Nubya Garcia recently beamed with humble and slightly disbelieving delight on her Instagram as her ‘NPR Tiny Desk’ concert had reached one million views on YouTube. The video’s title was followed with ‘UK Jazz’ in parentheses, a term which is etching a more and more distinguished meaning nowadays. Artists like the saxophonist Garcia, drummer Moses Boyd, and groups like SEED Ensemble and Ezra Collective are leading the trail of this distinctly British brand of jazz.
More on the sound of this newly delineated subgenre later, but first a note on the visual imagery of UK jazz. The Instagram pages of the artists are a good entrance point to the genre to begin learning about what it stands for aesthetically. Vibrant reds and yellows are everywhere, exuding a sense of vivacious exoticism. A far cry, then, from the black suits of the cliched imagery of fifties and sixties jazz. Indeed, jazz has never fully recovered from its association in the popular consciousness with ‘cool cats’ wearing sunglasses and tuxedos, at times rendering the genre little more than a costume party. These new artists, however, are keen to wrangle jazz music from these grasps, and divorce it from ‘Rainy Day Smooth Jazz for Reading’ or ‘Relaxing Coffee Shop Jazz’ ambient playlists.
The visual and sonic vibrancy stems in part from the African roots of the majority of the scene’s artists. Fusion with other Afro-Caribbean and South American influenced genres is a common feature. Ashley Henry exemplifies the fusion, blending Hip Hop with Thelonious Monk influenced keyboards on ‘Beautiful Vinyl Hunter’, and Nubya Garcia’s latest and first full length release, ‘Source’, combines Colombian rhythms on ‘La Cumbia Me Está Llamando’ and pays homage to Guyana and Trinidad in multiple songs. ‘Source’ seamlessly incorporates these fusion elements with influences from the totemic figures of fusion and later jazz: the choppy electric Rhodes comping of the recently deceased Chick Corea on ‘Inner Game’, and the trance-like spiritual soloing and chord loops of Alice Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders on ‘Pace’.
Moreover, this music is distinctly tied to place. The fusion of genres perfectly captures the cultural mixing pot of inner-city London, where these artists mostly hail from. The majority of artists on the scene at the moment graduated through a talent development and music education agency called ‘Tomorrow’s Warriors’, which focuses on offering free tuition in jazz education to people of the African diaspora and underprivileged aspiring musicians. As such, the music often serves as homage to the working class and immigrant communities in the city, and it is fantastic to see jazz chart a course away from the fine-dining high society of Ronnie Scott’s and Soho.
SEED Ensemble’s stirring ‘WAKE (For Grenfell)’ most clearly demonstrates how grounded the music is in the material conditions of the place that bore it. Sonically boasting the character of the African-influenced jazz idiom yet drawing attention to the economic and social conditions that disproportionately affect immigrants and poor people, as exemplified in the Grenfell tragedy of 2017.
This is jazz with the injection of youthful exuberance. Original compositions give a refreshing sonic palette in a departure from the increasingly trite re-recordings of songbook standards. Its sincerity and its faithfulness to origins combine with brilliant musicianship in a shadowy sound which is eminently and distinctly urban.
Recommended album listens:
Nubya Garcia, Source
Ashley Henry, Beautiful Vinyl Hunter
Yussef Kamaal, Black Focus
SEED Ensemble, Driftglass
Joe Armon-Jones, Staring Today
Moses Boyd, Dark Matter
Image: Jamesongravity on Flickr.