That buzz you hear emanating from the jazz underground? It’s London calling. If you’ve paid even cursory attention to the state of modern jazz in recent months, you may have noticed that the scene across the pond is in the midst of an astounding growth period, one spurred by young, hungry artists whose music is leading jazz into the future. Modishly cosmopolitan yet unabashedly gritty, adamantly British while at the same time proudly indebted to the sounds of the Caribbean, India and Middle East, it’s music that strives toward human connection and that’s inspired by the punk, club and dub-step cultures that have been sustained across decades by London’s youth.
All of which is to say that the current London jazz scene is a brash and beautiful composite of sounds, ideas, places and faces. Here, we introduce you to six notable musicians who embody the London jazz spirit, and whose music best typifies the London sound. In talking with these diverse artists, one point that was raised again and again is that the recent explosion of the London jazz scene isn’t really recent — it only appears that way to newcomers in different time zones. In reality, it’s the result of decades of tireless work by a network of artists, publicists, journalists, promoters, radio programmers and educators, all of whom seek to provide creative outlets for the city’s artists. If anything, we hope this list brings you a few steps closer to one of the world’s most vibrant jazz scenes. – Brian Zimmermann
The London jazz renaissance may well begin with Jacob Collier. The 25-year-old North London native’s rise to prominence can be mapped almost line-for-line onto the rise of the U.K. jazz scene as a whole. The precocious, self-taught multi-instrumentalist burst into the popular consciousness in 2012 with a series of viral YouTube videos in which he looped himself playing hits by Stevie Wonder, Earth, Wind & Fire and others on a variety of instruments. For Collier, the goal was never celebrity, but rather to satisfy his own curiosity. “I really just fell in love with chords, harmony and notes,” he says. “If you’re saying I can add four notes to this chord, what happens with six or seven? If you’re saying these notes won’t work, how can I make them work? I was so busy having fun with these chords that I didn’t even know I was having a career.”
But a career was indeed blossoming. Collier’s kinetic energy and online presence eventually caught the ear of jazz kingmaker Quincy Jones, who would help shepherd the young musician toward the release of his first album, In My Room. True to its name, the album was recorded in Collier’s bedroom, with Collier singing, playing and producing everything himself. The album went on to win two Grammy Awards and a JazzFM Award for Best Initiative of the Year. Collier credits his hometown with fostering the sense of experimentation that has nourished his career to this point, acknowledging his city’s sterling track record for musical tolerance. “We were the first country to understand what Hendrix was doing, to understand what finger his pulse was on,” he says. “He broke here first because people have always had their ears and eyes open for people who would come in and break things open. The Beatles and Indian music, George Martin and the string section. These things are possible here, and that’s why I’m so proud to be from this place.”
Much as he’s the perfect avatar for London’s jazz renaissance, Collier is also a key indicator of that scene’s momentous generational shift toward younger listeners. “In London, the thing that’s exciting about jazz is that it’s becoming less like the classical music of pop and more the mixing grounds for a music based in freedom,” he says. “This generation, in so many ways, is defining their ways of doing things, putting our foot down and saying, ‘This is the way we want the world to be, this is the way we feel.’ Music is a great incubator for change. As long as it’s honest, it will communicate anything it needs to.” For anyone that needs proof of Collier’s concept, they need look no further than his latest album, Djesse, Vol. 2, which contains a multitude of sonic universes and social observations in music that sound like nothing else.
For all the seismic activity currently underway in London, perhaps the biggest ripple-maker at the moment is 35-year-old London native Shabaka Hutchings. The saxophonist was born in London but raised in Barbados, returning to the English capital at age 16. He was reared on the music of Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane, coming of age in the jazz clubs of London as a straight-ahead player. But it was through seminal partnerships with jazz-punk bands like Polar Bear and Acoustic LadyLand that he began to reconsider the role of the creative acoustic instrumentalist in modern music and to see its impact on young audiences. “For once, I saw groups of young listeners who felt like they weren’t being turned off by jazz or acoustic music,” he says.
Those early shows served as a turning point in Hutchings’ life, and through additional affiliations with organizations like Courtney Pine’s Jazz Re:Freshed, Hutchings set out to break barriers in jazz and question notions of authenticity, especially as it pertains to jazz’s American origins. “I’d like to think my music comes from the same creative place as the people I admire in America,” he says. “But being in London taught me that I don’t always have to express it in a way that is directly relatable to the American tradition.”
Hutching’s message now resonates as universal truth, but he can recall a time when his pathbreaking music fell on deaf ears. “I remember talking to people at Jazz Re:Freshed 10 years ago, and they were telling me they couldn’t even book artists at the London jazz festival,” he says. “Now those same artists are headlining.” Hutchings, together with his groups The Comet Is Coming, Sons of Kemet and Shabaka and the Ancestors, is largely responsible for that shift. And yet no matter how far the pendulum may have swung in his favor, he’s never one to settle into complacency. He’s already at work on a project with Martinique producer DJ Noss on a project that fuses saxophone and turntables in revolutionary ways. “I want to use jazz to get into those creative spaces where live, acoustic music doesn’t necessarily go,” he says. “But the whole idea is to do it organically, to just try and not be afraid to fail.” Until those new sounds are ready to grace our ears, listeners can look forward to a new Shabaka and the Ancestors album due out in March.
Saxophonist Binker Golding, 34, cut his teeth in the jazz clubs of his native North London, where his primary musical diet included Art Blakey, Sonny Rollins and other pillars of jazz’s mainstream. What drew him to jazz — and what eventually inspired him to pursue his own way through it — was its ability to bring people to the dance floor. “The purest jazz was often the most danceable,” he says. “Somewhere along the way, we exchanged danceability for complexity, and I see a lot of what I do as a way of giving that back to people.”
To do that, he’s cultivated a style that prioritizes emotional connection above pageantry and pomp. His endeavor has garnered popular attention and critical reward, including a 2015 MOBO (Music of Black Origina) Award for his breakout album, Dem Ones, with drummer and frequent collaborator Moses Boyd. He’s also keenly attuned to the polyphony of voices that make up the contemporary London jazz scene, and his music astutely melds influences from cultures that surround him. “Reggae, dancehall, Afrobeat, grime — these are big parts of not just London music but London life,” he says.
Another undeniable influence: the punk culture of the 1970s and‘80s. Golding was born at the tail of end of that era, and says that the current jazz scene vibrates on a similar frequency. “Punk was a really good example of music going back to zero, establishing the real intention of music, which is to communicate with the audience in a really genuine way,” he says. Golding strives toward that sort of connection on his new album, Abstractions of Reality Past & Incredible Feathers, which charts a path between the jazz fusion of previous decades and the hip-hop/broken beat-influenced sound of London’s here and now.
South London-born, Bahrain-raised Yazz Ahmed didn’t set out to become the voice of a movement, but when the nonprofit organization Tomorrow’s Warriors — which promotes the inclusion of minority and female voices in British jazz — reached out to her to pen a piece for the Women’s Day Festival in London in 2015, the 36-year-old trumpeter rose to the challenge and adopted a mantle she was born to wear.
Ahmed came from a family of artists, including a trumpet-playing grandfather and a ballet-dancing mother. After studying jazz in conservatory, she experienced a personal epiphany that set her on a course toward rediscovering her Bahrain heritage. This eureka moment would govern the direction of her art for the next decade, during which time she developed a seamless fusion of jazz and Arabic music on albums such as her aptly titled debut, Finding My Way Home, and her breakout disc from 2018, La Sabatuse. All the while, she was drawing the attention of modern British music kingmakers, appearing on Radiohead’s 2011 live album The King of Limbs: Live from the Basement and touring with the English experimental group These New Puritans.
The experiences opened her art to new forms of hybridity, eventually paving the way to her latest project, Polyhymnia, inspired by the ancient Greek Muse of music, poetry and dance. Each of the album’s tracks is dedicated to a historical female figure or feminist movement: the suffragettes, American civil rights activists Rosa Parks and Ruby Bridges, Pakistani activist and Nobel Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai, Saudi Arabian film director Haifaa al-Mansour and British jazz saxophonist Barbra Thompson. The music is as melodically satisfying as it is socially uplifting, which makes it the perfect musical underpinning for the London scene: “People are reconnecting with their heritage, with their family history, with the things that interest them that aren’t in the mainstream jazz bubble,” Ahmed says. “And they’re not afraid to express it. Because of that, we’re finally hearing an equality of voices in jazz. We’re finally getting a full picture.”
Few artists in the contemporary London scene bring as much raw energy to their performances as Nubya Garcia. The 28-year-old North London daughter of Caribbean parents is renowned for her live shows, which channel all the ecstasy and energy of a Camden rave with the sharp-witted intelligence of a Wayne Shorter gig. And while she’s been an integral presence on the London scene for nearly a decade, she garnered serious international attention after the release of her 2017 debut EP, Nubya’s 5IVE, which featured bone-rattling grooves and electrifying solo chops. But it was her first full-length album, When We Are, that truly established her playing as a vital link between London’s thriving DJ culture and its rapidly accelerating jazz scene.
Today, Garcia enjoys a glowing reputation for her role as a DJ, with a hit radio residency on the world-spanning, genre-defying online radio station NTS. For her work in both the jazz and DJ spheres, she’s earned an impressive co-sign from British tastemaker Gilles Peterson, who featured her prominently on his scene-defining 2018 compilation album We Out Here. As the co-leader of such groups as NÉRIJA and MAISHA, she’s moved to the center of the London jazz wheel, to which so many of the scene’s breakout stars connect to her as spokes. She’s gaining fast traction in the United States as well, having headlined the Winter Jazzfest in New York City in 2018 and drawing huge crowds at this year’s South By Southwest Festival in Austin. Meanwhile, the accolades continue to rack up. Just recently, she was awarded the JazzFM UK Jazz Act of the Year Award for 2019. For Garcia, the future is limitless.
Theon Cross moves in the same circles as the jazz contemporaries featured here, but one (big) thing separates him from the pack: He’s a tuba player, and while his mammoth horn may seem unwieldy, he still manages to bust a major groove (musically and physically; the guy practically head-bangs when he gets in the zone).
With a strong internal rhythm and the energy of a bullet train, Cross, 27, has been a ubiquitous presence one the scene since 2013, bringing the bottom end to ensembles like Hutching’s Sons of Kemet and a trans-Atlantic ensemble helmed by American drum phenom Makaya McCraven. In whatever setting he finds himself, Cross brings an energy on the tuba that is dynamic and alive, drawing heavily from his own Caribbean background and from the Caribbean diaspora at large. Soca, calypso, reggae, zouk, dubstep and grime are all discernable in his sonic palette, but so too are influences from New Orleans second-line music and the great brass-band tradition of the United States. Cross’ studio albums bring all of these elements together and then set them aflame in fresh, often unconventional formats, including the tuba-saxophone-drums trio on his 2015 EP, Aspirations, and the brass-band-meets-synth-pop group on his latest LP, Fyah. And if you thought the tuba was primarily a background voice, you better think again. In Cross’ hands, the tuba is an all-frequency instrument, capable of rattling every cell in your body.
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