The British Jazz Explosion
If you had to pinpoint the moment it became clear that something dramatically new was afoot in British jazz music, it would be hard not to pick the release of Binker and Moses’ Dem Ones in May 2015. Issued by London indie label Gearbox, whose previous output had chiefly been audiophile-grade restorations of lost Brit jazz sessions from venerable artists such as Michael Garrick or Joe Harriott, Dem Ones was a shot across the bows of an unsuspecting audience. Two young unknowns, seemingly unconnected to the orthodox jazz scene, were releasing a no-holds-barred saxophone and drum duet record. Why? For whom? And who were Binker Golding and Moses Boyd anyway?
Nothing comes from nothing, and the new generation of artists that have recently emerged into public consciousness have not appeared out of thin air. Prominent new voices such as Golding and Boyd, tenorist Nubya Garcia, trumpeter Sheila Maurice-Grey, guitarist Shirley Tetteh and many others have risen out of a continuum of organising, playing, and teaching jazz in London which has remained unbroken across decades, even if the music at its heart has periodically been in commercial and popular eclipse. If the present moment represents a sudden cataract of new energy that energy issues from a current that has never ceased flowing, though it may have been underground.
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'Two young unknowns, seemingly unconnected to the orthodox jazz scene, were releasing a no-holds-barred saxophone and drum duet record'
Though the scene coalesced in clubs, pubs and jam sessions, the players in the movement should not be misrepresented as unschooled or raw. Most are conservatory trained. Boyd, Garcia, Maurice-Grey, SEED Ensemble’s Cassie Kinoshi, Ezra Collective’s Femi Koleoso and Joe Armon-Jones, trumpeter Emma Jean-Thackeray and others all studied at the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance in east London; Binker Golding and ubiquitous tuba anchorman Theon Cross graduated from Guildhall, as did the scene’s elder statesman, reedsman Shabaka Hutchings.
For most of the current London generation an equally significant influence has been time spent playing with Tomorrow’s Warriors, the long-running educational, mentoring and talent-fostering organisation founded by bassist Gary Crosby and Janine Irons in 1991 as a way to continue the legacy of the legendary Jazz Warriors big band.
The importance of Tomorrow’s Warriors for jazz in the capital is hard to overstate. It has been a bridge between today’s interconnected, mutually supportive community of young jazz musicians and the ethos, wisdom and industry experience of the original Warriors. Almost all the young players mentioned above worked with the organisation, and its importance is acknowledged by all.
Succeeding generations of alumni pass their learning down to those that follow; two recent examples of this intergenerational collaboration include composer and saxophonist Jason Yarde’s production for Cassie Kinoshi’s recent SEED Ensemble debut, Driftglass (jazz re:freshed, 2019), and Shabaka Hutchings’s direction and production for the new generation’s showcase album We Out Here (Brownswood, 2018), not to mention his general presence as a figurehead and his invitation of younger players including Theon Cross into his Sons of Kemet unit. Hutchings himself was encouraged early on by another Tomorrow’s Warrior grad, saxophonist Soweto Kinch.
'The importance of Tomorrow’s Warriors for jazz in the capital is hard to overstate'
Such connections put the groups and players of the new generation at the head of a well-established jazz lineage in Britain. Their successes and inventions are wholly their own, but the legacy and mentorship of the Jazz Warriors echoes warmly within a scene which has flourished by nurturing both new voices and new audiences, as the Warriors did themselves.
Standing astride these changes is tenorist, clarinettist and bandleader Shabaka Hutchings. The most prominent player to have emerged from Tomorrow’s Warriors in recent decades, Hutchings is the moving spirit within three acclaimed bands – the MOBO Award-winning Sons of Kemet, South African jazz super-group Shabaka And The Ancestors, and prog-jazz explorers The Comet Is Coming. Tireless, inventive and internationally acclaimed, Hutchings is presently the most visible artist in UK jazz music, and his work has been central to the new attention that is now enjoyed by a younger generation. Now signed to the storied Impulse! label, Hutchings has made his music connect to audiences far beyond so-called jazz without once appealing to existing tastes, or even existing genre conventions. Based in the jazz tradition it may be, but it is largely a genuinely new music. Through force of vision and breadth of conception he has made audiences come to him.
This last lesson confirms what comes naturally to those who have come of age in a musical environment more cross-pollinated than ever before, and where listeners have proved themselves open to new musical sounds. Playlist and algorithm have altered the very notion of genre; a snowballing reissue culture has rapidly disseminated half a century of forgotten and unheard music around the globe, all at once. Genre purism is not just undesirable, it’s not really even possible anymore.
Many of the new players testify that young audiences hold preconceptions of ‘jazz’ as a stuffy, elitist or irrelevant music. But such ideas incinerate on contact with the upfront sound and sheer energy of groups like Kokoroko or Sons of Kemet in full flow. No matter what it might get tagged as inside the algorithm machine, the music has bypassed such outmoded images through live presence and sonic urgency.
‘Jazz’ or not, if you make fresh music with heart, people will respond.
‘Jazz’ or not, if you make fresh music with heart, people will respond
The vitality that runs through this new music comes from having sought and found that response. Before the current explosion of interest, a network of word-of-mouth nights in small venues across south and east London primed audiences, musicians and music alike. At Dalston’s ragged, energised Total Refreshment Centre or the sanctified Church of Sounds gigs, at the Servants Jazz Quarters on Bradbury Street, at the crowded Jazz re:freshed events in Ladbroke Grove’s Mau Mau bar, or at the formative Steez night in Deptford, the scene has been honed by the warm and immediate feedback loops of a live club culture.
At the forefront of documenting the scene are Jazz re:freshed, who have released the most comprehensive series of documents from the London movement. Starting with their 5ive series (short albums featuring five tracks), they have released debut works by collective group Maisha (Welcome To A New Welcome, 2016), Nubya Garcia (Nubya’s 5ive, 2017), the abundantly talented pianist Ashley Henry, now signed to Sony (Ashley’s 5ive, 2016), broken beat guitar shredders Triforce (Triforce 5ive, 2016) and in-demand bassist Daniel Casimir (Escapee, 2017) among others.
Most recently, they have issued the seminal Driftglass album by composer and altoist Cassie Kinoshi’s SEED Ensemble, as well as debut recordings by both Nérija trombonist Rosie Turton (Rosie’s 5ive, 2019) and classically trained and hotly-tipped pianist Sarah Tandy (Infection In The Sentence, 2019). Gilles Peterson, who has been a vocal supporter of the movement, has also released a good deal of music through his Brownswood imprint, including Shabaka And The Ancestors’ thunderous Wisdom of Ancestors (2016), Yussef Kamaal’s beat rich and cerebral Black Focus (2016) and the sampler LP We Out Here. The latter is notable not only for its coverage of the new groups and players, but also for Tej Adelaye’s poetic and trenchant liner note, which provides the best summation of the history and ethos that animates the new London jazz community. Accompanied by a documentary of the same name by film-maker and photographer Fabrice Bourgelle, We Out Here was both a snapshot of a generation on the cusp of wider recognition, and a confident unfurling of fresh musical promise and invention.
Though the capital has been the main focus of press and popular interest, it is not the only place where new sentiments have stirred in recent years.
In Manchester in particular, a spiritualised strand of post-Coltrane modal jazz has been nurtured by trumpeter Matthew Halsall’s Gondwana imprint. The label opened in 2008 with a series of remarkable releases by Halsall and saxophonist Nat Birchall, beginning with Halsall’s immaculately turned out Sending My Love and Birchall’s heavy Akhenaten (2009). The units assembled by both Birchall and Halsall include richly talented younger players from Manchester’s current improvising music scene, including the powerfully inventive pianist Adam Fairhall and hyper-kinetic drummer Johnny Hunter. Gondwana also brought the Manchester unit GoGo Penguin to prominence before they were picked up by Blue Note; the meditative, somewhat Necks-like sound of Norwich-based trio Mammal Hands also comes through the label.
Nottingham too has made noise, with the London-born singer and poet Yazmin Lacey, backed by the electronics-laced Three Body Trio, independently released a brace of impeccable EPs from her base in the city. These are by no means the only examples.
What such a burgeoning of talent shows above all is that the music has started to speak once again through young musicians, to young audiences. In London especially it has provided a vital and positive mode of expression for a generation that have come of age under austerity’s cuts and the Home Office’s ‘hostile environment’ immigration policy, in the shadow of Grenfell and beneath the fearful cloud of environmental catastrophe. In the face of such daily horrors the music provides a counterpunch of communal warmth and spiritual affirmation, a language for the re-inscription of a presence and value and worth that oppressive forces have long worked to erase, and a sound of joyful defiance in the face of the ongoing grind of life in the melancholy post-colonial landscape of Brexit-era Britain.
'The music has started to speak once again through young musicians, to young audiences'
In these aspects, it picks up once again the long and honoured mantle of the black radical tradition in music. But perhaps above all other innovations is a fact that marks the current generation as decisively and radically new. Though there have always been women at the forefront of the music in Britain (Norma Winstone, Kathy Stobart, Barbara Thompson and Annie Whitehead spring to mind), the composition of the London scene signals a sea change, for a preponderance of its most crucial, innovative and powerful voices belong to women, and especially to women of colour.
Credit here is due, once again, to Tomorrow’s Warriors, who in recent years have placed special emphasis on encouraging young women to play jazz. And it is now a fact that many of the most important bandleaders are female, the most celebrated soloists and frontline players are women, and women are integral to almost every significant new grouping that emerges.
This circumstance was unheard of in previous eras; with certain magnificent exceptions, jazz is a music which has not, in general, placed women centre stage unless they were singers. But an era calls forth those who must speak for it, and those whose message must be heard; listening to the poise and promise of the Nérija album, the unfolding of a Cassie Kinoshi composition, the scalding vitality of Tamar Osborn’s Collocutor, or seeing Nubya Garcia or Shirley Tetteh solo to a captivated crowd, one gets the unshakeable sense that the music is giving voice to stories that it had never yet fully told, stories whose time has now come.
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Aleesha Nandhra is an Illustrator and Printmaker from London. Her works often revolve around travel, culture, music, food, and narratives.
London born Fabrice Bourgelle is a half Indian half French independent photographer, art director and cinematographer. He has been working with artists across diverse disciplines as well as creating a number of social documentaries and fine art projects over the last decade. He is the resident image maker at Total Refreshment Centre and he made the ‘We Out Here’ documentary on the London jazz community.
Francis Gooding is a freelance writer. He is a columnist for The Wire and a regular contributor to the London Review of Books. He writes historical liner notes for jazz releases by record labels including Strut, Jazzman and Matsuli, and as a compiler of archival sounds he has worked on collections of South African music (Next Stop Soweto vols 1-4; Spirit of Malombo, for Strut) and British jazz (A New Life, vols 1 & 2, for Jazzman).
Footshooter, also known as Barney Whittaker, is a south London based musician, DJ and producer originally from Stroud in Gloucestershire. He released his third EP through YAM records and his mixes have previously featured on Balamii and Jazz FM. He currently has a residency at Stroud Valleys Artspace in collaboration with Jazz Stroud.