Before we get to far, can I just clarify the title of this piece. Firstly, I’m in no way some hipster who has been following these musicians for years. I’ve seen some of them live, occasionally more by luck that judgement. This isn’t informed by insider knowledge. This is a consumer’s view, excited at hearing something new.
Secondly, the list though is somewhat London scene-centric. I’ll make no apologies for that – it’s where I live, it is where the artist to artist connections that send you down rabbit holes have generated, it is coherent and of a place (to my ears at least). I’m sure there (in fact I know there is) fantastic British jazz out there that is up to the standards of what I’m briefly writing about here. I’d love for people to comment and give me some examples to explore.
So with those two qualifiers out of the way, here we go. I’ll post a link to a Spotify and Tidal playlist at the bottom of this piece, which you can skip to if you fancy ignoring the blurb. I’ve said it before though – if you fancy buying any of this music in these straitened times, then do it via Bandcamp. You get better quality downloads but more importantly, more money goes to the artists.
A few things have become apparent as I’ve been writing this piece. In no particular order:
- Whilst all jazz ultimately emanates from the USA, this music feels a number of steps removed from this via the Caribbean, Africa and India
- Given the British Empire and the Commonwealth, this gives the music a unique feel that exists because and despite of this colonialism
- The underlying rhythms are informed by some distinctly British and arguably London roots – the skittering percussion of drum’n’bass, the slow moving percussive dubstep, the racing bass pulse of garage and grime.
The musicians are skilled and have learned their chops. They thrive in the collective and perhaps most noticeably, women are leading the way as much as men are. Regarding precedents, if you are looking for icy angular European ECM inspired music, then you are in the wrong place unless I’ve missed something. Looking across the Atlantic, Blue Note and Impulse are definitely audible though.
So when did it occur to me that this was the new London jazz scene was something that was burgeoning and worth cocking an ear to? Probably later than quite a few people. I’ll try and pinpoint the day:
26 May 2018
So shall we start there?
I took a chance on seeing Kamaal Williams on a hot May Saturday night a couple of years ago, rather than watch Sergio Ramos assault on Mo Salah in the 2018 Champions League final It was a fantastic Rough Trade in-store, one of the best that I can remember. Recording on the Black Focus label, his Bandcamp page is very active releasing a great deal of DJ mixes and EP’s, including mashups with the Wu Tang Clan.
Kamaal’s music is keyboard focussed but bringing more 21st century rhythms that offer a pulse that straddles both the 70s and today. It’s probably what could be described as at the more funky end of the spectrum of what’s appearing on this post.
I’ll be starting with Kamaal’s Salaam, the first track on The Return, his first album with his new outfit. It’s a more laid back start to what is to follow, a little mellower and recognisable as something by Herbie Hancock or Lonnie Liston Smith.
Next up is Ezra Collective. This won’t be the first time that you see reference to a collective. It’s a common theme within the scene, the support of their fellow musicians in differing settings.
Having released a couple of well received EP’s, they released their debut LP in 2019, You Can’t Steal My Joy. It features a couple of guest vocalists including Jorja Smith and has a lovely laid back version of Sun Ra’s Space Is The Place to open the record.
I haven’t managed to catch them live yet (I missed them at Glastonbury last year when the thermometer went into the mentally hot zone). I did though catch Loyle Carner who is the one of the guest vocalists and his track brings to mind both the current jazz scene but also some of the Acid Jazz that sprung from London back in the 90s, that were released on the Rebirth of the Cool compilations. I was going to feature the track with Loyle but couldn’t find a decent video of it, so here’s the title track from the album, live at Glastonbury.
We’re heading over to Jazz re:freshed next. Founded in 2003, they’ve been long time supporters of the scene, promoting gigs and releasing music on their own label too. Their crowning glory in terms of profile is probably the nomination of SEED Ensemble’s debut album Driftglass for last year’s Mercury Music award, beaten to victory by fellow Londoner Dave’s Psychodrama.
Here’s the live performance from the evening. It’s striking as to just how much is going on, which is borne out by the poor camera team jumping around, trying to follow the action.
Their style is a little more Afrocentric than the previous couple of musicians, a large band that put a horn section, front and centre. They feature a couple of musicians that pop up later on in a different form.
Having headed toward Africa with the last selection, this one is going east to India.
I’m going to give Sarathy Korwar two selections as I’d struggle to pin his work in one (plus I’m loving what he does so much). I’m writing a longer piece on him, having seen him play the Moth Club in Hackney last year. Sarathy lives in London having learned his chops in the USA and India. I’m adding the version of Alice Coltrane’s Satchidanada to the playlist. It’s taken from this brilliant gig filmed at the Royal Albert Hall. It’s a collaboration with the Upaj Collective and all of the tracks have room to stretch out and breathe.
The set features a mix of original material plus covers by such spiritual jazz greats as Pharaoh Sanders, Don Cherry and Joe Henderson with a bit of Ravi Shankar for good measure. The resulting live LP (My East Is Your West) is one of those live LPs that really benefits from the audience’s relationship with the live music which rises and falls to these gorgeous langorous Indo-jazz pieces.
The second track is from More Arriving, last year’s album. It is possibly my album of last year but the single Bol is definitely my track of 2019. Capturing Britain in the turmoil of post Windrush, post Brexit, post hostile environment, it manages to be savagely pointed, gentle and witty at the same time. The video is incredible, featuring Zia Ahmed who stole the show in Hackney, highlighting the lazy stereotypes that people of an Asian origin suffer in 21st century Britain.
Over to the one of the founding fathers of the scene, Shabaka Hutchings. Whereas Sarathy got two selections, Shabaka is getting three. He lives in South London, as do many in the scene, arriving there via Barbados and Birmingham. He’s a born collaborator having appeared with Sarathy Korwar, Ethiopian jazz legend Mulatu Astatke and Chicago house legend Hieroglyphic Being. Paul Well is a fan (“I fucking love his stuff“) and if there was a figurehead to this scene, Shabaka is the probably the closest thing to it, along with his former mentor Soweto Kinch. He’s classically trained at the Guildhall School but also is a thrilling live performer. He was mates with the pre-cursers to where we are now, the likes of Acoustic Ladyland and Polar Bear.
We start with the Ancestors, who have just released their second LP, We Are Sent Here By History. The majority of the band are from South Africa, which he first visited in 2008. He dated a girl from Cape Town and got an arts grant to work over there in 2014. He’s attracted to the sense of community in the jazz scene there (again a recurring theme) and see themselves as sangoma, Zulu healers. It’s the most recent of his project which I’m still getting into myself.
Next we move to his electronic trio, The Comet Is Coming. With two full length LPs (the and a handful of EPs, this is the project of his that I’m enjoying the most at the moment. It captures the excitement of rave, the skill set of jazz and the long form of prog. But don’t let any of that put you off. This is their Tiny Desk concert from last year. After a cacophonous opening fanfare, they settle into a hectic groove set up by drummer Max Hallett aka Betamax with all manner of mad electronics from Dan Leavers aka Danalogue.
I’d wholeheartedly recommend any of their LPs, Channel The Spirits or Trust In The Lifeforce Of The Deep Mystery and the follow up EP, The Afterlife.
The final project is the probably the most high profile in the UK. Sons of Kemet are non-traditional four piece of two drummers, a tuba player Theon Cross (who also plays in SEED Ensemble) providing the bass parts and Shabaka on sax and clarinet. They’re signed to the long standing American jazz label, Impulse and their third album, Your Queen Is a Reptile was Mercury nominated. With 9 songs all beginning with the phrase “My Queen Is…”, it posits that rather than Elizabeth Windsor, there are different black women through history that are more influential to Afro Caribbean immigrants, such as anti Apartheid activist Albertina Sisulu, Doreen Lawrence, activist and mother of murdered south London teenager Stephen Lawrence and American child psychologist Mamie Phipps Clark.
If the record seems intellectual and dry, it is far from it. It pulses and rocks wildly as this clip from the 2018 Mercury awards shows:
Next we’re heading briefly over to Nerija. I’ve written about the collective’s debut album here and their gig from earlier this year too (it seems crazy at this point thinking that there were gigs in 2020). Similar to SEED Ensemble they are another large group with some sharing of members. Bass player Rio Kai and guitarist Shirley Tetteh feature in both SEED and Nerija.
Before we move onto some of their members solo work, here’s Riverfest from their debut LP.
Let’s join the dots again for a moment. You will recall that Jazz re:freshed were significant in starting this scene off. Well, they’ve specialised in releasing a series of EPs (many of this are almost LP length), that each have one less than half a dozen tracks and therefore go by the name of “5ive”. Garcia’s sax has a deep rich tone, clearly a fan of Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. This track from Gilles Peterson’s music awards again features people that I’ve already referenced in this piece.
Rosie Turton, who is Nerija’s trombone player, has also done a 5ive EP. Slightly more electronic but still excellent, here’s another live set from Jazz re:freshed. Rosie’s 5ive is lovely. I’m a fan of the trombone, probably since I feel in love with Milt Bernhart’s wonderful solo during Sinatra’s 1956 recording of I’ve Got You Under My Skin. Let’s face it – who doesn’t find a trombone cheerful?
The afore-mentioned Sarathy Korwar/Upaj collaboration was released on Gearbox Records. Based just north of London’s Kings Cross in a small set of industrial units, Gearbox specialise in new vinyl pressings and re-releases. One of the mainstay’s of their catalogue is Binker and Moses, the respective Mr’s Golding and Boyd.
I must confess that of all of the musicians that I’ve written about, Binker and Moses are the ones still to click with me. A sax and drums duo, their music is freer and more atonal at times. I’ve yet to really take to one of their records, albeit in researching this blog piece, I really enjoyed this short piece from Later on the BBC though. It’s a bit more direct and melodic.
I have though taken an instant liking to drummer Moses Boyd’s recent solo album, Dark Matter.
The album is incredibly diverse, a record that feels like a Saturday night out captured in 45 minutes. BTB and YOYO both feature wonderful guitar work by Artie Saitz with Shades of You (featuring Poppy Ajudha), a soulful and accessible introduction. It puts me in mind of Goldie’s debut LP, Timeless. Dancing In The Dark is a treatise on the experience of young black men in the capital.
We’re heading towards the last few stops now (thank heavens for that, you may be saying).
Keyboard player Joe Armon-Jones is common to much of the music that has been featured on this piece. A key member of Ezra Collective, he has also played with SEED Ensemble and the Moses Boyd LP, as well as Nubya Garcia.
He released his second album, Turn To Clear View, last year. Another collaborative effort, featuring amongst others Nubya Garcia (as I said, favours get returned on this scene) and American hip hop artist Georgia Anne Muldrow.
Armon-Jones is from a musical family from Oxfordshire and moved to London to further his music studies. Another common thread running through all of these musicians is how skilled and accomplished they are. These aren’t three chord chancers – these are young men and women who have devoted hours of practice and study to further their art.
And doesn’t it just show. This short video from Vinyl Factory gives a good insight into his working methods on both Icy Roads and Yellow Dandelion, his collaboration with Muldrew.
Before we tie things up, let’s head over to a more African sound with KOKOROKO. On Gilles Peterson’s Brownswood label, to date they’ve released one self titled EP. This is influenced by West Africa, their name being an Orobo word for “be strong”. Influenced by Fela Kuti and Ebo Taylor as well as the church and the dancehall, it is rich in African grooves and melodies. They started off performing covers such as Fela’s Colonial Mentality (link below) but now are writing their own material.
It seems unnecessary that I’m pointing this out but this is a scene that is lead by, involves and features women. SEED ensemble, Nerija and KOKOROKO all have a significant contingent of female players. I’m sure it contributes to just how interesting the resulting music.
I’ve also realised as I’ve been putting this together that so many of these musicians have a democratic foundation. There is little evidence of ego, the obvious musical skills are set aside for the benefit of the collective. This isn’t inward looking, self obsessed music. It is outward looking and in most cases also fun seeking.
I’ve done my own primer on Spotify and Tidal below. If you are looking for alternative places to start, I’d also point you in the direction of Gilles Peterson. Brownswood Recordings has released much of the music I’ve featured above but in particular they released We Out Here, a double LP led by Shabaka Hutchings but also featuring Nubya Garcia, KOKOROKO and Moses Boyd amongst others.
The other place is Gilles’s Saturday afternoon show on 6Music which covers this scene and a whole lot more.
In summary, this doesn’t feel like a passing fashion. The musicians involved are putting their heart and soul into this and it is fascinating to see what happens next.
So here’s my primer playlist on Spotify:
And on Tidal:
And on Youtube: