John Fordham: Portico Quartet's Mercury nomination illustrates the jazz dilemma

The Portico Quartet's Mercury sales spike proves jazz needs and deserves a wider audience

Mercury-nominated Portico Quartet on the South Bank, where they used to busk. Photograph: Martin Argles

Many cheers to Portico Quartet for their nomination to the shortlist of this week's Mercury prize. They didn't get anywhere near winning, of course (the jazz acts never do, but if people stopped calling interesting bands of any genre "acts" it might be a big step in the right direction) but when The Times reported sales of their album Knee Deep In The North Sea being up 256% after they were shortlisted, the real PR value of this kind of exposure comes home to roost.

Within that simple statistic and the phenomenon that triggered it, lies the jazz dilemma. Most people know very little about the music, because information about it rarely enters the mainstream - so the simplest thing for potential audiences to do is buy the knee-jerk summary, which is that jazz is either impossibly weird or impossibly old. Jazz is hardly ever on TV, unless the subject is a legendary and probably long-departed artist - like the much-repeated, and perfectly honourable, documentary on singing star Ella Fitzgerald made last year, to which it should be said this writer was a happy contributor. When it's on the radio, it's either so wall-to-wall "smooth" as to be almost unlistenable (and in a way, as background music, designed to be) or it's in a variety of specialist slots on Radio 2 or 3 that people don't come across unless they know what they're looking for. But when a jazz or jazz-influenced band jumps the barriers - so listeners don't know any more whether they're supposed to be a jazz audience or not - then the appeal of this inquisitive and audacious form of music-making (and that's what it is, not a genre) bursts through.

One of the most compelling examples in recent years has been The Bad Plus, the piano trio that won itself that rarest of jazz welcomes nowadays - the major-label record deal - for exposing classic pop hits to the merciless scrutiny of technically startling and conceptually revelatory free-improvisation. In 2006, for a Guardian Film & Music feature I talked to Bad Plus pianist Ethan Iverson about the temptations and dangers of much the same kind of temporary exposure Portico Quartet are getting now. "Sales like ours are marginal to big companies," Iverson said. "Whatever the Bad Plus have sold, I'm sure it didn't pay for coffee in that huge building Sony has on 56th and Madison." The Bad Plus lost its big record deal pretty fast, once the industry reminded itself, as it periodically does, that the gap between pop sales and exceptional jazz sales is still too wide for the average accounts department. If Portico Quartet get the same break, the same outcome will follow, it's just a question of when.

Portico Quartet reflect on their place in the current jazz scheme of things in this JazzUK conversation. And if you want to hear just why The Bad Plus tempts the industry with catchy hooks, then exhilaratingly subverts the implications with its improvising energies, don't miss them tomorrow (Friday) at London's Cafe De Paris on a last-minute promotional show for their upcoming album For All I Care.


John Fordham

The GuardianTramp

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