The sound of London 2020
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.