celebration of "Tenor Madness," Sonny Rollins
' historic 1956 face-off with John Coltrane, for Garcia and Golding are the reigning queen and king of young London tenors. The scene is sufficiently collegiate, however, that neither player is likely to be interested in such a gladiatorial event. But there is something especially exciting about saxophone face-offs, as anyone who caught Ingrid Laubrock
and Jason Yarde's eyeball-to-eyeball alto duel during a Grand Union Orchestra
gig at London's St. Luke's in 2004 will remember. (It was a draw).
A violinist as a child, when Garcia switched to saxophone, she listened, of course, to a lot of Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane. Another influence was Joe Henderson
. "I first heard him when I was 16 or 17," says Garcia. "I really liked his compositions and I started transcribing them. Then we started playing some of his tunes in the band I was in. When you start playing tunes by someone you really like that gets you even closer. I love his use of melody and his rhythmic attack and his tone is unlike anyone else's. His technical facility was incredible. He doesn't sound like anyone else, just like Coltrane doesn't and Sonny doesn't and Charlie Parker doesn't. The greats are all really individual."
Garcia began learning music at primary school and she worries that the opportunities she had are being denied to British children today. "Arts education in this country has been pushed into a place that only the rich can afford," she says. "Lots of schools have had to cut individual tuition and they just have one group music lesson a week. When I was a kid I had one-on-one lessons from the age of five. That's the level of attention you need. They say kids pick things up quickly. But they don't pick things up quickly if they don't have the right attention. Not every child learns the same way or at the same speed. And some kids don't have access to instruments. They only play them at school and probably only play them once a week, for 30 minutes. It's not enough. You need to practice on your instrument every day, for hours and hours and hours."
Garcia is excited by the reception the new London jazz is getting in the US. "I've played in the US several times now and by the time this article comes out we'll have done New York, New Orleans, Texas and Chicago," says Garcia. "They're very receptive to the London sound. All the gigs that we've done there have been really, really amazing. The audiences have been completely involved, totally liking it. It's not easy getting a band over to the US, what with the visas and everything, but the reception we're getting means it's worth the effort." Nubya Garcia has a new album out later in 2019 and will be touring Britain and overseas throughout the year.
Axel Kaner-Lidstrom and Eriksson Kaner
Trumpeter Axel Kaner-Lidstrom
and his brother, pianist Eriksson Kaner
, arrived on the London scene at different times and along different routes. Axel took a degree in Jazz Performance at Trinity Laban in London, and has impressed with three jazz-and-beyond bands, Where Pathways Meet, Cykada and the Levitation Orchestra. Eriksson returned to London in 2018 after five years studying classical music at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester. Last autumn he self-released his first single, "Changed Beings."
"Both my parents are classical cellists," says Axel, "so I've always had music in my life. But it wasn't until I formed a Radioheady band with my friends when I was about 16 that I started taking music seriously. And then a friend played me McCoy Tyner
's album The Real McCoy
[Blue Note, 1967]. There's a track called 'Contemplation' [the only non-original, incidentally, on Nubya's 5ive
, Nubya Garcia's 2017 debut on Jazz Refreshed]. It was the intensity of the groove that entranced me. It grabbed my attention in a way I hadn't experienced before in music. It opened a whole new world of perception. It changed my world."
Axel believes that it is the groove which distinguishes one country's jazz from another's. "It is their relationship to rhythm," he says. "The so-called ECM Scandinavian sound has a particular groove, it's disguised. The New York kind of groove is refined. And what we have here in London is strongly influenced by Caribbean and West African grooves. It has a special power. A defining feature of the scene is that black musicans are leading the way. But it's not a feature that divides us. What's great about the scene is that we are in a sense all family."
Eriksson agrees. "All the musicians know each other and it feels like a community, a scene," he says. "That's part of the buzz I think. For our generation it feels like a unique time. I expect all generations feel that, but what's different from before is that there's interest from people who didn't in the past go to see jazz. I think this is because the genre has taken a lot of other types of music under its wing. Also the quality is so high. And it's able to be shared so easily on smart phones and so on. It's all change really." Axel Kaner-Lidstrom's Levitation Orchestra and Where Pathways Meet are both releasing albums in 2019.
Cykada is out on Astigmatic
Trumpeter Ife Ogunjobi is the youngest of the musicians profiled here. He is 18 years old and still in his first year at the Royal Academy of Music. He also attends Tomorrow's Warriors. Already, Ogunjobi's trumpet playing could start a bush fire. By the time he was 17 he was working with Dele Sosimi
's Afrobeat Orchestra. In 2018, Moses Boyd recruited him for his touring band. He is also leads his own band.
"The first jazz record that made a serious impact on me was a greatest hits album by Louis Armstrong
that my dad had," says Ogunjobi. "Some people might not call it jazz. There was 'What A Wonderful World,' 'C'est Ci Bon,' 'Hello Dolly,' 'Blueberry Hill.' It was such a natural sound. When I was ten years old my mum took me to a Hugh Masekela
concert at the Royal Festival Hall. The trumpet in that context had such presence, such energy. From then on I was captivated by it. Masekela was actually playing flugelhorn but it's the same thing really.
"The thing that has kicked off today's London jazz scene is the fact that along with all the Duke Ellington and Miles Davis
heritage, it embraces elements from Afrobeat, soca, dancehall, reggae, trap... everything. I think that's what's made this music so unique. Moses Boyd is influenced by electronic music. Sons of Kemet are clearly influenced by Caribbean and African music. Kokoroko is influenced by Fela Kuti. So this scene has mixed the harmony and melody we've learnt from the American jazz tradition with the things we enjoyed listening to growing up, and found a middle point respectfully incorporating all those styles.
"I also think that what we're doing is honouring the true spirit of jazz, which is all about interpretation. Because if we were to play 'Autumn Leaves' or any jazz standard the way people played them fifty years ago there's no progression. That's not honouring the spirit of jazz. In my opinion to honour the spirit of jazz you have to find your own way of playing, your own way of communicating the message of the song. If we didn't do this, jazz would end up in a museum." Ife Ogunjobi tours with Moses Boyd, Dele Sosimi's Afrobeat Orchestra and his own band.
Tenor saxophonist Kaidi Akinnibi is just a year older than Ife Ogunjobi and another phenomenal young London talent. Still in the second year of a four-year Jazz Performance degree at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, Akinnibi has been making a name for himself working with Triforce, with Sheila Maurice Grey's Kokoroko and with jazztronica duo Blue Lab Beats' NK-OK. He also has his own band, Invariance.
Akinnibi's collaborations with Blue Lab Beats are experimentalist mash-ups of hip hop, electronica and jazz, an adventurous trajectory which extends into all of his work. "What's interesting about the London scene is that it's integrating jazz musicians with those guys who like to twiddle knobs or want to be DJs," says Akinnibi. "It's got the jazz guys who're sampling hip hop and broken beats and drum 'n' bass, and the hip hop guys who're sampling jazz.
"I'm a big fan of the acoustic saxophone though and some of what we do in Invariance is pretty straight-ahead. It's important to take modern ideas on board but the acoustic sax has got its own grace. It can't really be matched and you don't want to overload it with effects. If you get lost in the tool I think it's a mistake. I've spent a lot of years just with the horn, trying to perfect the acoustic element."
Like other musicians on these pages, Akinnibi has benefited enormously from his involvement with Tomorrow's Warriors and Kinetika Bloco. "Learning from older musicians who are so passionate about their work is a powerful motivator," he says. "Mat Fox was a massive influence for me on how to be a leader of a bandhow to keep everyone feeling involved but also having his own clear idea of where the music needs to go. He balanced determination about making the music right with knowing it was also about the self-expression of the musicians.
"What's beautiful about the older musicians at Tomorrow's Warriors is how supportive they are of us younger guys. They encourage us to think beyond ourselves, to realise we are part of a bigger jazz family. I think competition is always healthy. But there's a great balance in London now between competition and community. There's that competitive edge where everyone's trying to hone their craft and is pushing for personal excellence. But at the same time there's this community vibe where everyone's trying to help each other." Akinnibi and NK-OK's EP
Kaidi X NK-OK is out on Blue Adventure.
Encore: Recommended Listening
An earlier edition of this article was published in Jocks&Nerds magazine.
- Joe Armon-Jones: Starting Today (Brownswood, 2018)
- Denys Baptiste: The Late Trane (Edition, 2017)
- Binker & Moses: Dem Ones (Gearbox, 2015), Journey To The Mountain Of Forever (Gearbox, 2017), Alive In The East? (Gearbox, 2018)
- Ezra Collective: You Can't Steal My Joy (Enter The Jungle, 2019)
- Moses Boyd: Displaced Diaspora (Exodus, 2018)
- Mansur Brown: Shiroi (Black Focus, 2018)
- Theon Cross: Aspirations (Self Released, 2015), Fyah (Gearbox, 2019)
- Cykada Cykada (Astigmatic, 2019)
- Nubya Garcia: Nubya's 5ive (Jazz Refreshed, 2017)
- Camilla George: Isang (Ubuntu, 2016), The People Could Fly (Ubuntu, 2018)
- Binker Golding and Elliot Galvin: Ex Nihilo (ByrdOut, 2019)
- Yusef Kamaal: Black Focus (Brownswood, 2016)
- Mark Kavuma: The Banger Factory (Ubuntu, 2019)
- Kokoroko: Kokoroko (Brownswood, 2019)
- Zara McFarlane: If You Knew Her (Brownswood, 2013), Arise (Brownswood, 2017), East Of The River Nile (Brownswood, 2019)
- Maisha: There Is A Place (Brownswood, 2018)
- Nérija: Nérija (Self Released, 2016), Nérija (Domino, 2019)
- SEED Ensemble: Driftglass (Jazz Refreshed, 2019)
- Shabaka & The Ancestors: Wisdom Of Elders (Brownswood, 2016)
- Sons Of Kemet: Burn (Naim, 2013), Lest We Forget What We Came Here To Do (Naim, 2015), Your Queen Is A Reptile (Impulse, 2018)
- Sarah Tandy: Infection In The Sentence (Jazz Refreshed, 2019)
- The Comet Is Coming: Channel The Spirits (Leaf, 2016), Trust In The Lifeforce Of The Deep Mystery (Impulse, 2019)
- Various Artists: We Out Here (Brownswood, 2018)
- Kamaal Williams: The Return (Black Focus, 2018)