New British Jazz Generation
By Rose Parfitt
“High! Quality! Jazz!” A tired and hungry Italian promoter put his head back and howled and it echoed round the dank and freezing Old Street brickwork. It was late and wet on a February Sunday night and like the rest of the audience, Mario Berna had just been sent stumbling from the Barbican still reeling from 48 hours of unbelievable music. In the space of a single weekend, Jazz Britannia season had just proved to an ecstatic crowd of Londoners that their homeland is the centre of the world. In less than three months time Mario would be proving it to Italy. Thirty-nine of the UK’s most exceptional sons and daughters of jazz would soon be touching down in Rome for a four-day showcase of new British jazz – Mario’s brainchild, and the first of its kind in Italy. Courtney Pine, Gilles Peterson, Soweto Kinch, Carleen Anderson, Two Banks of Four, Abram Wilson, Orphy Robinson and Cleveland Watkiss…they’d all be there. It was like Challenge Aneka in twelve keys, but with less spandex.
Fast forward to a sunny April evening outside Red, a trendy restaurant in the classily concrete Parco Della Musica complex – Rome’s brand new triple-pod-like auditorium. Young people in distressed jeans sipped spumante at the outside tables red, white and green, while smart grandmothers and small children strolled up and down the open walkway. Under a banner reading “New British Jazz”, Mundovibes stood smoking cigarettes with a cluster of cameramen outside the Rai Sat studio next door as musicians trooped in to be interviewed for Italian TV. As the red light went on in the studio, Mario appeared by her side. “High quality jazz!” he whispered in her ear. Mundovibes nodded in agreement: the Q was a constant factor in this equation. But was new about New British Jazz?
“It would be nice and easy if I could say, well we play this new beat, or we have this new bassline…” said 27-year-old saxophonist Soweto Kinch, winding down in the dressing room exactly halfway through the festival after a set of pure hip hop-laced genius. “It’s nothing that tangible,” he continued. “It’s to do with the personalities – to do with the people, the musicians, the artists. Each one has an individual voice.”
Watching a whole Shakespeare’s brain worth of characters pass across the Sala Petrassi stage over four evenings of trailblazing music, it was clear that what he said was true. This is no scripted, manufactured movement – it’s the individuals that matter. Courtney Pine, for example, lifting his tenor up and down like the trunk of a magnificent serenading elephant; Bembe Segue scatting frenzied gibberish over a ten-piece free jazz orchestra; Carleen Anderson, kicking the monitor to hit the high notes; or 20-year-old Gwilym Watkins, more Jarvis Cocker than Jaki Byard, knocking out a solo that made his bandmates whistle through their teeth.
Like them, Soweto – at once Oxford history graduate, Montreaux Jazz Festival International Saxophonist of the Year 2002 and member of Pop Idol backing band The Big Blue – is part of a whole family of British artists pushing out the parameters of jazz by sheer force of personality, bringing their own life-sounds to bear on a music whose life-blood is change. In his case these sounds encompass everything from the Jamaican music of his mum and dad to baroque, connecting with his studies of the 17th and 18th century black population of Britain. The net was cast as wide for almost everybody on that stage.
On Wednesday, Cleveland Watkiss, vibrating music from head to naked toe, sang with a lifetime’s worth of MetalHeadz, London Community Gospel Choir and Chet Baker in his lungs, not as a lead singer but as one instrument in a band so tight they might have been wired together. By contrast, watching the controlled chaos of Two Banks of Four on Friday in full-throttle multicoloured synchopation was like seeing the Sun Ra Arkestra, Rotary Connection, Pharaoh Saunders, Abbey Lincoln and Mark Murphy in the thick of a sonic battle for world peace.
“In the UK it’s like a centre of energy,” said Mario, charging through the maze of backstage corridors in pursuit of an AWOL Gilles Peterson. “There are musicians from all kinds of backgrounds who see jazz in a different way. Cleveland Watkiss, he’s worked with Goldie, Roni Size, Talvin Singh. Soweto Kinch, he is one of the best in the world and his sounds have everything from Charlie Parker to rap music. Everybody here in this festival has a connection – Cleveland Watkiss with Abram Wilson, Soweto Kinch with Courtney Pine, Rob Gallagher and Carleen Anderson … That’s the difference. American jazz is great, but it’s always the same people and the same sounds. The difference with British jazz is that it’s more brilliant, more new, more fresh…”
So boundaries are being crossed; but that’s what they all say. What’s happening here is more profound than genre-sliding. “I think it’s quite dangerous for musicians to start thinking in terms of boundaries and even of trying to break the boundaries,” said Soweto. “The more personal a form of expression is, the more chance it has of being unlimited.”
And because of this honest connection with sounds and experiences that are personally real and true, jazz is at last reaching out to a new generation for the first time since perhaps the Seventies. “I really feel like the music that we’re creating is something that everybody could get into, something that could really broaden their horizons as to what jazz is – and what jazz was,” said New Orleans-born trumpeter Abram Wilson, his voice echoing in the cavernous marble hallway where he was taking a breather from the photographers. “Every time we do a performance I see people’s eyes light up. It’s like the more we play, the more attitudes we change.”
But attitudes are not being changed by coincidence; instead that is the purpose of a concerted evangelical-educational effort on the part of the musicians on the one hand, and the newly and admirably hep British Council on the other. “New British Jazz” was the seventh of in a series of Italian festivals called Interplanetary Soundz, organised jointly by Mario’s company, FreeformJazzProduction, Musica per Roma and the British Council to celebrate the many-splendoured thing that is contemporary British music. Since 1999, punters from Milan to Naples have flocked to hear musicians, producers, composers and DJs from Talvin Singh and Nitin Sawhney to Spacek to Dego (4Hero) and Orin Walters (Bugz in the Attic). Many of the guests of Interplanetary Soundz have also participated in British Council events in destinations as far flung as Lithuania, Bosnia, Zimbabwe, Kenya and Tanzania, doing workshops with children, collaborating with local musicians and generally spreading the word.
“The British Council is doing a great thing,” said Abram (like Carleen Anderson an American now permanently resident in London) just minutes before finishing off the festival with a set of truly incredible improvised creation, a touch of Donald Byrd, Horace Silver and Stevie Wonder setting off some almost scary originality. “Anytime kids get to hear this music, any time grownups get to hear it, that’s always an education.” And not only that – for music is and always will be a force for peace. “I think in the case of Sarajevo and certainly in the case of Kenya part of what we were doing was helping to keep good relations with the political regime out there and make sure that Britain has a friendly face as well as a democratic one,” Soweto observed.
His and Abram’s enthusiasm comes in part from their own history of involvement with an outreach project much closer to home. Tomorrow’s Warriors is a London-based organisation, run by Jazz Jamaica bassist Gary Crosby and descended from Courtney Pine’s groundbreaking Jazz Warriors collective, dedicated to nurturing young musicians from urban, working class backgrounds and giving them the platform to develop. True to its name, the rolling membership philosophy of Tomorrow’s Warriors, incarnated in a regular Sunday afternoon jam session at the Spice of Life in Soho, has spawned groups including Jade Fox, arguably the most exciting British soul act in existence, and many of the stars of the future – pianist Andrew McCormack Trio, guitarist Dave Okumu, Soweto, Denys Baptise and others. Three members of the Abram Wilson sextet we saw on Sunday were today’s Warriors none other – pianist Gwilym Watkins, Nathaniel Facey on alto and drummer Shaney Forbes, all within a hair’s breadth of their teens. With Gary Crosby on bass and Denys Baptise on tenor the sense of family about the performance was more than inspiring: musicians at every point from the start to the peak of their careers learning from and respecting each other’s ideas.
“We’re soul mates, all of us. We want to swing, we want to keep the music true to its roots but we also want to push it forward,” said Gary from the depths of a wicker beehive outside Red, whence he had escaped for a breath of fresh air with his partner Janine Irons who runs the groundbreaking new jazz label, Dune. “I personally believe that for there to be a British sound it should represent a wider group of people than it does generally. Tomorrow’s Warriors has to get bigger and stronger. The old companies have contributed a lot to the jazz circuit but new people bring new ideas. Old people can only bring what they know.”
If the newness lies in new people, the foundations have been laid by those, like Gary, who have paved the way for new talent and new ideas to come through. Without them, nothing would have changed and what they’re doing now is anything but cobwebby. People were literally bounding towards the stage on Friday night for Courtney Pine OBE – a man whose dedication to the jazz cause both musically and socially has been recognised even by good Queen Brenda for its outstanding contribution to British culture. With his big smile and the way he staggers (“Phew!”) after every eye-watering solo, Courtney Pine is the great father figure of British jazz. And like any natural born teacher, the process and the fruits of his labours are a constant source of joy. “I feel very honoured to be here in Rome with these musicians,” he said, slightly dazzled in the studio lights. “And it’s a great thing to know that someone from another country is appreciating the unique flavour of British music and recognising that we’re trying to do something different.”
In fact, one of the freshest things about this scene is the way that every sound and every source of music is embraced as an education. From the accelerated straighahead of the Tomorrow’s Warriors crew to the more dancefloor-oriented side of new British jazz represented on Friday night by DJs Gilles Peterson, Nick Matthews and Ady Harley, new is not about amputating the past; new is the salty crest of a ancient and long-travelled wave. “Jazz is the root,” says Gilles, a man who has done more than any other to push jazz music, new and old, out of the sidelines and into the middle of the floor. “I think the old stuff is very, very important for the lineage of music, and not just in a retrospective way. There’s so much to learn.”
Nick Matthews and Gilles Peterson. ©2005 Alex Capodanno.
The long and winding road to where we are now is never, ever forgotten, and that goes for all forms of music. The fact that musicians like bassist Robin Mullarkey, singer Bembe Segue, alto player Finn Peters and keyboardist Ski Oakenfull can move between the superfree jazz of Two Banks of Four and broken soul/boogie projects like Brotherly, labels like Main Squeeze or 2000Black, contemporary classical groups like Nosferatu and remixing the Sugerbabes just proves that open minds are what it’s all about.
So did they go for it in Italy? They did. More than that, they rose to their feet and screamed for more. “The audience has been great,” said Mario, taking his seat on Sunday night for grand finale, still tired and hungry but also pleased as punch. “In Italy people are very scared about the new. When they go to see music they want to be sure, but the reaction has been amazing.”
So it is: with the front door open and a kettle on the boil, it’s new, it’s British and it’s jazz. From club to concert hall the punters are shivering. From Streatham to Sarajevo the children are learning. From pocketmoney to pension the artists are collaborating. It’s happening.
Back in the marble hallway, Abram Wilson put his trumpet to his lips and tested out a little riff. “Jazz music is not old people’s music – although old people love the music,” he said, presently. “Jazz music is for everybody.”
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