Music has always reflected the times. Musicians, like all artists, are constantly inspired by what they see and hear happening around them. So, it should be no surprise that right now in a country riven with political tension, where its citizens are almost daily forced to confront and examine their own ideas of identity and how they fit in to society, that a new form of music is developing in the UK.
Unlike some of the musical movements that political turmoil and social change have ignited in the past, the emerging London scene is not about aggressive protest (like punk) or drugs (such as 60s psychedelia or late 80s rave); rather it is focused on a sense of joy and celebrating multiculturalism.
This music has no collective title, yet there are a score or more bands and numerous individuals, mostly based in London, that are forging an entirely new genre (multi-stranded though it may be) that is loosely framed around jazz and informed by ultra-contemporary modes like grime along with broken beat, dubstep and house, as well as 60s soul, 70s funk, 80s R&B, 90s hip-hop, while the music of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Sun Ra is never far away.
There are other elements that contribute to this richly layered sound; a plethora of world styles from reggae to afrobeat, from highlife and hiplife to samba and salsa, from Indian raga to South African jaiva; genres that reflect the often-multiple cultural identities of the musicians themselves.
It is this very complexity that perhaps makes this new genre so hard to pin down, classify, and, of course, name.
What is clear though, is that this is the inclusive sound of pluralistic Britain – and that jazz, and especially the form’s championing of improvisation and the freedom it affords, is a vital component. What’s more, there’s an inherent danceability that also refers directly to clubland and helps attract a young audience.
As one of the key members of the movement, drummer Moses Boyd, says: “As times change, and art reflects what’s happening in the world, you look at where we’re at, and what the culture of the community is like here in London, and you add the jazz ethos, and the jazz way of doing things, it’s always going to breed something interesting.
“It’s an experience that can only have been born from us here in London, or in the UK.”
This quote features in the 40-minute documentary We Out Here: A LDN Story that was released last year to coincide with the launch of an album, also titled We Out Here, that aims to capture the very essence of this new musical form.
This nine-track compilation, the brainchild of Gilles Petersen’s Brownswood Recordings label, parades the music of Boyd along with other leading lights of the London scene, including Shabaka Hutchings, Theon Cross, Joe Armon-Jones, Nubya Garcia, and the bands Ezra Collective, Triforce, Kokoroko, and Maisha.
It is the tip of the iceberg though, with other organisations such as Jazz Re:freshed, championing a scene that began to form in the early years of this decade. John Fordham charted the rise of the movement in an article in The Guardian last year, but there’s no doubt that things are gathering pace now, as is evidenced by several events in London in recent weeks.
Armon-Jones, who fronts his own band as well as playing keys in Ezra Collective, played a sell-out gig at London’s Village Underground venue on February 12, to an audience largely of people around his own age (early 20s). While it might not prove as legendary as the Sex Pistols 1976 Manchester gig, it may well serve as the catalyst that gets the London scene more widely recognised and discussed.
The following day, The Guardian reviewer, Ammar Kalia, wrote that, “the vibrant scene has pushed through younger musicians whose audiences reflect their multiculturalism as much as their wide-ranging (musical) tastes”.
Kalia added: “Whatever you want to call this music, it embodies the best of London’s creative spirit – the chaotic friction of multiculturalism and the abundant talent that emerges from it.”
A second notable event occurred the day after the Armon-Jones gig (February 13) with the announcement of Ezra Collective’s debut album, You Can’t Steal My Joy, which is set to be released at the end of April.
The band have issued a couple of EPs thus far that have gained them a solid underground following. Indeed, they sold out the 1,500-capacity KOKO venue in Camden back in November, following a short sell-out tour of smallish venues in several of England’s major cities.
They have also gained column inches in the New York Times, played the celebrated Blue Note jazz club in that city, and are set for a short US tour next month. Indeed, they have just begun another US tour with visits to a series of cult venues, such as The Roxy in LA, and festivals, like South-By-South-West in Texas, on the agenda.
Ezra’s leader and drummer, Femi Koleoso, revealed in an interview with the American National Public Radio website that the new album’s title is a direct reference to Britain’s political upheaval, saying: “Being a young person growing up in this city (London), it feels like every movement the government makes is an attempt to steal our joy. But the joys of this brotherhood, of this music, that’s something you can’t steal.”
And just last week (March 4), Garcia, accompanied by some of the leading lights of the scene (including Armon-Jones, Cross, and Boyd), played a sell-out show at the Village Underground, which again attracted The Guardian’s gaze. Reviewer John Lewis gave the gig the maximum five stars under a headline that read: “History-making jazz in a London accent”.
These three events are notable in themselves, yet they also take their place in a broader pattern of album releases and higher-profile gigs that both affirm the growing emergence of the genre and further define what it is about. Recent significant debut albums include 1000 Kings’ Raw Cause in October, Maisha’s There Is A Place in November, Rosie Turton’s 5ive in January, and SEED Ensemble’s Driftglass and Theon Cross’ Fayah last month, plus Kokoroko and Sarah Tandy in recent weeks, while four-piece Ill Considered have managed seven album releases since forming in mid-2017, due to the fact that everything is wholly improvised, and are set for a prestigious gig at the Southbank Centre in April.
Furthermore, in late January it was announced that the inaugural We Out Here Festival will take place in August and further showcase and strengthen the movement.
What is also interesting to note, is that identifiable vibrant, young jazz scenes are starting to spring up in a host of other UK cities, such as Bristol, Birmingham, Leeds, Manchester, and most intriguingly for us, Glasgow.
By Allan Boughey