The UK jazz invasion: 'I’m sure that some purists wouldn’t even call it jazz'

Experimentation and cross pollination are at the heart of a new jazz, combining it with grime, jungle and house to make a sound that works at clubs and festivals

British jazz has a long and storied history. From the visionary sounds of Michael Garrick and Graham Collier to stalwarts and free improvisation enthusiasts such as Evan Parker, and Courtney Pine and the Jazz Warriors – British musicians created sounds which brought them cult followings and a reputation for experimentation. Jazz fans in the UK, particularly in the capital, have been able to see big names at institutions such as Ronnie Scott’s and Jazz Cafe for decades, and recently more avant-garde fare has come to east London via Cafe Oto, Servant Jazz Quarters and Vortex in Dalston.

Jazz enthusiasts such as Gilles Peterson have consistently championed the genre since the 80s, placing it alongside left-field sounds from all over the globe on his radio show and Worldwide events. Recently though, British jazz has started to morph and change into a sound that’s getting recognition beyond the usual genre boundaries.

That experimentation and cross pollination of sounds is at the heart of a new type of jazz coming out of the UK at the moment. Groups and artists such as Moses Boyd, Shabaka Hutchings, Zara McFarlane, Ezra Collective and United Vibrations are combining jazz with grime, jungle and house to create a sound that works on dance floors and festivals, as well as in jazz clubs.

Boyd, who is from Catford in south London and was first exposed to jazz by a music teacher, says in the last five years he’s noticed a palpable change. “The whole landscape has changed, before venues and night world were quite separate,” he says. “Put in simple terms, jazzers were doing jazz and other people were off doing things that were considered totally different. In the last five years things have become more broad and integrated.”

Boyd says platforms such as live concert streaming site Boiler room and east London online radio station NTS have helped bring this new breed of jazz to a wider population that is starting to see it as a sound which is on the same continuum as dance music or hip-hop, rather than something completely removed.

“That’s why music sounds the way it does now with different styles merged together,” he says. “It’s why festival lineups mirror that and have jazz alongside hip-hop – I talked to my friends all the time about it.”

Boyd says his love of jazz made him stand out at school, where grime and hip-hop were the predominant sounds. He cites Dizzee Rascal’s 2003 album Boy In Da Corner as being “pivotal”, but at the same time he discovered grime he was also trying to wrap his head the fusion of Miles Davis and the cosmic sounds of Sun Ra.

“I was equally interested in what was going on on pirate stations there were playing Grime and jungle. I was discovering all of this stuff at the same time as pirate radio and Art Ensemble of Chicago. Everything was kind of new to me,” he says.

“Picture how that was: a 14-year-old and talking about Duke Ellington with his friends and then going to sixth form and being into Sun Ra – while Giggs was Talking Da Hardest on the radio.”

Boyd joined a weekend workshop at the Roundhouse, which was run by British jazz bassist Gary Crosby. There he met peers and began to play out, including at the long-running Rich Mix jam session alongside Soweto Kinch, and began to see as much live jazz as possible. “I remember going to see Chick Corea at the 02 and we were the youngest people in the room by about 30 years. People would be shocked we were there, like it was impossible for a teenager to be into jazz,” he says.

“There would be a bunch of us from south London stood at the back of Ronnie Scott’s with no money, who had somehow got onto the guestlist and we were there to see Wynton Marsalis. It wasn’t necessary normal.”

Then Boyd applied for a grant from the Steve Reid foundation, which was set up after the drummer’s death in 2010 to help support musicians. Trustees of the charity include Floating Points and Four Tet, who helped Boyd mix some tracks including Rye Lane Shuffle. After, Four Tet included it in a Boiler room set and from there Boyd was inundated with requests from DJs around the world who wanted to play the track, which was clearly jazz but influenced by soca and afrobeat. For Yussef Dayes – one half of Yussef Kamaal and a member of United Vibrations alongside his brothers – that amalgamation of styles is something which typifies the jazz sound coming out of London and the UK at the moment.

Yussef Kamaal: ‘We can wear tracksuits and play, we’re not busting the suit and tie thing’
Yussef Kamaal: ‘We can wear tracksuits and play, we’re not busting the suit and tie thing’ Photograph: PR

“I’m sure that some purists wouldn’t even call it jazz, but for me jazz is about creative freedom and it’s always been my interpretation,” he says. “I’m interested in making it a bit more relatable. I see a correlation between what grime mcs do on the vocals and what we do it on the instruments, there’s a similar energy. When you grow up in London, you’re just inspired by a mix of these things.”

Labels such as Eglo Records and Peterson’s Brownswood imprint helped put the music out and along with Boiler room, helped project the new sound to a new audience. For Dayes, the more mainstream iteration of jazz in the UK wasn’t particularly inviting for him or his bandmates. “It’s got a vibe now and it’s getting the limelight but it was a bit bougie before, and it could be seen as a bit chin scratchy. We’re jazz influenced but it’s the vibe that’s important. We can wear tracksuits and play, we’re not busting the suit and tie thing.”

Boyd also saw that world as being impenetrable before the new melting pot mentality took over. “I don’t feel there was always a platform for what we were doing. Before it was either you played straight ahead or you played avant-garde. The infrastructure hadn’t caught on with the music.”

Boyd and Dayes both point to club nights as being the breeding ground for the new wave of British jazz. Boyd says the multi-disciplinary art and music night Steez in south London was crucial for him, while for Dayes it was gigging with United Vibrations from the age of 12, busking before eventually playing regular nights at Hackney’s Passing Clouds and The Crypt in Camberwell, where he met his Yussef Kamaal bandmate, Kamall Williams AKA Henry Wu.

At SXSW this year Boyd and Dayes are joined by a group of UK jazz musicians who come to a country that’s had it’s own new wave of jazz – spearheaded by the LA musicians Kamasi Washington, Terrace Martin and Thundercat. Both Boyd and Dayes are reticent to draw too many parallels between the two scenes, with Dayes saying the UK offering is influenced by sounds – like jungle, broken beat and grime – that could only ever come from Britain.

“It’s been an influence,” Dayes says. “But we’re doing our thing as well. Let’s not worry about anything thing else and just do our things – making your own identity and having your own voice is the most important thing.”

The British Jazz SXSW showcase takes place on 15 March from 8pm at 603 Red River Street, Austin, Texas


Lanre Bakare in Austin, Texas

The GuardianTramp

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