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The sound of London 2020

Guitarist Shirley Tetteh at Church of Sound during the EFG London Jazz Festival

Half an hour into BBC4’s special Jazz 625 programme on Saturday night, the journalist Emma Warren remarked that everybody in London’s new jazz scene has their own role to play. You might be making your contribution as a musician, or taking the money on the door. Or, she suggested, your role might be as the first person on the dance floor that night, leading the way for the rest of the audience to join in. That sense of collective commitment was strong throughout the programme.

Timed to coincide with the 2020 London Jazz Festival, the 90-minute show featured many of the most prominent names of the current scene: the drummer Moses Boyd and his band Exodus, the tenor saxophonist Nubya Garcia’s quartet, the trumpeter Sheila Maurice-Grey’s irresistible Kokoroko, the singer Poppy Ajudah with a searing Black Lives Matter song, the powerful Ezra Collective, the drummer Sarathy Korwar, the clarinetist Shabaka Hutchings with Sons of Kemet, the tuba-player Theon Cross with the rapper Consensus, and others. There were interludes exploring the work of Gary Crosby’s Tomorrow’s Warriors project in mentoring so many of the new generation, and a shift up to Manchester reflected the contributions of the trumpeter Matthew Halsall and the saxophonist Nat Birchall.

Boyd co-hosted the show with Jamz Supernova, and something he said was also striking. Every young black jazz musician, he remarked, knows what it feels like to play to a room full of middle-aged white people. And that’s fine, he added. But sometimes you want to play to people like yourself. A sequence of clips from Steam Down in Deptford, the Fox & Firkin pub in Lewisham, Total Refreshment Centre in Hackney Downs and other London venues in pre-pandemic times showed what he meant.

This music restores a sense of jazz’s old physicality. While strong on a belief in the tradition, it blends in elements of the music absorbed by younger players: hip-hop and its offshoots, reggae, Afro-beat. In that way, too, it recalls jazz’s origins as a musical broth, a bouillabaisse, a gumbo, embracing influences rather than distilling the flavour out of them.

It believes in rhythm and it believes in warmth. Communication is the priority, but without compromise. Lessons from the more abstract directions of contemporary jazz are deployed as extra tools. There are rough edges and signs of what some older listeners might see as naivety. But to watch and listen to the development of these musicians, to hear them stretching their limbs and discovering their own potential, is a thing of wonder and infinite pleasure.

In Saturday’s show the various groups were playing without an audience and in a socially distanced format. The same was true of the livestreams of the festival gigs I was able to watch. What really impressed me was that a movement nourished by the spontaneity and feedback of an intimate live setting proved able to flourish in a completely different environment. If they were being set a test, they passed it en bloc, with distinction.

The BBC4 programme is available now on iPlayer. Some of the livestreams from the festival are also free to watch, like the Charlie Parker centenary tribute from Church of Sound in Hackney, featuring Gary Crosby’s Groundation, with Nathaniel Facey on alto, Shirley Tetteh on guitar, Hamish Moore on bass and Moses Boyd on drums: a quicksilver set of Bird tunes and originals. Facey’s own quartet, completed by two of his fellow members of Empirical, the drummer Shaney Forbes and the bassist Tom Farmer, and the guitarist Dave Preston, were captured at the Green Note in Camden Town, letting air and light into knotty themes by the leader and the guitarist. And at Total Refreshment Centre the impressive young trumpeter/singer Emma-Jean Thackray led her quintet — Lyle Barton on keyboards, Matt Gedrych on bass guitar, Dougal Taylor on drums and Crispin Robinson on percussion — through a wholly absorbing, convincing and thoroughly contemporary investigation of the moods suggested by Bitches Brew 50 years ago.

Tickets were £12.50 to livestream Cassie Kinoshi’s SEED Ensemble and their guests performing an 80th birthday tribute to Pharoah Sanders at the Barbican, and that’s what it’ll cost you to catch up with it via the Barbican’s website. I can only urge everyone do make the investment, since Kinoshi presents an hour of music of the highest quality, carefully devised and packed with all the best qualities of the new London scene.

The core SEED line-up — Kinoshi (alto), Sheila Maurice-Grey and Jack Banjo-Courtney (trumpets), Joe Bristow (trombone), Hannah Mbuya (tuba), Chelsea Carmichael (tenor, flute), Shirley Tetteh (guitar), Rio Kai (bass) and Patrick Boyle (drums) — kicked off with the ever-hypnotic riff of “Upper and Lower Egypt” before being joined by the clarinet of Shabaka Hutchings (on a beautifully flighted “Astral Travelling”), the pianist Ashley Henry (a heartfelt “Greeting to Saud”), the percussionist Yahael Camara-Onono (“Elevation”) and the singer Richie Seivwright (“Love Is Everywhere”). The horn arrangements were perfect, the rhythm section subtle and skilful, each of the soloists offering something of substance.

“Catch you soon, when life is normal again,” Kinoshi told her invisible audience at the end of the set. But if it was sad not to be able to witness this music in person, to share the experience with the players and to make them feel the listeners’ response, it was wonderful to be able to hear it all, staged and played and recorded so beautifully in all the venues.

If you browse the festival’s website, you’ll find other fine performances available: the trumpeter Yazz Ahmed, the guitarist Hedvig Mollestad and the poet Moor Mother with Irreversible Entanglements are some of them. But maybe watch Jazz 625 first, all the way through. At a time when the streets of the city are drained of life, it’s a reminder of what’s waiting around the corner. If it doesn’t fill you with the kind of optimism that’s been in short supply for the past nine months, I’ll be very surprised.

15 Comments Post a comment
  1. Martin Archer #

    How lovely to read some enthusiastic words about this attractive and engaging music scene as opposed to the sniffy comments (including “it’s not jazz”) I’ve seen elsewhere frm people who should know better. I’ve enjoyed many of the albums coming out of this scene over the last couple of years and cannot see it as anything other than a big positive.


    November 22, 2020
  2. patrick knowles #

    I watched it.

    2nd weekend of overwhelming Jazz on BBC4.

    As I write , Young Jazz Musician of the Year , about to start.



    November 22, 2020
  3. stewart #

    I love it when Richard’s thoughts drop into my inbox. Watched this last night, whatsapping my regular gig-going pals as we went along, we were inspired by the music & vibe, so want to see as many of these ensembles as possible as soon as possible. I was familiar with Matthew Halsall & Ezra Collective, but so much new to explore.

    November 22, 2020
  4. John Atkins #

    “Every young jazz musician knows what it’s like to play to a room of middle aged white people but sometimes you just want to play for people like yourself”. So much for doing your bit for racial integration and harmony! Does he not realise these white people are saying “we’re with you”.

    November 23, 2020
    • BoxtyBoy #

      I think you have misunderstood – hopefully by accident.

      November 23, 2020
    • A reply to John Atkins:
      I wouldn’t be able to count the number of times I’ve listened to bands including young or youngish black musicians while in an audience consisting almost entirely of middle-aged or (in my case) old white people and thought to myself: why should this be, particularly in one of the world’s most diverse cities? is it right? and can’t it be different?
      Of course we white enthusiasts are supporting the musicians, as most of us will have been doing for 20, 30, 40, 50 or more years. But if the audience is not broadened beyond us, the music will die.
      I felt this very strongly when I was curating the Berlin Jazz Festival between 2015 and 2017. The festival’s existing audience seem to be the people who been attending it when I first went there as a journalist at the end of the ’60s. They were loyal and knowledgeable and much valued, but there was no sign of a sizeable new generation, or generations, coming along to replace them. Other art forms have similar problems. I came to the conclusion that, for the safe of the festival’s future, positive action needed to be taken in order to connect with those younger people.
      In the UK, I think our generation of jazz listeners took it for granted that young black audiences were interested in other kinds of music. By taking matters into their own hands, Moses Boyd’s generation are proving this to be an inadequate assumption. You’ll see black and white (and everything else) in their audiences. You’ll also see a lot more women, as players and listeners, which is also very, very important.
      Some might say that Saturday’s Jazz 625 programme privileged one sector of the young London jazz scene at the expense of others. That’s true, to an extent. Adjusting these historic imbalances sometimes requires steps that might superficially appear to be answering one prejudice with another. But it really isn’t. Please listen again to what Moses Boyd was saying, and look beyond your immediate response.

      November 23, 2020
    • Tom Sacold #

      John Atkins makes a valid point.

      Jazz should be about the music not political statement. I would hope that all of us jazz fans are colour-blind and just enjoys the music, whoever makes it.

      November 24, 2020
      • mjazz g #

        Yes, that’s correct because Jazz exists in its own vacuum and doesn’t in any way reflect the lives and experiences of the musicians that create it. it makes listening so much more comfortable.

        November 25, 2020
    • Honey #

      For me the focus was on youth not colour.

      Its utterly demoralising to play to an audience of 10 or so middle aged/elderly people in the back room of a pub, half of whom are there by mistake!

      Pre-Covid19, Last time I saw Ezra Collective at KOKO, Nubya Garcia at EARTH and Kokoroko somewhere, can’t remember where, the audience was packed with young people white brown and black. This is the audience who will take this genre forward. These bands have filled venues that havent seen audiences this size since the big jazz dance bands of the 50s. This has encouraged the promoters of big venues to book other jazz acts, thereby creating an feasible opportunity to play with decent remuneration. The young adults attending these gigs are so enthusiastic it was a joy to witness. Seeing Kokoroko play the Proms 2020 was truly amazing. What a great booking! Before these bands took to the stage Jazz audiences were dying (literally). Let’s celebrate and support our young people. Once this pandemic is passed I for one can’t wait to get back to these live gigs.

      The BBC Jazz 625 was a triumph. It is ready for a regular return slot. Bands and Audience are there.

      November 27, 2020
  5. That Church Of Sound concert was I think the highlight of my festival this year. I’d admired Facey in Empirical for some time but his playing in this context was exhilarating. The rest of the quartet were no slouches either, especially Shirley Tetteh’s ice-cool fire.
    Irreversible Entanglements were as eloquent and important as always and beforehand Brice/Challenger/Glaser played a beautifully balanced and burning set recalling Redman, Haden and Motian but sounding like themselves.
    Ben Lamarr Gay’s set pushed the boundaries more than when I saw him at Oto but that wasn’t a bad thing at all.
    The Jazz 625 programme I thought an absolute triumph. I knew all the bands but it was their contextualisation that seemed important, something sadly missed by your previous commenter.

    November 23, 2020
  6. Tom Sacold #

    Very disappointing programme. A very narrow view of the ‘jazz scene’.

    November 24, 2020
    • Mick Steels #

      I’d agree some of the music is a trifle bland but try listening to the links suggested to get a more representative idea of what these musicians can produce.
      The always impressive Nathaniel Facey is a good place to start ripping through the Bird tunes with an elan and dexterity reminiscent of Charles McPherson

      November 24, 2020
    • GuitarSlinger #

      I’ll second Mr Sacold’s sentiment . Suffice it to say mediocrity and inanity are mediocre and inane no matter how you package it . As for Mr Steels … I did … altered my views not one solitary bit !

      BTW … there is a very good reason why so much of todays so called music … isn’t . One Richard should know as well as I do !

      Back in the day a musician / composer ( be it in folk , rock or jazz had to work his or her way up the ranks … via ‘ cutting sessions ‘ etc in order to be heard .

      Whereas today … any idiot with an internet connection and recording app gets attention .

      So does that make me an ‘ elite ‘ ? Damn right it does … and proud of it to boot …. as I look over my wall of composers awards , Grammy nominations etc et al … each and every one earned with sweat and blood … not InstaFamous / InstaBroke social media bs


      November 25, 2020
  7. Martin Hayman #

    Hello Richard. I wonder if I might seek your advice on a copyright issue — it is not long-winded — by PM rather than in a public forum?

    November 24, 2020
  8. Phil Brown #

    Well this long retired, grey haired, blue eyed, jazz lover thoroughly enjoyed the Jazz 625 programme. I’d come across recordings by a number of the performers before and I find their work refreshing; it was great to see them. It feels like Jazz of its time; it seems to be saying something about how these young(ish) musicians are feeling about now and, unusually, it makes me want to move! Jazz that wants you to sit and listen intently is fine (and lord knows I listen to plenty) but for me not enough, I also want some jazz that makes me want to dance – but this often seems to be in short supply or even looked down upon. I don’t want to just rely on the prewar Jazz wonderful though it is). The recordings of the South African musicians who arrived in the UK 60’s and 70’s still get me dancing while I listen and this new scene seems to do it too and I am delighted.

    December 8, 2020

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