The UK’s new jazz scene has had another barnstorming year with the likes of Cassie Kinoshi’s SEED Ensemble receiving a Mercury Prize nomination and all-star seven piece Nérija making waves with their appearance on Later… with Jools Holland, and with many bands tearing it up at festivals at home and abroad. With the likes of Steam Down and KOKOROKO set to release albums in 2020, here’s 10 of the best from the last year to get you going…
SEED Ensemble - Driftglass
Cassie Kinoshi (as), Miguel Gorodi, Sheila Maurice-Grey (t), Chelsea Carmichael (ts, f), Joe Bristow (tb), Theon Cross (tba), Joe Armon-Jones, Sarah Tandy (p, Fender Rhodes), Shirley Tetteh (g), Xana, Cherise Adams-Burnett, Mr. Ekow (v), Rio Kai (b) and Patrick Boyle (d)
Though Cassie Kinoshi is fully aware of 1960s American civil rights suites such as her alto icon Jackie McLean’s It’s Time!, they didn’t directly influence this debut, with its distinctly British roots and concerns. Perhaps the most concerted attempt so far at a major album from a generation of young London players more attuned to performing, Driftglass draws on Afrofuturism for its hopeful scope, our musical melting-pot for its sound, and Kinoshi’s classical studies for its structure.
Social engagement has again inspired ambitious black American music in these fractious, urgent times, but local racial oppression and liberation animate these songs. ‘The Darkies’ suggests post-war British films’ seedy, street-level jazz noir even as Debussy’s ‘The Golliwog’s Cakewalk’ threads through the tune, trailing both beauty and its title’s archaic presumptions. Poet Xana adds transcendent tower-block dreams in which, “my heart bursts out of my chest like a rocket/As I gather stars in my pocket”. Grenfell Tower’s stubborn symbol of murderous social schism stands accusingly at the record’s heart, as ‘Wake (for Grenfell)’ turns a Langston Hughes line into a mournful work-song chant, pointedly soured by Kinoshi’s tart alto tone.
The SEED Ensemble is another permutation of the London scene’s currently omnipresent players, and their individuality is crucially encouraged. Sarah Tandy splits keyboard duties with Joe Armon-Jones, but it’s her Rhodes’ glistening, slow flow which adds impressionistic colour, on ‘Mirrors’ especially. Lacking the obvious thematic baggage elsewhere, that tune floats free into its own atmosphere. Both the songs’ rigid overall structures and occasionally slack development hold Driftglass back from greatness. But Kinoshi’s debut bursts with often achieved ambition, and time is on her side.
Nérija - Blume
Nubya Garcia (ts, f), Sheila Maurice-Grey (t), Cassie Kinoshi (as), Rosie Turton (tb), Shirley Tetteh (g), Rio Kai (b) and Lizy Exell (d)
This long-awaited debut album from one of the most exciting young groups on the UK scene sounds like classic Blue Note with a contemporary London twist. On ‘Riverfest’, ‘Partner Girlfriend Lover’ and ‘Unbound’ strong melodies, richly-scored for the horns, and clever orchestral touches meet bustling grooves stitched with the distinctive silvery lines and creative chord-work of guitarist Shirley Tetteh.
‘Last Straw’ brings funk-rock grit and a bracing solo from trumpeter Sheila MauriceGrey (you could hear it in a 1970s detective movie or the soundtrack to Don Cheadle’s Miles Ahead). And Cassie Kinoshi’s ‘EU (Emotionally Unavailable)’ goes hard, leaving acres of space for the rhythm section who lay down a loose, grungy groove while Kinoshi’s alto spits anguished fire. Later on they shout out hip-hop as Nubya Garcia’s flute whirls through a cloud of effects. The title-track – all ethereal vocals and fluttering guitar – is split in two and returns at the very end. It’s a blissful conclusion to an excellent debut.
Maisha - There Is A Place
Jake Long (d), Nubya Garcia (ts, f), Amané Suganami (p, wurlitzer), Shirley Tetteh (g), Twm Dylan (b), Tim Doyle (perc), Yahael Camara-Onono (perc), Axel Kaner-Lindstrom (t), Johanna Burnheart, Barbara Bartz (vn), Tom Oldfield (clo), Madi Aafke Luimstra (vla) and Maria Zofia Osuchowska (hp)
Maisha brings together some of the stars of the young London jazz scene under the leadership of drummer and composer Jake Long. There Is A Place is their debut album and it’s one hell of an opening statement – echoing the work of spiritual jazz greats, including Pharoah Sanders and Alice Coltrane, and working in the infectious rhythms of West Africa.
‘Osiris’ is a dazzling start – a sonic Big Bang that unleashes the album’s lush, richly-textured soundworld. ‘Azure’ and the title-track evoke the tranquility of a Japanese garden, with Garcia adding wisps of flute; while ‘Eaglehurst/The Palace’ and ‘Kaa’ are swaggering and edgy. Here the band’s percussionists and the ticking guitar riffs and jabbing chord work of Shirley Tetteh come to the fore – bringing insinuations of Afro-beat, highlife and funk.
Long has also written some superb arrangements for a guest chamber ensemble, which make the album sound vast. The strings add folky sighs and shimmering clouds of dissonant notes, building beneath the soloists and carrying them higher. There will be inevitable comparisons with Kamasi Washington. Personally, I find Long’s writing more interesting and every bit as cosmic. One of my albums of the year.
The Comet Is Coming - Trust In The Lifeforce Of The Deep Mystery
Shabaka Hutchings (s), Dan Leavers (ky, syn) and Max Hallett (d)
The Comet Is Coming’s name alludes to apocalypse and a sense of human proportion in the cosmos, diving into religious and scientific concepts of end-times and rebirth. This second album confirms UK jazz’s pop culture resurrection while they’re at it. Where Sons of Kemet add Afro-Caribbean roots and ritual to current London music, Shabaka Hutchings helps reach for future visions here.
Updating spiritual jazz for a sci-fi age, Dan Leavers’ east London studio was fully utilised in his and Max Hallett’s flowing, precise production. But though Blade Runner’s soundtrack sometimes inspires Leavers’ synth glides, this is human, not cyborg, music. Big bang-expansive, relentless and restless, with Hutchings’ sax an attacking, integrated element in a bigger sonic picture, it could be played at a rave or place of worship, festival field or urban club. During ‘Blood of the Past’, a clearing appears for poet-rapper Kate Tempest to plead for, “a more soulful connection to land, and to lovers”; “Unable to listen, we keep speaking,” she adds, in an incantation against denatured life which resolves into a climbing Hutchings cry, beats slamming as if into soil.
The dance-floor transcendence of ‘Super Zodiac’ features some of Hutchings’ most exciting playing, his dancer’s feint into its final climactic seconds sending the whole album over the edge. Offering off-beat grime accents elsewhere, Hallett is the Elvin Jones-like energy core of ‘The Universe Wakes Up’ as Hutchings ascends, untroubled, cruising between modal hyper-speed and free rawness, Coltrane rising into view like a lost star.
Joe Armon-Jones - Turn To Clear View
Joe Armon-Jones (ky, syn), Moses Boyd, KwAkE BaSs (d), David Mrakpor, Mutale Chashi (b), Oscar Jerome (g), Nubya Garcia, James Mollison (ts), Dylan Jones (t), Asheber, Georgia Anne Muldrow, Jehst, Obongjayar and Luke Newman (v)
Fans of Ezra Collective and Nubya Garcia will be familiar with Joe Armon-Jones' soulful keyboard playing, but his second album also establishes him as a gifted composer and producer. Created in collaboration with Maxwell Owin, Turn To Clear View is a beautifully crafted journey through jazz-infused neo-soul, dub, Afro-beat, broken beat and hip-hop that feels like a wander through Armon-Jones’ record collection or a cult mixtape called something like ‘Sounds of London 2019’.
There are some big tunes here, among them ‘Yellow Dandelion’ (a standout feature for vocalist Georgia Anne Muldrow) and ‘Gnawa Sweet’, with its mellow horn lines and killer outro (bassist Mutale Chasi and drummer KwAkE BaSs really dig in). ‘Icy Roads (Stacked)’ is blurry and euphoric, ‘You Didn’t Care’ is a powerful tenor feature for Nubya Garcia and ‘The Leo & Aquarius’ is a neo-soul jam sandwiching a few choice verses from rapper Jehst.
It’s as much about the little details though: the electronic murmurs and snippets of endearingly mindless studio chat, spectral field recordings and blurred sax arpeggios (very To Pimp A Butterfly) that segue the tracks and give the whole thing such a wonderful sense of flow. Turn To Clear View is full of personality, which ties in nicely with the album’s message, hinted at in ‘Yellow Dandelion’ and confirmed by vocalist Obongjayar’s husky encouragement on the final track: “Be yourself”.
Ashley Henry - Beautiful Vinyl Hunter
Ashley Henry (p, ky), Theo Croker, Keyon Harrold (t), Judi Jackson (v), Sparkz (rap), Daniel Casimir (b), Eddie Hick, Marijus Aleska (d), Artie Zaitz (g), Makaya McCraven (d), Binker Golding (ts) and Moses Boyd (d)
London pianist Ashley Henry has made significant steps forward over the last five years or so by holding down several invaluable gigs as a sideman with fine British and American bandleaders – Theo Croker, Keyon Harrold, Jean Toussaint among others – as well as developing his own music. This debut long player is very much a consolidation of his progress to date and the presence of the aforementioned as well as some of the young Turks of UK jazz – Binker & Moses, Daniel Casimir, Eddie Hick – makes this a transatlantic affair with a contemporary edge.
As he made clear on last year’s Easter EP, Henry is plugged into the populist source of black music and the marked hip-hop and soul sensibilities of the material reflect the inspiration drawn from the likes of Robert Glasper among others. A confident yet measured soloist, Henry is also a producer who is concerned with the challenge of both songwriting and beat-making, and some of the most accomplished pieces on the record see him balance these skills with guests such as Mancunian rapper Sparkz and London-based American vocalist Judi Jackson. An auspicious account-opener from a talented player whose commercial appeal does not come at the expense of his artistic integrity.
Binker Golding - Abstractions Of Reality Past & Incredible Feathers
Binker Golding (ts), Joe Armon-Jones (p), Daniel Casimir (b) and Sam Jones (d)
Saxophonist Golding shows his versatility on an enjoyable set. This is a markedly different proposition to the duos formed with Moses Boyd and Elliot Galvin insofar as there is less abstraction in the material, and the additional resources of the quartet are deployed with suitable flair and restraint.
Mostly set at ambling mid-tempo, the tunes are all Golding originals that show the strength of the blues as an ongoing source of musical inspiration as the leader investigates its various related idioms, from 1960s hard bop to 1990s neo-soul, all the while retaining a strong composer’s signature. Themes are clearly mapped, sometimes with a dancing quarter-noted led character, sometimes with more wistful long tones, and Golding’s improvisations are well-paced developments that build steadily rather than rushing towards a crescendo, allowing effective input from a rhythm section whose cohesion has been honed through extensive work with artists such as Nubya Garcia.
The occasional forays into reggae-inflected territory also appeal, and if Sam Jones’ crackling rimshots are particularly resonant then the imprint of legendary engineer James Farber, who mixed this in New York after the session was done at Abbey Road, is worth noting. At its peak this album has some of the modernist gospel finesse of Billy Harper, but Golding asserts himself convincingly as a writer-player who has an appealing voice of his own.
Theon Cross - Fyah
Theon Cross (tba), Nubya Garcia (ts), Moses Boyd (d), plus Wayne Francis (ts), Artie Zaitz (el g), Nathaniel Cross (tb) and Tim Doyle (perc)
Having built momentum with EPs, gigs and a gathering media storm, many of London’s new jazz generation are finally making their album debuts. Tubist Theon Cross has already made his name on LPs with Sons of Kemet – Fyah, though, helps define how a changing London is changing jazz.
The fat tuba squelch reverberating through the first seconds of ‘Accelerate’ is a statement of intent matched by the runaway, intricate momentum which follows, from a dream trio completed by Nubya Garcia and Moses Boyd. As dance music, this is funk turned inside-out, finding off-kilter rhythmic emphasis under grime’s influence.
Cross and Boyd are tireless, Blakey-esque engine rooms for the new beat, which they speak as a native tongue. ‘Panda Village’, meanwhile, uses synths to add a gleaming sheen, production technique no longer a shibboleth in UK jazz studios. As important as Cross’s borrowing from contemporary musical contexts are the elements he retains from jazz. ‘Letting Go’ is all whispered hi-hat hisses and subtle interweaving by Cross and Garcia. ‘CIYA’ is boppishly beautiful, like a lost Blue Note tune. Cross’s conversationally inviting solo, like the introspective quiet during ‘Letting Go’, offers individuality worth as much as the community this scene describes.
Daniel Casimir & Tess Hirst - These Days
Daniel Casimir (b), Tess Hirst (v), Robert Mitchell (ky), Tobie Carpenter (g) and Olly Sarkar (d)
Tess Hirst’s words give barbed force to Daniel Casimir’s open-hearted music, which is grounded in hard bop while exploring a wider palette. Mingus’s dramatic litany of persecution, ‘Fables of Faubus’, is adapted to our own fearfully racist moment during ‘These Days’, while over brewing Blakey-esque drums, ‘What Did I Do’ digs into Hirst and Casimir’s home streets in London’s far west, where disrupting crime and change alienate, and the singer wonders “if the patient will survive the operation”.
A bluntly titled instrumental with added Hirst lyrics imminent, ‘They Come Over Here’, is spy-movie ominous, suggesting surveillance paranoia and the Specials’ haunted ska dancehalls with the serrated edge of Tobie Carpenter’s guitar, Casimir’s jittery bass and Jerry Dammers-like, cinematic piano. Guyanese-Briton John Agard’s rebel poetry also acerbically interjects, riding Windrush currents: “Me not no Oxford don/ Me a simple immigrant from Clapham Common... I don’t need no axe/to split up your syntax.” Instrumental or otherwise, this is another bulletin from a London scene engaged and unquiet about careless injustice.
Camilla George - The People Could Fly
Camilla George (as), Sarah Tandy (p, Fender Rhodes), Daniel Casimir (b, el b), Femi Koleoso, Winston Clifford (d), Omar Lye-Fook, Cherise Adams-Burnett (v), Shirley Tetteh (g) and Quentin Collins (t)
African folk tales of slavery and lost powers of flight sent Camilla George to sleep as a child in Nigeria. An enflamed imagination and restless nights must have followed, judging by spiritual jazz lullaby ‘Little Eight John’, in which Cherise Adams-Burnett warns of “raw head and bloody nose” from whatever awaits wakeful children in the unknown dark. George’s second album explores her nostalgic memories of these slavery-steeped stories.
Leading a band of peers in London’s new jazz scene, her alto playing is so sunnily optimistic that the shackles fall from her subjects, even before ‘The People Could Fly’ recalls myths of former freedom. Rattled chains introduce the sourer, knowing tone of George’s slow blues on ‘The Most Useful Slave’, followed by British soul elder Omar vocalising Curtis Mayfield’s lament for the slavery by other means of America’s drugs apocalypse, ‘Here But I’m Gone’. But George’s warmly liberated character dominates. As so often with this group of players, it’s remarkable how traditional she is on several hard-bop solos. It’s the soft power of an open heart and mind which keeps her music present-tense. Daniel Casimir’s limber funk bass and Shirley Tetteh’s sometimes Afro-funk-inflected, bubbling guitar prove the scene’s subtle variety, and their own worth as versatile, Most Valued Players.
The incubation of George’s talent in Gary Crosby’s Tomorrow’s Warriors, Courtney Pine’s Venus Warriors and Jazz Jamaica shows how determinedly British jazz’s black elders are passing torches. Flowering in a new generation, this is the sound of a woman who has already overcome.
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