With festivals like Love Supreme and Field Day fully embracing jazz, Best Fit looks at some of the UK artists keeping the genre alive in 2018.
Early in May, lifestyle and clothing brand Goodhood - the demographic for which is young creative types with a handsome salary - hosted an exhibition and pop-up for rare vintage jazz t-shirts, and produced their own version. Gilles Peterson produced a mix in collaboration, and DJed the event. He will also play Field Day festival, held for the first time this year in Brockwell Park. Peterson's appearance, as a stand alone event, is nothing revolutionary. However, he’ll be joined by a lengthy list of jazz-inspired acts at a festival not traditionally associated with the genre - a genre that is usually unafraid to simply hold its own festivals.
It seems this is where we are: in the middle of a jazz revival. The success of "new-wave" jazz artists is difficult to ignore. They comprise an incredibly varied list, even when being described as part of the same movement: Tom Misch, Snarky Puppy, Vulfpeck, Hiatus Kaiyote, Sons of Kemet, BadBadNotGood (to name just a few). They are all being given more mainstream platforms than we have seen previously for jazz acts - whilst still carving out space for themselves in elite jazz spaces (in Nai Palm’s (of Hiatus Kaiyote) and Tom Misch’s case, Ronnie Scott’s). Misch, whose debut album Geography was released last month, has gone from bedroom-beat-maker to selling out the Roundhouse in the space of a couple of years. His music is littered with noodling guitar solos unmistakably influenced by Pat Metheny and interjections of earthy alto saxophone courtesy of his sister Laura. He also frequently collaborates with hip hop artists like Loyle Carner. He’s far from a purist, but is not unique in this sense: a jazz-hip-hop-R&B-funk emulsion seems to be everywhere you look.
Jordan Rakei is another artist in this crossover zone, one of the long list of jazz artists on this year’s Field Day bill. He combines a soulful vocal with jazz harmony and electro beats. He says his Field Day set will include “a bit of old and a bit of new”, an exciting prospect as his latest single "Eye to Eye" pushes his style further towards pure jazz harmony and complex rhythm. “I’ve always had an intention to change my sound,” he says, “but I feel the need to do that slowly, so that I don't feel like I alienate people too soon. I'm always up for pushing myself as an artist to find new sounds, and I think I'll always have that in me.” It seems to be exactly this drive for a fresh sound, combined with a love of the greats (Herbie Hancock, Oscar Peterson, Donny Hathaway), that creates the fusion we are experiencing.
Rakei’s songwriting technique begins with improvisation. “I think the beauty in improvisation,” he says, “is that you fall victim, in that current moment, to your subconscious.” Jazz is the genre that provides artists with a platform to improvise not just as part of a creative process, but as the performance itself. In an article for the Guardian, Lanye Bakare notes the influence of Boiler Room sets on the jazz resurgence. In a sense, this fusion with dance music - and hip hop, as seen in Misch and others - is not surprising. Whether through the music directly or other substances, losing oneself to the subconscious is a familiar experience to those embedded in the dance scene. Such expressive forms meld perfectly with jazz, a genre characterised so strongly by improvisation, and therefore its freedom of expression. Unlike pop, an openly emotional genre, jazz has little sentimentality in its expressiveness, which accounts partly for its reputation as being difficult. Perhaps it simply takes a little more effort to feel the humanity, but it’s there. Its recent muddling with hip hop, dance, disco and R&B has simply helped to bring it to the fore.
The spillage of genres and merging of worlds is happening in both directions. As well as jazz popping up in traditionally mainstream spaces, jazz-specific spaces are becoming ever more popular with a wider community. Love Supreme jazz festival, held annually in East Sussex, is only five years old, but is already hailed as one of the top jazz festivals in Europe. My camp at the festival has been interrupted by both a teenager asking if we knew anyone selling pills, and a woman who listened to Radio 2 every morning of the festival complaining that we had pitched too close to the porch of her tent. It’s a mixed crowd, then: but in general, it’s become younger and more lively, with audience members weaving their way across picnic blankets and camping chairs to get to the front of the main stage for acts like Lianne La Havas, Kamasi Washington and Gregory Porter.
Ezra Collective, a London-based jazz five-piece drawing from a miscellany of genres, are playing both Field Day and Love Supreme this year. They claim there is no ostensible difference in playing to a jazz-specific audience - people just want to “enjoy themselves and hear great music”. Perhaps, though, this is testament to their own accessibility and distinctly fun vibe. Their latest single, "Mace Windu Riddim", maintains a fairly traditional jazz keys solo throughout the whole track, kicking into a relaxed disco feel and interjected with horn breaks. It’s the ultimate fusion, and the ultimate summer music, so perhaps it’s no surprise that they haven’t noticed a difference in audience reaction. All bases are covered.
Their influences are broad, which, again, keeps them fresh in both the jazz world and the wider music industry: the former because of influencers like King Krule, and the latter Kamasi Washington (American tenor saxophonist, himself a front-runner of new-wave jazz, and mentioned by both Ezra and Rakei as a source of inspiration). Ezra Collective explain, “within the wide jazz tradition there have always been pioneers. Kind of Blue was a pioneering moment. The Shape of Jazz to Come, etc. And yeah - we would proudly say Ezra is part of something that is pioneering a new thing in this great tradition. Changing the look, the audience etc.”
It’s impossible to keep the influences broad and the music fresh unless the musicians themselves are diverse and fresh. Ezra Collective connected at Tomorrow’s Warriors, a London-based organisation dedicated to creating opportunities for people of all backgrounds and building a community inspired to connect through jazz. They tell me me they have noticed increased diversity over the past few years, describing the shift as “this pursuit of taking jazz away from a middle class luxury to something that is actively enjoyed by the masses.” And it is organisations like Tomorrow’s Warriors that will enable this. It’s also festivals like Field Day - attended by people with a broad range of tastes and backgrounds - who open the genre to a wider audience.
A membership to Ronnie Scott’s costs £225 a year, and includes only one free show. The rest are 20% off. Perhaps this is reasonable for such an iconic venue - but it seems that traditional jazz clubs like to maintain an air of elitism. Luckily, there are lots of places in London to get into jazz - Cable Cafe on Brixton Road, a 5-minute walk from Oval tube, is free to enter on its jazz night every Tuesday and does better espresso martinis than the esteemed Ronnie’s. Just down the road, the Prince of Wales in Brixton does live jazz every Thursday with free entry. Its 11-3, late-night vibe might appeal to the more purist enthusiasts, while its free entry and being a pub is enough to attract people who don’t think they "get it".
The truth is, there’s nothing to get. There is not a more complex creative process in jazz than pop music. Its unique expressiveness - stemming from harmonic and melodic freedom and improvisation - might take some getting used to. But if you allow yourself to be let in, you’ll find it as emotive as pop. The bonus is that in the current climate, the only person who has to do that letting in is you. Jazz, for me, is about learning to go with the flow, both musically and emotionally. “It’s a music built upon telling your own story,” say Ezra Collective. “Our story is changing every day - and so should the music.”