By Dan Leach
By Dan Leach
If viewing on computer or tablet click here for the full multimedia experience.
“It’s everything man... I’m gonna sound like such a narcissist! It’s total control. Total freedom.”
It’s not difficult for Moses Boyd to articulate what he loves about being a jazz drummer. The MOBO award winner for Best Jazz Act of 2015, as one half of the Binker and Moses duo, is warming to the theme.
“I’m almost like the dictator but also the democrat. I decide, subtly, good musicians can tell, and know, that I’m the glue that holds it together, along with the bass player.”
For many in the younger demographic, jazz has been associated with something old-fashioned and incomprehensible, especially when compared with the modern zeitgeist of thunderous beats and low end thump. In recent years, sales in the UK have been declining(1); in America, embarrassingly dropping below children's music in popularity(2).
But is this notion itself becoming old-fashioned? There is talk of a new, vibrant edge emerging in the UK, a raw, fervent energy bubbling upwards and outwards, traversing into other other genres such as grime, hip hop, and future funk, embodied by artists such as Boyd.
BBC Radio 3 believe so and have put their weight behind a new show, 'Jazz Now'. Co-presenting alongside saxophonist and rapper Soweto Kinch and trumpeter Al Ryan, is acclaimed 25-year-old jazz singer Emma Smith.
“I feel that we’re on the brink of a new chapter in the jazz scene here in the UK", she says, "and it is coming from young people. They are exploring genre-blending and craving a different kind of expression and experience.”
Ryan, a bandleader and broadcaster for a number of years, agrees: "The stuff that these people are coming up with is just extraordinary; the talent that is emerging as well. Definitely there's a new movement under way which is very exciting."
Kinch has vowed to shake things up and for Mark Gilbert, editor of Jazz Journal, the BBC's decision to include him is a healthy sign: "It's my feeling that one of the great attractions of jazz - musical dissent, the sound of surprise, if you like, is something that's been in short supply in recent years and that shortfall is paralleled too often in critical commentary."
But what is the depth of this revival and why now?
In this feature we examine the forces conspiring to create the conditions of this rebirth. We ask who are the artists driving this and what is it about jazz music that warrants such passion? Indeed, are we looking at the rise of a new, enlightened age in which jazz ascends to the top of the musical food chain? Or is this simply the upward turn of another cycle?
Witness the reawakening of jazz...
(1) BPI Report 2014
Pictured: Theon Cross (Photo credit: Zuri Jarrett-Boswell)
"At the time I didn’t realise how unusual it was!", laughs Theon Cross.
"Because I’d always been doing the outside carnival thing, tuba wasn’t that uncommon. But it wasn’t until I started getting into more traditional, more standardised jazz, that I realised it was a bit more unique."
Rarely do you come across tuba players, but even rarer are rising stars like 23-year-old Cross. Part of his development, he says, was to understand his role - how he fitted into the music.
"I started learning walking basslines and things like that. But what inspired me first was lots of brass bands – that was my way in and then went back and started listening to lots of other brass bands such as Rebirth, Dirty Dozen, things like that…and learnt the vibe of how those bands played it.
"After that I started going to workshops and was interested in jazz. I wanted to learn how to improvise basically and play a groove."
Currently planning a follow up to his 2015 EP, Aspirations, he is proving that the instrument can reliably get heads nodding and remains in demand on the live circuit, playing in a number of jazz bands around London including Sons of Kemet and The Moses Boyd Exodus.
Who would be the influences for a jazz-loving tuba player?
"Oren Marshall, who I studied with at Guildhall Youth, was obviously a big influence. The musician who put the tuba in my hand and who was a big influence on me was Andy Grappy, who basically started me off.
"Other people like Bob Stewart from the States, Howard Johnson, Philip Frazier from Rebirth Brass Band, Kirk Joseph from the Dirty Dozen, John Sass; there are quite a few."
For Moses Boyd, the journey to providing the intense percussion for Binker and Moses' award-winning debut album, Dem Ones, began at secondary school. Under the tutelage of jazz drummer Bobby Dodsworth, who introduced him to the sounds of 60s drummers Tony Williams and Elvin Jones, Boyd caught the bug and would spend lunchtimes and breaks practising.
At college he realised his friends, brothers Theon and Nathaniel Cross, were also trying to be jazz musicians and together they would go to The Roundhouse in north London every Sunday for a workshop led by Leon Michener.
“We trekked from Catford to Camden every week”, says Boyd, “and that kind of became the jazz thing. Once we could get into clubs we started to go to Ronnie Scott’s and all sorts of places - jam sessions wherever we could for years."
In this way he gradually learnt the dynamics and musicianship of drumming: “You listen to the Meters and how Zigaboo [Modeliste] is able to pull the groove back. A great drummer can do that. And that’s what they’re meant to do. They’re meant to assess the musical situation on a macro level, second by second.
"Someone’s slightly pushing; do you go with it or go against it? Do you keep it locked? Do you build it here? Do you hold it off? You have to shape the whole thing. You’re like the master architect of the band or performance really.”
Al Ryan believes improved education is a big factor in this new era of jazz. "When I was growing up", he says, "you had to scrounge around for old books and try to talk to people and educate yourself. Whereas now you come out of school, you go off to university for three or four years, and you come out with a degree in jazz, specialising in performance.
"I think that's why we're seeing, suddenly, a wash of new talent coming along and the stuff that these people are coming up with is just extraordinary."
Vocalist Emma Smith was always surrounded by the music. Her grandfather played with Frank Sinatra and he has come to be the biggest influence on her. “I grew up listening to stories about being on tour with Tom Jones and stuff. And my father was a composer. He did ‘Friday Night Is Music Night’ at the BBC for years, an amazing musician. He met my mum at NYJO (National Youth Jazz Orchestra), which is where I started in my groundwork, and where Amy Winehouse first got her training and Jamie Cullum, and people like that."
“I went to the Purcell school of music and studied jazz there and I went to the Royal Academy of Music where I was the first female vocalist to get accepted onto that course there. And that was hugely influential for me, being considered to be an instrumentalist but happening to use my voice for those purposes.”
She believes New York, so often seen as the home of contemporary jazz, has an important influence over the scene in the UK.
“It’s almost like that large amount of water separating us from New York has become invisible and there’s a huge melting pot of different cultures and different influences, and a lot of New York guys playing with UK guys over here.”
Is this new front in jazz partly a rebellion against the army of wet-behind-the-ears laptop producers?
Boyd believes technology has only helped: “I mean I can’t speak for America or other places in the world but here it’s definitely very progressive. So you do find great bands who use electronics, myself included. I don’t necessarily think it’s because more people can become laptop producers. I think that’s a good thing, personally.”
Smith also thinks electronic music has been a positive influence with bands like Snarky Puppy and Bill Laurance heavily using synthesisers.
“However”, she says, “I do think there is a thirst for more authentic improvised music that is a backlash against the electronic music pop scene. It’s about using those skills and applying them to new improvised music from a jazz heritage.”
New York bands like Mister Barrington are a good example of mixing old and new. Their brand of funk and jazz is heavily reliant on laptops but within that framework there is a great deal of complicated improvisation and experimentation involving compressor gates and controllers.
We should also not ignore the influence of Los Angeles’ Brainfeeder label, under which the heralded 32-year-old experimental instrumentalist, DJ and rapper Flying Lotus has brought a jazz sensibility into electronic music with his avant-garde poly-rhythms (he is the grand-nephew of saxophonist and jazz legend, John Coltrane) paving the way for the more straight-up jazz sound of Kamasi Washington, not to mention the future funk of Dam Funk on LA’s Stones Throw label.
In addition, acts such as Canadian trio Cobblestone Jazz have transferred live improv, most often seen in jazz, to the world of techno and this has contributed to bringing jazz back into the consciousness.
In response, Manchester’s GoGo Penguin have produced their own unique brand of minimalist piano-driven electronic jazz. Recently nominated for a Mercury Music Prize for their second album ‘V2.0’, they have now signed to the most famous jazz label in the world - Blue Note Records.
Boyd thinks there are differences between the UK and America: "They have a lot of progressive jazz and a lot more traditional jazz but the difference being a lot of the masters who did create this music are still there. Some of them are still alive so they’re a lot closer to the source so to speak. Whereas here we don’t have that.
"But we have something different. The UK is a lot more culturally integrated than America, so I find that British bands tend to be a lot more diverse, if that makes sense, musically and conceptually, in all sorts of ways. And that’s the big difference I think, maybe that does affect the sound but it’s more to do with a social-economic setup rather than musicians - why the music sounds different."
Pictured: Moses Boyd (Photo credit: Zuri Jarrett-Boswell)
When we look for the reasons behind the popularity of music, sometimes we miss the most obvious - pure visceral pleasure. “It’s a great feeling being a drummer because you have to be inside every musician and be able to kind of glue it all together", says Moses Boyd.
"You have to see the musical piece as an overall shape and arc and sometimes you shape it and sometimes you respond to how the musicians want to shape it. But you’re the catalyst at all times."
"People sometimes say “sorry I didn't give you a solo", but I feel like I’m soloing all the time because I’ve gotta look after you and look after you and make sure this is working and push or pull the rhythm, so it’s a great feeling and a great responsibility. Definitely a high all the time. It’s a power trip really!
“You're dictating the rhythm, also the time and the feel. If you listen to a song by Miles Davis with one drummer and the same song with another drummer, the feel is determined a lot of the time by the rhythm section which, at the core, is the drummer. So a drummer has a lot of power to change the overall sonic sound and feel of any song at any given time.”
Wall of Sound
For Emma Smith, the feeling of singing in front of a big band is incomparable: “It’s just like a wall of sound behind you and there’s nothing more liberating than being at the forefront of that. It honestly feels like the wind is in your hair because the brass instruments are so loud.
“It just sort of hits the back of your head and you get this force behind you which gives you unmatchable confidence and unmatchable liberation. It’s really an extraordinary experience.”
Tuba player Theon Cross is attracted to the pure freedom found in the sonic conversation: "The freedom of improvisation. I always was attracted to that. Being able to be free within a context. I have always loved that.
"I love dance music really and jazz has always been the foundation of that. It’s a rhythmic music. Most of the music that I like derives from that. I thought studying it would help me in all aspects of music.
"It’s the freedom of it. The democracy. The social aspects of it – learning to play with people: the idea that you can meet up with people that you’ve never met before and make music with them because you study the art is a beautiful thing, man."
It is this creative freedom and room for spontaneity that captivates musicians and led legendary drummer Buddy Rich to comment that "the only true creative musician is a jazz musician."
In the experience of Kareem Dayes of United Vibrations, the acclaimed London band and festival favourite, playing music live is more of an existential experience: "I love that it’s us. It’s our identity. It reflects who we are and all the things that influence us, and I think only in London in the 21st century would you get that combination of things."
In this way, a United Vibrations gig is not just about music, it is a statement of being: "I guess when we’re playing our songs we’re expressing something that is personal but universal: yourself and the wider community."
It was the great Louis Armstrong who would prove to be the inspiration for Al Ryan, bandleader and broadcaster, to take up the trumpet and begin his lifelong love affair with the music: "I remember watching thinking "What is this! This is incredible!"
Jazz was not especially popular in the east of Ireland at that time, but this would be the catalyst that would change the direction of his life.
"I was maybe seven or eight years old and it hadn't been on my radar. But that was it, the bug bit."
And the bug has appeared all over the UK including Soweto Kinch's Birmingham and finds an especially strong home in Manchester with popular venues such as 'Band on the Wall' hosting some of the UK's most talented artists such as composer, trumpeter and DJ, Matthew Halsall.
Pictured: Jazz Refreshed at Mau Mau, London (Photo credit: Zuri Jarrett-Boswell)
Jazz Refreshed at Mau Mau Bar in London is a little bit special. Launched in 2003 by Justin McKenzie and Adam Moses, it has become one of the prime venues for hearing the most vibrant jazz acts, along with a variety of other styles including house, hip hop, electronica, soul, and latin.
Boyd told BBC Radio 3's Jazz Now: "It's kind of taking the idea of a club back. Adam and Justin are DJs and they sort of came out of the broken beat scene in London and that's a very British thing - broken beat, garage.
"When I speak to them they always emphasise there's been a great disconnect between the jazz musician and the people that dance to their music. And the perfect bridge is DJs...like Justin, Adam, Gilles Peterson, Floating Points, there are loads."
"It's very important to see how people respond to your music and DJs are that perfect thing."
There is a feeling among jazz artists that the public have not been paid the respect to make their own musical choices; rather they have been force-fed mainstream ideas of what is good music.
Moses Boyd warns: "Don’t underestimate your audience.
“In the media, the perception is that the public don’t really know or have any idea of what is music and what isn’t. I think that’s wrong. They kind of devalue the audience. Nowadays audiences are a lot more astute than you think and are just tired of the status quo of boring music.
"That’s now where jazz comes in. When it’s good, it's something so pure and you can see it, because my generation have grown up understanding electronic music, and particularly in London with all the music you can hear. Audiences now are a lot more aware of what is good and what isn’t.”
Perhaps the media's failure can be attributed simply to language. In such a fertile scene of cross-pollination, writers can lose the ability to categorise accurately, or are too lazy to try.
"I have an issue with how that works", says United Vibrations' Kareem Dayes, "I don’t think we neatly fit into any category.
"That can be difficult sometimes for people trying to sell and promote what you’re doing. All we’re doing is a mix and it’s for anyone and everyone - anyone who’s into good music.
"When you listen to great music it crosses boundaries. It’s not stuck in one camp on the other. That’s what’s great about Miles Davis and stuff like 'Bitches Brew' - it kind of split the jazz community but crossed into other communities and other worlds, and it went outside of jazz.
"What we’re doing is heavily inspired by jazz, but it goes outside of jazz as well."
Despite the shortcomings of the media and PR companies to find the correct descriptive terms, the message seems to be reaching more people. Al Ryan talks of a "dramatic shift" in the type of people now attending gigs and puts this down to the internet and smartphones: "It constantly amazes me. You go to a gig and you expect to see the usual demographic, people in their 40s and 50s but, slowly, it’s becoming younger and younger. I was on in Southampton recently and it was young and old.
"People aren’t closing their ears off to music like they once used to because, again, of the online presence. You can go on to your mobile phone and check out stuff, book a ticket and off you go. So, yeah, I think we’re definitely seeing younger people coming to it as well."
Theon Cross agrees the information age is accelerating the process of cross-fertilization: “I think jazz and hip hop is a big fusion that’s happening, making more young people aware of it. People like Kendrick Lamar who released an album last year called ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’, contains elements which will then bring in people and they’ll check out other things."
The third album by American rapper could indeed prove to be the tipping point for jazz. Released in 2015 to widespread acclaim, it is an ambitious mix of hip hop, spoken word and jazz across 16 tracks. This has, in turn, given rise to one of the contributors on the album and new star of jazz, Kamasi Washington, who told Pitchfork that people are now coming up to him at gigs complimenting the music and in the next breath asking what it is.
For Cross, Washington's status and natural star quality is changing perceptions. "I think a lot of bands are starting to think about presentation as well – how to present their music to young people. Kamasi Washington for example - it’s appealing. It looks cool.
"We’re in a different realm, I think. Just the fact that they have an artist like Kamasi on the Brainfeeder label just shows how it’s all fusing. The boundaries are just crossing each other.”
While the internet has provided people with more information, allowing them to make their own musical choices, Washington believes that the public have been overloaded with negative information which has made people believe they are not smart enough to "get" jazz, despite “starving for intellectual fodder”.
It is telling that Binker Golding has expressed disapproval of musicians who play up to the antiquated ways by dressing in retro gear and tinting their social media photos to look old. The implication is that they are not being true to themselves. And this, perhaps more than anything else, signals the subtle but important shift in perceptions and the new confidence imbuing the scene.
But it is not just the new fans; attitudes are also changing from within the structures of jazz.
Despite heralded names such as Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, jazz vocalists traditionally have not been accepted as being on the same level as musicians. Emma Smith was the first vocalist to be accepted into the jazz instrumentalist course at The Royal Academy of music simply on the strength of her vocal talent.
“It’s a stigma that’s been present particularly in the jazz scene for so many years. Particularly in the UK compared to America where they’re much more accepting of singers being bandleaders. Look at Betty Carter and artists like Cecile Mclorin Salvant, real proper, heavy duty, bandleading singers that are taking the lead.
"In the UK, it’s a bit more like “oh, it’s the singer - turns up to the gig and all she’s got to worry about is putting her frock on”. And it’s been years and years of that being built into people’s subconscious, but I think it takes singers like Norma Winston and Tina May [to change attitudes].
"But there are not that many people who are proper serious, studious, improvising musicians that just happen to be singers, but I think the more people making a stand for it, the more that stigma will reduce.”
There are signs of this already happening with 17-year-old female trumpeter Alexandra Ridout recently winning the BBC Young Jazz Musician of the year award - a surprise because soloists are traditionally male.
Pictured: United Vibrations (Photo courtesy of United Vibrations)
The intriguing thing about jazz in the UK in the 21st century is its social activism. It is not sitting in the clouds preaching; it is on the ground building social projects to produce meaningful change.
"Some of our lyrics are about trying to walk the walk, not just talk the talk", says Kareem Dayes of United Vibrations, a band with strong jazz crossovers. "I’ve been inspired by people like Bob Marley and Fela Kuti in terms of having a message in the music, but we don’t want to stop there – we want to do something."
For United Vibrations, social change was a key goal when the 4-piece formed in 2009. With the support of their parents, three brothers Kareem, Yussef and Ahmad Dayes, and friend Wayne Francis, set up their own label with profits from their first EP going to creating a community land trust to build sustainable housing called R.U.S.S.
Having recently won a contract from Lewisham council, they are about to embark on the huge project of building 30 homes in the borough of Ladywell with the aim of not only regenerating energy and resources, but also a sense of community.
"Ultimately for all of us, we want to live in a way that is not embedded in some kind of global violence" says Kareem, "so growing our own food, producing our own energy and living in a way that has a beneficial footprint on the planet and isn’t toxic and destructive, which is the paradigm we’re on at the minute in London. This is the meaning behind their track 'Grow' from their latest album The Myth of the Golden Ratio.
"It all comes from the fact that we’re Londoners at the end of the day and this is recognising our place in the world and that we are integrally plugged into a system of violence. Instead of fighting against that, it’s about becoming absent from that and creating something new which is embedded in the earth."
Since 2008, world-renowned saxophonist and rapper Soweto Kinch has been responsible for five Flyover Shows. These are festivals staged underneath motorway flyovers in his native Birmingham. The purpose is to move so called "high art" from its traditional space to inspire neglected urban areas, thus "restoring pride, social possibility and creative opportunity", not least through a series of workshops to engage local youth.
The concept has proved so popular that Kinch plans to take the show worldwide to inspire other urban communities. He is a key figure in the new front with this bold experimentation and outspoken personality (his most recent album The Legend of Mike Smith spans 41 tracks and includes hip hop, spoken word, and jazz inspired by the seven deadly sins and Dante's 'Inferno').
He also must be one of the few jazz musicians to hold a degree in modern history from Oxford University.
Both Kinch and United Vibrations are emblematic of a fresh chapter in jazz which looks to have real tangible impact on society. Just as this music traverses genres, so it attempts to bypass the negative social constructs which have been built.
What is happening in the UK jazz scene is not a resuscitation, or even a second, third, or fourth coming, since many would argue that jazz never went away.
But, among this new breed of musicians, there is something honest. They don’t resist traditions for the sake of it; the old masters are just as revered as they ever were. And while there are crossovers into other, more modern genres, the purpose is not to pander to fashion, but simply to test new sonic landscapes in the best experimental traditions of Coltrane and Davis.
To the new front, jazz is not something to bring up to date. For them it is neither modern, nor old-fashioned. Jazz simply is...
BBC Radio 3's 'Jazz Now', hosted by Soweto Kinch, Emma Smith and Al Ryan, airs every Monday night at 11pm
Macho Zapp would like to sincerely thank all those who contributed to Reawakening:
BBC Radio 3
Binkler and Moses
(and the bouncer at Mau Mau)