The British jazz explosion: meet the musicians rewriting the rulebook

The UK is home to a diverse, collaborative and newly confident jazz scene. We meet seven musicians whose innovative sounds are liberating the genre for new audiences

Every so often, British jazz pops its head above the parapet, gets a Mercury nomination, and has a noodle on telly to remind everyone that it’s still there, like it’s always been, parping away from mainstream view. For many of us, jazz has seemed like something other people listened to. But in the past few years, the genre has had a serious overhaul. When Kendrick Lamar released his landmark album To Pimp a Butterfly in 2015, one of its most extraordinary aspects was its liberal use of jazz, which dovetailed with hip-hop and opened it up for a new generation. Not only did it immediately feel more accessible but, played by the likes of strikingly cosmic characters such as Thundercat and Kamasi Washington, it looked commandingly cool.

In the UK, a new and thrilling jazz movement has evolved. As with Lamar, Thundercat and Washington, it is born out of fresh experimentalism, is reaching far younger, more diverse audiences and doesn’t care for snootiness. Unlike in previous waves, these musicians are in their 20s and early 30s, come from diverse backgrounds and, as with grime, have created their own community outside of major labels and concert halls. Their music, meanwhile, pulls liberally from other genres, whether hip-hop, neo-soul, UK club sounds such as broken beat, or from the African and Caribbean diaspora. And it’s not just at gigs that you can hear it but, much like in the acid jazz days, nightclubs too. British DJs such as Bradley Zero and Floating Points have liberated jazz for the dancefloor to the extent that it’s now not unheard of for a 10-minute Pharaoh Sanders odyssey to be spun on the decks to an appreciative, twentysomething crowd.

Notable, too, is how prolific this wave is, with jazz musicians infiltrating summer music festival listings, signing to indie labels or taking their sound abroad. The sheer volume of talent is being recognised across the world. “Wherever I’m travelling, whether it’s in the States, Argentina, Japan, or all over Europe, everyone is talking to me about the British invasion,” says DJ and broadcaster Gilles Peterson, who himself helped usher in the acid jazz sound of the mid-80s. “I’ve had people talking about Courtney Pine and Steve Williamson in slightly hushed tones, but I’ve never had this before. They feel this is a very important movement.”

The movement hasn’t just sprung out of nowhere. In London especially there is the sense that today’s jazz musicians have come up together over the past few years. They are collaborative, constantly threading through one another’s projects, and jamming together at a number of DIY stomping grounds, including the Church of Sound in an east London chapel and Dalston’s Total Refreshment Centre. South of the river, where much of the capital’s abundant scene has coalesced, music nights Steez and weekly Afrofuturism session Steam Down – recently attended by Kamasi Washington – are where players team up and try out new material. Broadcaster Teju Adeleye says: “The artists don’t feel like inaccessible superstars, they come to all the gigs and jam nights.”

Adeleye is one of the new crop of radio hosts who are supporting jazz’s rising stars on internet stations such as NTS and Worldwide FM. “Having affordable spaces where people can go and experiment in front of audiences is important,” she says. “It fosters something genuine in a city where so much is driven by corporate ventures.” Also crucial are the jam sessions and artist development charities that have nurtured many of the new wave. These include Tomorrow’s Warriors, at London’s Southbank Centre, whose ethos is to support the development of jazz newbies, especially women and musicians of colour. It’s an ethos shared by Jazz re:freshed, Justin McKenzie and Adam Moses’s promotions company turned label, which has played a huge part in supporting new jazz, whether giving musicians a stage in the UK or overseas.

Perhaps what’s most exciting, though, is the sense that this generation is wresting jazz from its gatekeepers and making it their own. With this scene, says Adeleye, “not everyone is classically or formally trained”, and as a result “there’s an accessible, anti‑hero energy that feels like sweet vindication for a music that should be for everyone, but has felt locked away and preserved only for a few. They’ve liberated the sound.”

Soweto Kinch, an established saxophonist who runs Birmingham-based jam session The Live Box, agrees. “Genre boundaries are more fluid,” he says. “There’s less kowtowing to the jazz police.” The UK’s next-gen jazzers have an important confidence and it’s bolstered by the fact that their audience want to hear something original. It’s why Kinch hopes this jazz wave won’t end up being a wave at all, but will be here to stay: “It’s music of quality and of longevity; it’s not disposable new music,” he says. Peterson agrees: “This lot are all doing original music, and that’s a really important sign. The last thing jazz needs is another version of Summertime or Feeling Good. Just make original music – that’s what people want.”

Moses Boyd: ‘Seeing how Gilles Peterson used jazz in club culture, the dots all started to connect for me’

London-based drummer, composer and producer, 26

Moses Boyd.

“I’ve been in Cape Town and people are talking about what’s going on here,” says Moses Boyd of the London jazz scene, which he has played a central role in shaking up and making new over the past few years. “In New York and at South by Southwest, people stop me in the street and show interest. It’s definitely a good time.”

Boyd grew up in Catford, south-east London, absorbing a wide range of musical influences, even as he found his rhythm as a jazz drummer. “I was into [grime collective] Roll Deep and I was into Duke Ellington, there was no separation to me,” says the 26-year-old. “It was just me following my interests.”

You can hear this very clearly in Boyd’s 2017 solo EP Absolute Zero, which fuses live jazz drumming with synthesised sounds and grime rhythms. Even his more straightforward jazz tracks have the potential to fill dancefloors. When he recorded Rye Lane Shuffle in 2016, Boyd sent it to his mentor Sam Shepherd, AKA DJ and producer Floating Points. “Before I knew it, Sam had cut a dubplate and was sending me videos of him spinning it across the world. Suddenly my inbox was filling with DJs asking, ‘Where can I get this?’ That was a big shift for me.”

These days Boyd is surrounded by jazz musicians with a similarly open-minded approach to genre and process, but 10 years ago, when he started playing around London, things felt very different. “There was a big audience but it wasn’t really people like me. The jazz world felt very separate.”

Touring with Soweto Kinch and meeting Gilles Peterson helped Boyd find his own way. “Seeing how Gilles used jazz in club culture, the dots all started to connect for me. I was like, ‘there is a place for the music I’ve been hearing in my head’. Because it’s easy to get disillusioned: maybe it’s just me, maybe I’m in the wrong country, maybe I’m some alien planted here. But gradually it started to click.”

It’s not just the music and the people behind it that are changing, he says, but also “how it’s all presented. Obviously technology has a big part to play. Whether it’s through Instagram or Twitter, you’re seeing more of the personalities behind the music. Our generation has been a lot more switched-on to how the music is branded and where it’s featured – like, does it go in the jazz listings or on [electronic music listings site] Resident Advisor?”

Another big influence on the current sound, Boyd says, is London itself and its vibrant sound‑system culture. “I think London is a unique place, a very culturally integrated place,” he says. “You walk down the street and hear 10 different languages being spoken and that’s not strange. That definitely seeps into the music.”

Interview by Killian Fox

Moses Boyd plays at the Love Supreme jazz festival, Glynde, East Sussex, 29 June-1 July

Shabaka Hutchings : ‘Young musicians aren’t trying to satisfy the standards that were set by jazz in the past’

London-based bandleader and saxophone and clarinet player, 33

Shabaka Hutchings.

Shabaka Hutchings is easily one of the most interesting bandleaders of the past decade. He deals in shape-shifting sax and clarinet, but it’s his carefree approach to other genres that’s established him as a musical outlier who’s rattling rigid jazz traditions. His three projects, Shabaka and the Ancestors, Sons of Kemet and The Comet Is Coming – the latter a nominee in the Mercury’s “token jazz category”, he jokes – are peppered variously with calypso, dub, Afrofuturist beats and hat-tips to Sun Ra, Miles Davis and sweat‑soaked New Orleans party music.

Trumpeter and Gondwana label boss, Matthew Halsall, calls Hutchings “the Kamasi Washington of the UK jazz scene” and it’s easy to see why. Hutchings – who is from Birmingham by way of Barbados, where he lived till he was 16 – is a similarly gifted brass player, has a commanding presence, and comes with a penchant for all things cosmic. He is also as ubiquitous, having played with the likes of mid-00s breakthroughs Melt Yourself Down, Ethio-jazz pioneer Mulatu Astatke and Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, on the latter’s soundtrack for Paul Thomas Anderson’s film The Master.

The fact that Hutchings has “never been completely comfortable with jazz” figures. “When I was younger, I struggled with how to play jazz as the great art form,” he says, which is why his music pulls from so many different places instead. “I might be in a regular jazz quartet, and I might want to write something that’s complex, [but I’ll] rack my brains and come out with something more simple – and maybe that’s a bashment bassline.” There’s plenty of the latter on the new Sons of Kemet album, Your Queen Is a Reptile, which explores dual Caribbean and British identities. Its songs, named after lesser-heralded influential women from history, reject the monarchy, finding new “queens” to celebrate instead – such as Angela Davis and Doreen Lawrence – with Hutchings’s sax and clarinet tangled with Theon Cross’s tuba and guest MCing from junglist Congo Natty.

Hutchings is also helping to document the scene, and last month oversaw We Out Here, a compilation that spotlights south London’s rising stars. He gathered together Maisha, Ezra Collective, Moses Boyd, Theon Cross, Nubya Garcia, Triforce, Joe Armon-Jones and Kokoroko and recorded them over three days of jamming last year. He says of these musicians that, much like him, “the differences in the generation now and generations past is that it feels like young musicians aren’t trying to satisfy the standards that were set by jazz in the past. They’re just going, ‘What is the music that represents me today?’”

This generation are bringing with them a younger audience, though it tickles Hutchings because, at 33, he’s old enough to remember “the time where jazz wasn’t cool at all. If you said, ‘I play jazz’, people were just like, ‘Oh no, that’s terrible’.” But he suggests that jazz will continue to innovate regardless of trends. Like punk, “it’s an attitude of, ‘Fuck it, we’re doing something that’s probably not going to be popular anyway’. Jazz is that music that no one’s expecting to go anywhere, and the musicians are just getting on with it.”

Interview by Kate Hutchinson

Your Queen Is a Reptile by Sons of Kemet is out now on Impulse!

Sheila Maurice-Grey: ‘People are taking from different aspects of their culture and making it a British thing’

London-based trumpeter, 27

Sheila Maurice-Grey.

If there is a movement happening in the UK, says Sheila Maurice-Grey, then it’s not limited to jazz alone, it’s a “new wave of British culture”. The 27-year-old trumpeter and visual artist grew up in Vauxhall, south-west London, her mother from Sierra Leone, her father from Guinea Bissau and her stepfather from South Africa and Zimbabwe. She says that heritages such as hers – “this idea that I’m British, but I’ll never be classed as English” – is “what’s adding to the scene everyone keeps talking about”. She and her peers are changing things up because they are “taking from different aspects of their culture and making it a British thing”.

Maurice-Grey was encouraged to pick up her instrument by the late Mat Fox, who as well as being her music teacher also ran the carnival band-style youth project Kinetika Bloco. She was inspired to hold her own masterclasses as part of Kinetika, called Bloco Lates, because “it’s important to always be aware of the people coming behind you”. Kinetika is also where the west African influences in her band, Kokoroko, have come from. She met their percussionist, Onome Edgeworth, during a musical project in Kenya and the two were “complaining to each other that there are so many Afrobeat bands in the UK that perform for people that don’t look like us”. They decided to start a group to challenge that and represent “the idea of being young, black and British”.

She says the jazz world at large is closed off “and that’s a big problem”. She belongs to a seven-strong, mostly female collective, Nérija, and says, “most of our audience is basically white, middle-class [and] upper-class, elderly people. It’s cool, but that’s not what we want to do. In the next five years, we want to play to people our age.” But the jazz establishment is finally waking up to her generation, and Kokoroko are themselves due to play London jazz club Ronnie Scott’s in May. Maurice-Grey thinks there’s still a way to go; Scott’s is “trying to develop a new relationship with different artists, it’s interesting,” she says, one eyebrow raised – but she’s ready for the test of trying to make a seated dinner club get up and dance. “The audience is very much part of the show,” she says. “There’s no us and them. It’s more about collaborating to make it magical. We’re all part of this journey.” KH

Yazmin Lacey: ‘There’s an undercurrent of everybody speaking their truth now, and that’s what jazz means’

Nottingham-based singer-songwriter, 29

Yazmin Lacey.

Yazmin Lacey didn’t exactly elbow her way into a career as a singer of smoky, soulful jazz music; she had to be enticed. Growing up in a musical family in east London, she had a strong singing voice but never felt inclined to show it off. Shortly after moving to Nottingham in 2013, she let her guard down. “I’d had a lot to drink,” she laughs. “Someone persuaded me to sing. Then this girl came over and said, ‘Oh my gosh, I run this acoustic night, do you want to perform?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, take my number.’

“Three days later I saw that she’d put my name on a flyer. That freaked me out,” Lacey tells me when we meet in central London. But she kept her promise and, accompanied by a guitarist, performed three songs to a small room above a Nottingham vegan cafe. It helped that she was far from home. “I don’t think I would have done it if I was in London,” she says. “Some of [the lyrics were] so honest and not meant to be heard by people I know. But up in Nottingham, where I didn’t know anyone, I was like, ‘Fuck it.’”

Gradually, while working at a children’s charity by day, Lacey built up a repertoire and a following. Performing at a night organised by Gilles Peterson’s Brownswood Recordings brought her to the attention of Future Bubblers, the label’s talent discovery scheme, and she was accepted on to the year-long development programme in 2015. It connected her with like-minded musicians and set her up to release an assured, richly melodic EP called Black Moon last summer. A second EP, 90 Degrees, is out on 19 May.

Though her music blurs genres, including R&B, soul, reggae and even garage, the 29-year-old feels especially connected to the resurgent British jazz scene – she cites Ezra Collective, Nubya Garcia and Shabaka Hutchings as inspirations. “I think there’s an undercurrent of everybody speaking their truth now,” she says, “and for me that’s what jazz means. It’s rebellion music, there are no rules. You sing from the heart, tell the stories that are real, say what you see, what’s going on in society. There’s a strength in that.”

She finds strength, too, in collaborating with other musicians. “My guitarist said something that really stuck with me: when it was just the two of us, the music sounded so lonely and delicate, but play the same song now with a band and it sounds really powerful. That’s jazz in action: people connecting and talking about what’s real.” KF

Matthew Halsall: ‘Manchester is different to the London scene. The people I work with are quite spiritual’

Manchester-based trumpeter, composer, arranger and bandleader, and founder of Gondwana Records, 34

Matthew Halsall.

Manchester may be best known for its wayward rave days, but Matthew Halsall has more recently helped to put the city on the jazz map. A trumpeter from the age of six, he grew up in a mill town near Wigan and balances music-making with running Gondwana Records, the label he started 10 years ago to capture the cross-pollination of jazz with hip-hop, trip-hop, classical and electronic styles that was happening live on stage at a Manchester haunt called Matt & Phred’s.

The venue was a hub for acts such as the Cinematic Orchestra, hosting jam sessions where Halsall, now 34, was able to play alongside local A-listers including Nat Birchall, Jon Thorne and Chip Wickham. Inspired by their shared sensibilities, he began building his own collective, explaining how “all the early Gondwana releases were the same group of Manchester’s most interesting musicians performing together on each other’s records”.

The sound they’ve developed references the ruminative approach of John and Alice Coltrane – but it’s also distinctively northern and, says Gilles Peterson, “beautifully delicate”.

“Someone wrote that it has a ‘rain-stricken spiritual jazz feel to it’,” says Halsall. “It’s definitely different to the London scene. In some ways it’s more mellow and floaty. The people I work with are quite spiritual and into meditation, and a lot of them live in the countryside, so they are very chilled out.”

Meditation in particular, he says, is “ingrained in the music”, Halsall having attended the Maharishi Free School in West Lancashire, which teaches a “consciousness-based education”. These days, though, he is “more interested in the exciting movement of a larger number of people”, adding that jazz has “always been greater than the sum of its parts”. It’s why he started the Gondwana Orchestra, an official ensemble of his regular players, who’ll be performing as part of the label’s 10th anniversary festival at London’s Roundhouse in October, alongside established minimalists Portico Quartet and north African‑inspired Norwich newcomers Mammal Hands, who have also recently released music on the label.

Back in Manchester, Halsall says, there is a “massive demand” for jazz, with his early discovery and last year’s Mercury prize nominees GoGo Penguin due to play the city’s Albert Hall in November. And it continues to evolve, too. “The hip-hop scene in Manchester has brought in a lot of jazz recently, and when I go out on weekends it’s amazing now how many DJs will be playing jazz records.” Being a hometown hero, even an unassuming one in a flat cap and cardigan, does he get stopped on the street? “Yeah, yeah I do,” he says. “You wouldn’t think that was possible in the jazz world. But people are really into it now.” KH

Gondwana 10 is at the Roundhouse, London NW1, on 10 October

Theon Cross: ‘Playing intensely with two drummers for an hour and a half… that requires real stamina’

London-based tuba player, 25

Theon Cross.

When Theon Cross was eight, his parents signed him and his brother Nathaniel up for brass lessons at school in Nunhead, south London. Nathaniel chose the trombone, and now he’s a prominent trombonist on the London jazz scene. Theon, meanwhile, picked up a French horn. Later he progressed to the euphonium and eventually, when he was big enough to grapple with it, a tuba. Now Cross’s tuba playing underscores some of most exciting UK jazz records of the past few years, including Rye Lane Shuffle by Moses Boyd and the last two albums by Sons of Kemet, as well as his own highly accomplished Aspirations EP from 2015.

The largest and lowest-pitched member of the brass family may seem an odd presence on a London jazz stage – you’re far more likely to see it in marching bands or classical orchestras – but Cross reminds me that “the tuba was actually the first bass in jazz. When they were recording for gramophones, the tuba was the only instrument loud enough to be picked up, so they used it instead of the double bass. It’s been at the forefront right from the start.”

Now Cross is making it a fixture of the new London jazz sound. “It’s an anchor for music, it’s got so much power,” he says. “I’m quite a reserved, quiet guy and I’m amplified by that instrument.” Recently he’s been playing with the London rapper Kano, who features a brass section in his live show. “When I come out at Glastonbury with my tuba, people are like, ‘What’s that about?’ But when they hear me doubling the bassline, they’re like,” – he widens his eyes and nods his head – “‘OK!’”

Cross credits much of his success to good music teachers at school and free workshops around London supported by now-dwindling arts funding. As a teenager, he played with Kinetika Bloco, a youth performance group that runs a summer school at the Southbank Centre. “We’d be playing the Notting Hill carnival or Thames festival and marching for hours,” he says. This prepared him for Sons of Kemet’s frenetic live shows where he plays “intensely with two drummers for an hour and a half. That requires real stamina.”

Much of the year ahead will be given over to Sons of Kemet – he’s just got back from playing with them in São Paulo – but he also needs to clear some space for his own music: he’s releasing a new single in October, with an album to follow around the end of the year.

Clearly, committing to an unusual instrument has not served him badly in the London jazz world. “I’ve been lucky with the tuba,” says Cross. “I’ve always gravitated towards it since I was young. It wasn’t really a choice: I’d say the tuba picked me.” KF

Nubya Garcia: ‘We have an opportunity to create a new dynamic… that’s so exciting to me’

London-based saxophonist and composer, 26

Nubya Garcia.

As one of the few female brass players at the forefront of contemporary jazz, Nubya Garcia is familiar with challenging expectations. “People do look at you, and it used to bother me a lot, but I’m trying to learn how to deal with it,” she says. “If you get comments like ‘Whoa, it’s so nice to see a woman on stage’ every time you gig, which I do, eventually you’re like, ‘Godammit!’ It’s not a negative thing, it’s just that person one doesn’t know that person 30 is also saying that. It’s just normal to me, but not normal to everyone else.”

Garcia, 26, from Camden, north London, graduated from Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance two years ago and since then her career as a saxophonist and composer has taken off. She got back a few days ago from playing taste-making Texas festival South by Southwest, where she was a little unprepared for the demand. “This huge queue of people followed me outside to buy my vinyl,” she says. “I was like, ‘fuck, I’ve only got 11’.” That record was last month’s When We Are, a solo EP laced with jazz, gospel, neo-soul and the electronic touches she picked up under the tutelage of the jazz/dance producer Floating Points. She has also soundtracked a current touring production of A Streetcar Named Desire and she’s part of spiritual jazz-inspired ensemble Maisha. And with Nérija, the collective she is in alongside Sheila Maurice-Grey, she’s just signed her first record deal with indie label Domino.

Nérija formed at Tomorrow’s Warriors, a Southbank Centre jam session founded by scene stalwart Gary Crosby that’s been pivotal in helping young jazz musicians thrive. She says that Warriors was “a warm place of people my own age, that looked like me and came from the same background” and “fed her soul” in a way that her traditional, “rich kids” music education (Garcia was a bursary student) didn’t. Strong bonds were forged there, and she and trumpeter Sheila Maurice-Grey and guitarist Shirley Tetteh would use the practice rooms “every Monday, shed [jazz lingo for hardcore practising], swap music and play tunes we couldn’t play. It gave us a purpose.”

Despite being a relative newcomer herself, Garcia is keen to ensure jazz has a more equal future. She remembers how “a good friend of mine said, ‘So who did you have growing up to look up to, a sax player who’s a woman?’ And I didn’t have anyone. That’s nuts!” It’s why she wants to bring her music to the masses, so that young musicians can see that it’s possible. “[When you ask yourself] ‘Why am I here, why am I doing this?’” she says, “it’s because someone came and put an instrument in our hands rather than say, ‘Hey, you’re a woman, you should sing.’ We have an opportunity to create another dynamic that two, three generations from now could be equal, gender-wise, ethnicity-wise. That’s so exciting to me.” KH

Nubya Garcia plays Field Day, London SE24, 1 June. Moses Boyd, Shabaka Hutchings and Yazmin Lacey are also playing the festival.

Other next-gen jazzers to watch

Blue Lab Beats
North London duo whose forthcoming debut album, Xover, features Nubya Garcia, Moses Boyd, Nérija and poet and rapper Kojey Radical.

Yazz Ahmed
Bahrain-born, London-based trumpeter adding Middle Eastern rhythms to her music.

Ezra Collective
London partyjazz band, with Afrobeat and hip-hop influences and a brightly lit brass section.

Zara McFarlane
Mobo-winning singer whose last album, Arise, shone with hints of Nina Simone and reggae rhythms.

Head honcho at 22a, a label collective of musicians making leftfield electronic jazz for the dancefloor.

Ashley Henry
Pianist inspired by J Dilla and Herbie Hancock.

Alfa Mist
Newham beat-maker who traverses hip-hop, soul, jazz, breakbeat, and grime. KH


Kate Hutchinson. Photographs by Antonio Olmos for the Observer

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