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Jazz in Britain, Part 1

Jazz in Britain 1The title of this two-part series is a homage to John Muir, a friend of 40-odd years ago. As a BBC radio producer, Muir saved John Peel’s career at the corporation in 1968 by giving him a Radio 1 show called Night Ride. He also booked Roxy Music for their first broadcast on Sounds of the Seventies, and supervised a series titled Jazz in Britain, devoted to the emerging generation of John Stevens, John Surman, Tony Oxley, Trevor Watts, Howard Riley and so on. John died recently, aged 80. I thought of him as being the best kind of BBC person: calm, civilised, culturally literate and unobtrusively fearless. Here are eight new albums by artists he would certainly have booked for a series of Jazz in Britain in 2017. Together they demonstrate that we are experiencing a new golden age of British jazz.

Binker & Moses: Journey to the Mountain of Forever (Gearbox). Dem Ones, a first album of duets for tenor saxophone and drums by Binker Golding and Moses Boyd, deservedly won praise and awards last year. This follow-up starts in a similar vein, with a further disc of two-part inventions, even more confident and assured. But the second disc is where things get really interesting as they add guests in various permutations. Byron Wallen (trumpet), Evan Parker (saxophones), Tori Handsley (harp), Sarathy Korwar (tabla) and Yussef Dayes (drums) join Golding and Boyd on a trip through tones and textures, creating a beautifully spacious set of improvisations, uncluttered but full of interest. The exotic titles suggest some kind of fantastical narrative is going on, but the music tells its own story.

Alexander Hawkins: Unit[e] (AH). Another two-disc set, its first half consisting of seven pieces recorded last October by Hawkins’s excellent and now disbanded sextet, featuring Shabaka Hutchings (reeds), Otto Fischer (guitar), Dylan Bates (violin), Neil Charles (bass) and Tom Skinner (drums). “[K]now”, featuring a recitation by Fischer, is a highlight. The second disc consists of pieces recorded this January by a 13-piece ensemble in which Hawkins, Bates, Fischer and Charles are joined by others including Laura Jurd, Percy Pursglove and Nick Malcolm (trumpets), Julie Kjaer (flutes and reeds), Alex Ward (clarinet), Hannah Marshall (cello) and Matthew Wright (electronics). This is dense but open-weave music, containing a composed element but sounding almost wholly improvised and writhing with invention. It’s on Hawkins’s own label (information at and it’s outstanding.

Yazz Ahmed: La Saboteuse (Naim). A friend of mine describes this as “Silent Way-era Miles w/Arabic textures”, which is a fair summary. Yazz, her quarter-tone trumpet and her fine octet are investigating ways of blending jazz with the music of Bahrain, her parents’ country. At a late-night concert in Berlin last November the audience didn’t know them and they didn’t know the audience, but after an hour the musicians were able to walk away in triumph. Dudley Phillips’s bass guitar and Martin France’s drums keep the grooves light and crisp, Lewis Wright’s vibes solos are always a pleasure, and the combination of Yazz’s trumpet or flugelhorn with Shabaka Hutchings’s bass clarinet gives the ensemble a pungent and distinctive character.

Olie Brice Quintet: Day After Day (Babel). I love this band, led by a brilliant bassist and completed by Alex Bonney (cornet), Mike Fletcher (alto), George Crowley (tenor) and Jeff Williams (drums). What it has is the loose-limbed fluidity I associate with the New York Contemporary Five, the band that included Don Cherry, John Tchicai and Archie Sheep, with just a hint of Albert Ayler’s Bells ensemble. But it’s not derivative. It’s a continuation, and a worthwhile one. Brice’s own playing is exceptionally strong (he can make me think of Wilbur Ware, Henry Grimes and Jimmy Garrison), his compositions provide the perfect platform for the horns, and Williams swings at medium tempo with such easy grace that you could think you were listening to Billy Higgins.

Denys Baptiste: The Late Trane (Edition). Almost 50 years after John Coltrane’s death, there is no real consensus about the music of his last two years, when the turbulent spirituality took over and blurred the outlines that had been so clear on A Love Supreme and Crescent. Baptiste takes a conservative approach to the late material, enlisting a fine band — Nikki Yeoh (keyboards), Neil Charles or Gary Crosby (bass) and Rod Youngs (drums), with the great Steve Williamson (tenor saxophone) on a couple of tracks — to support his own tenor and soprano on Trane’s tunes (including “Living Space” and “Dear Lord”) and a couple of originals. Rather than taking them further out, he draws them nearer in through the subtle application of more recent styles, including funk, reggae and a touch of electronics. The sincerity of the homage is never in doubt.

Chris Biscoe / Allison Neale: Then and Now (Trio). One of the unsung heroes of British jazz since his arrival as a promising saxophonist with NYJO in the early ’70s, Biscoe sticks to the baritone instrument on this release, joined by Neale’s alto saxophone as they explore the mood of the albums Gerry Mulligan made with Paul Desmond in the late ’50s and early ’60s. With Colin Oxley’s guitar, Jeremy Brown’s bass and Stu Butterfield’s drums in support, the approach is deceptively relaxed: this music may not bear the burden of innovation but it demands high standards of execution and integrity. The intricate improvised counterpoint on “The Way You Look Tonight” refracts Mulligan/Desmond through the Tristano prism.

Freddie Gavita: Transient (Froggy). Fans of the Hubbard/Hancock/Shorter era of the Blue Note label would enjoy investigating the debut by this young graduate of the Royal Academy of Music and NYJO, the possessor of a beautifully rounded tone on both trumpet and flugelhorn. His shapely compositions hit a series of fine and varied grooves, lubricated by Tom Cawley’s piano, Calum Gourlay’s bass and James Maddren’s drums. The obvious comparison, for Blue Note adherents, is Empyrean Isles: not such a terrible thing with which to be compared, is it?

The Runcible Quintet: Five (FMR). Recorded live in April at the Iklectik club in Lambeth, this is music in the tradition of the Karyobin-era Spontaneous Music Ensemble, which means that Neil Metcalfe (flute), Adrian Northover (soprano saxophone), Daniel Thompson (acoustic guitar), John Edwards (bass) and Marcello Magliocchi (drums) require sharp ears, focused empathy, fast reflexes and a command of extended instrumental techniques. It’s funny to think that this tradition is only two or three years younger than those heavily referenced in some of the preceding records, but in such capable hands as these it retains its ability to startle and provoke. Edwards, as always, is staggering.

* Part 2 of this Jazz in Britain series will deal with reissues.

20 Comments Post a comment
  1. Russell #

    Thanks for sharing your recollections of Nightride which I always thought was a more natural successor to The Perfumed Garden than Top Gear although my memory suggest it was Radio 3 (and Late Junction makes a belated successor).
    Looking forward to your Berlin choices this year.

    June 23, 2017
  2. Loz Speyer #

    Hey Olie have you seen this? you’re in here with your quintet – congratulations!



    June 23, 2017
  3. Saverio Pechini #

    How come the new golden age of British Jazz is full of references to ’50s and ’60s american jazz or ’60s british improv(SME)?

    June 24, 2017
    • Fair point. But, as William Faulkner wrote, “The past isn’t dead and buried. It isn’t even past.”

      June 24, 2017
      • GuitarSlinger #

        True enough . But don’t you think as Norway especially has that its about time y’all puts aside the pretense of trying to be like us ( the past US ) and start coming up with something of your own ?

        If you ask me the likes of Pentangle have laid the groundwork .. question is other than Surman ..who’s gonna step up taking the mantle of UK Jazz originality upon themselves .. and I know y’all got it in ya 😎

        June 27, 2017
    • Colin Harper #

      Ian Carr, were he around today, might have been able to answer your question, Saverio. I’ve just come across this memorable argument from an interview with him in a (short-lived?) British jazz mag called ‘Into Jazz’ from 1974:

      Ian: ‘Britain iscertainly the most Philistine country in Europe… Britain just seems to be more interested in cash and class [than the arts]… Also England tends to produce obsessional people like butterfly collectors, and the Lewis Carrolls: very creative but a bit cranky, so you get cranky old men producing jazz magazines that look into the past all the time…’

      Ian went on to rant at length about how everything art/music/media related in Britain was crammed into London, as opposed to Europe where lots of little towns and regions took a pride in their local arts scenes and had done so for decades. (He illustrates this with an anecdote about what a dismal, godforsaken time he had had recent to the interview when he had 5 hours to kill before a train in Manchester; I think Manchester has improved a bit since then…) He probably had a point, though, in terms of the Europe comparison, the London-centricity, the English character, etc.

      Indeed, I should probably hold my own hand up: here I am in 2017 leafing through a jazz magazine from 1974! I do go to see the odd current jazz live music thing, but in the UK it’s still all London-centric, I’m afraid. Two or three gigs and I’ve probably seen most of the Northern Ireland jazz players worth seeing. Twice.

      But for those of us who weren’t around as punters/music buyers in the 60s and early 70s, catching up with British jazz of that era is great fun. I can quite understand if young London jazzers are discovering the same stuff, and that it comes out in their own music. There’s only so many notes and so many ways to play them.

      June 27, 2017
      • Saverio Pechini #

        Yes I have some Into Jazz issues and I was aware of that interview . Speaking of Manchester : Matthew Halsall hails from that city and his (early)music’s reference point is clearly the Carr – Rendell quintet : is it new or retro?

        June 29, 2017
  4. tonyh82 #

    Great piece. Looking forward to part 2. I was lucky enough to work with Gilles Peterson on the 2 vols of British jazz from 60s/70s, ‘Impressed’, back in early 2000s. Was great fun getting the names of Mike Garrick, Don Rendell etc known to a new audience. I exec produced the short-lived reissue series Impressed Re-pressed that issues Mike Taylor, Garrick, Amancio D’Silva, Neil Ardley… Then Universal lost interest. A real tale of woe. I actually put together another comp, Jazz Britannia*, for Universal in 2009. Still unreleased. If you want to hear it let me know. Extensive notes too covering development of jazz in UK 1900-1975. I hope someone will get to hear it some day… material from Rendell, Ardley, Harry South, Dick Morrissey, Joe Harriott and more.

    *I also worked on the BBC TV series Jazz Britannia.

    June 24, 2017
  5. Colin Harper #

    I daresay you know already Richard, but one of John Muir’s ‘Jazz In Britain’ sessions has just been released on CD (Neil Ardley & the New Jazz Orchestra: On The Radio: BBC Sessions 1971) by Dusk Fire – Neil Ardley’s otherwise unrecorded composition 26-minute composition ‘The Time Flowers’, featuring Ian Carr, Don Rendell, Frank Ricotti and Barry Guy plus the BBC string section, the London Studio Players. It’s a fabulous piece, to my ears. A rather earnest spoken intro by the presenter on that occasion is also included – a beacon from another time.

    June 24, 2017
    • Yes, Colin — I’ve been listening it, and it’ll be in my next piece.

      June 25, 2017
  6. Mick Steels #

    “The Way You Look Tonight” has received some wonderful interpretations from Billie to Getz, if the estimable Chris Biscoe measures up to those it will be certainly worth a listen.
    The Tristano prism reference represents criticism of the highest order insisting the reader investigates immediately, which I duly will

    June 24, 2017
  7. gp #

    excellent. Personally I feel grateful to Shabaka for the unstoppable determination to build musical bridges and comradeships on the british scene and abroad, opening up new directions in the process

    June 24, 2017
  8. Craig Jennings #

    Dear Richard,

    I’m not sure if this email will reach you or not, but in any case, thank you for your latest post because if I hadn’t read it, I might perhaps never have discovered Yazz Ahmed – her music is wonderful and right up my street. Listening to one of her tracks on YouTube, I came across Mammal Hands for the first time, who have also made some achingly beatiful music. I haven’t been this excited about new music for a while, and I’m happy to say it’s time to do some CD shopping.

    I must also tell you how much, over the years, I have enjoyed your writing, particularly the piece on Charly Gaul that you contributed to The Cycling Anthology. I’m a keen student of cycling history and like reading about the more interesting characters in the sport rather than the more obvious champions, so your essay really hit the spot.

    Anyway, I’m not sure what you get in the way of appreciative correspondence, but I just wanted to drop you a few lines to let you know that I for one am very appreciative of what you do, and look forward to your next post.

    Warm regards,

    Craig Jennings Kobe, Japan

    June 25, 2017
    • Craig — Thanks for the very kind words. Always pleased to hear that the words have some value. Give my regards to Kobe — I have very happy memories from a stay in 2002. RW.

      June 25, 2017

    A very accurate assessment of the current UK jazz scene, Richard – I agree entirely; I really can’t remember a time when there have been so many great musicians to listen to, both on record/CD and live. I guess I’m fortunate to be close enough to London to attend gigs regularly but you could go to any one of a number of venues – Cafe Oto, Vortex, Pizza Express, Iklektic, Con Cellar, Spice of Life, to name a few – during the course of an average week and be guaranteed to hear great British jazz.

    One point that should also be remarked upon is the vital contribution being made in the UK by female musicians at present. You have mentioned Yazz Ahmed – whose album I am expecting delivery of any time soon – and Allison Neale, along with Tori Handsley, whose lovely harp playing is featured on the new Binker and Moses release, and Nikki Yeoh’s superb piano playing on the Denys Baptiste album . But a partial list of some of the other really fine female jazz musicians in the UK would include Laura Jurd on trumpet, the saxophonists Tori Freestone, Josephine Davies and Rachel Musson, along with the exceptional Camilla George whose quartet features the implausibly gifted pianist Sarah Tandy, the guitarist Shirley Tetteh, and pianists Alcyona Mick and Nikki Iles. There are some really fantastic singers as well – Jessica Radcliffe and Alice Zawadski for example. And new players continue to appear – the saxophonists Nubya Garcia, and the other members of the band Nerija, and Helena Kay are surely names to watch. So, a great time for UK jazz, and the general level of excellence is one that the ladies are contributing to in full measure.

    June 26, 2017
    • MJG #

      and Elaine Mitchener, with Alex Hawkins or without

      June 27, 2017
  10. John Blandford #

    I didn’t know John Muir had died, and I’m sorry to hear this. After he left the BBC he went to Arts Council England and we often worked together in the early 1980’s. I suspect the political environment of the Arts Council wasn’t his cup of tea, and there were always arguments about jazz funding, but he was a very nice man and we always got on well at a personal level.

    On a brighter note I’m pleased to see the inclusion of ‘Then and Now’ on the list, it’s one of my personal favourites of the last year.

    June 28, 2017
  11. MIchael #

    I hope it’s ok to say here that Binker and Moses, and Denys Babtiste band (with Evan Parker) are playing in the Southampton University Turner SIms Hall autumn season.

    June 28, 2017
  12. Mark Farrar #

    I too enjoyed the company of John Muir, albeit not until the 1980s, and his love of new explorative music came through strongly. A sad loss

    June 29, 2017
  13. Mark Farrar #

    A good obit by Bill Aitken, author of ‘Rock on the Radio’

    June 29, 2017

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