How British Jazz Won The Underground

Words: Jack Garofalo

Jazz music is a phenomenon that divides people like no other cultural art form. Traditionalists, liberals, conservatives—no matter what alliance you self-identify with, it’s unfathomable to define your outright view on the genre. It’s purely subjective in the most contradictory and indefinite of ways. From the Roaring Twenties to Bebop and free-form jazz, the whole spectrum of its influence and creation constantly challenges and questions the most avid of music aficionados. Stan Getz, the famous saxophonist who unearthed the legendary “The Girl From Ipanema”, once stated: “As far as playing jazz, no other art form, other can conversation, can give the satisfaction of spontaneous interaction.” The genre’s improvisation and mythical entity angers and awes people in equal measure, but what cannot be argued is that virtually the entirety of Western music derives from jazz in some manner or another.

Britain has had a mixed relationship with jazz. Whilst America bore and breathed jazz wholesomely throughout most of the 20th century, the UK market never quite grasped the anomaly or bred world stars on a mass scale. Artists like Stan Tracey, John Dankworth and Humphrey Lyttelton gained notoriety nationally but never exploded internationally due to the never-ending conveyor belt of genius musicians redefining musical, social and political identity across the pond. It took arguably until the late ‘80s and early ‘90s for jazz to break out with panache, where bands like The Jazz Warriors (containing the brilliant Courtney Pine), The Brand New Heavies, Galliano and Jamiroquai conceived a scene where experimental, colourful jazz—infusing influence from funk, soul, and hip-hop—hit the mainstream under the coined terms “rare groove” and “acid jazz”.

This brand of upbeat, club-friendly jazz unleashed a subculture of enthusiasts and worshippers whilst evolving jazz into the modern age, yet adhering to its strict foundations. The Brand New Heavies’ self-titled debut as well Jamiroquai’s masterful Emergency On Planet Earth LP, are the magnum opera of jazz fusion and essential listening for anyone who likes their beats with a twist of zest and refinement.

Unfortunately, like virtually all subcultures, the movement faded out as the millennium drew close, morphing into more dance-orientated rhythms and drifting out of public consciousness and into firm memory lane territory. The music was still there, and it had a place to be heard, yet the rise of the internet and millennial youth culture pushed acid jazz, and jazz as a whole, to the elitists and obsessives who fetishized over its happening.

Hip-hop, UKG and grime began to dominate British culture and has continued to do so even today. Acts could often be seen on programs like Later… with Jools Holland and on the shortlist of the Mercury Awards—in particular Bheki Mseleku, Denys Baptiste, Polar Bear and Portico Quartet—but hope and endeavour never materialised into critical success. Renowned electronic producers Four Tet and Floating Points dabbled in their adoration of jazz, but were never considered to be jazz musicians first and foremost. Venues like Camden’s Jazz Café, Ronnie Scott’s and Café Oto managed to still generate revenue and interest through the burgeoning pool of talent from across the world, yet a fundamental movement didn’t explode until only recently.

An assortment of free-thinking and extremely gifted artists began to embrace the shunning of jazz and, once again, similar to the acid jazz scene, infused other sounds from grime to jungle to formulate a development collectively known as “the UK jazz invasion.” Although this term probably doesn’t do these extravagant musicians justice, the DIY ethos which they ensue can only be heralded as an infiltration on British culture; most notably in the capital, where venues like Vortex in Dalston and Total Refreshment Centre in Stoke Newington have burst into life and are regularly packed to the rafters with like-minded fanatics.

The talented Ezra Collective (pictured above), Zara McFarlane, Shabaka Hutchings, Nubya Garcia (via scene staple Jazz Re:freshed), and the soulful melancholic delight of Yussef Kamaal (if you haven’t already, check out the mesmeric Black Focus LP) have regularly been given focused attention on the airwaves, most prominently on the online radio station NTS and BBC 6 Music—in particular Gilles Peterson’s Saturday afternoon show, which has resulted in copious amounts of interest, integration and popularity.

No one sums-up the success story more than Moses Boyd though—a relatively unknown drumming prodigy from Catford, whose love of grime and Miles Davis has made him the catalyst of this jazz revival (he also won Best Jazz Act at this year’s MOBO Awards). Since being featured on Four Tet’s Boiler Room set back in 2015, the youngster has gone from obscurity into fully-fledged torchbearer. The release of his Journey To The Mountain Of Forever album with saxophonist Binker Golding (an homage to the spiritual jazz awakening of John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders) is a true masterpiece in musical stimulation and also features British jazz stalwarts Evan Parker and Byron Wallen, themselves true pioneering artists in every sense of the word. In truth, 2017 has been the renaissance year for the movement. Jazz is no longer perceived as an anorak genre, but rather a progressive and fundamentally cool style of music that is rich with opportunities and directions. More and more artists are taking the diversion towards jazz, as demonstrated by the recent collab between grime MC Mez and Kamaal Williams (one half of Yussef Kamaal), and more are widely expected to follow in 2018 and beyond.

What’s important now is that the whole culture has a backbone and a foundation built by the artists and not by labels; they built this themselves, which translates ultimately to the reduction of failure and demise. There is no pressure, no burden—just imaginative, organic music designed for the listener that is every bit entertaining as it is educational.

Posted on December 18, 2017