There’s no need to sterilize the hyperbole: London’s local jazz scene is having what you might call “a moment.” We are witness to a surge of ingenuity that may well meet the criteria of being historic; a creative boom led by young musicians finding new angles to a classic genre that feel fresh and imaginative. It’s music that captures the pluralistic flavor of the U.K. capital. In the backdrop of Brexit-era Britain and the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment — punctuated by the horrors of the Grenfell Tower fire and the Windrush scandal — this doesn’t just feel refreshing, it is vital.
Facilitating this rise in modern London jazz is the spirit of collaboration that connects its stars. These virtuosos frequently feature on each other’s records. They jump on stage together, and crash in each other’s living rooms when needed. The chemistry of a tight-knit artistic community can be hard to bottle and almost impossible to define. When you can transfer that chemistry onto wax, it feels like a minor miracle.
For newcomers seeking a way into modern London jazz, a vital listen is the Brownswood compilation We Out Here, one of the first releases to encapsulate the magic. Here, we’ve focused on 10 of the best full-length statements blazed by bands and individual artists to come out of The Old Smoke in the last few years. Every one acts as Exhibit A of a smoldering jazz scene, indelible and undeniable, that demands global attention. Nobody who plugs in right now will ever forget it.
Search London for the central figures in its new jazz renaissance and you’ll soon hit on the restless saxophonist and bandleader Shabaka Hutchings. The Barbadian British bohemian has done as much as any single person to define the scene. Among his bold and broad body of work, Wisdom of Elders is an obvious standout. To create the record, Hutchings pitched up in Johannesburg and connected with a group of local musicians who became known as The Ancestors. The result is a rich, powerful record that blends Hutchings’ melodic tones, the band’s South African heritage and the lessons of Sun Ra. Described as “a psalm in nine parts,” these are compositions that sound like the doomed side of spirituality. The weathered vocal chants resemble ancient mantras or tragic funeral processions. Yet Hutchings’ sax is relaxed and luscious on songs like “Joyous.” Meanwhile, “Give Thanks” features backing from Tumi Mogorosi’s scintillating drums and little else, offering clear space for Hutchings and to breathe red-hot fire through his instrument of choice.
You’ll probably find Black Focus in the jazz section of your local record store. For sure, this is jazz — Yussef Dayes and Kamaal Williams’ unshackled instrumentals move with the spirit of the genre. But the two South East Londoners blend the classic sounds of funk, soul, boogie, afrobeat and hip-hop into a slick concoction that distills this pluralist, glorious corner of the U.K. Evoking, in particular, the classic soul-jazz sounds of Roy Ayers and Lonnie Smith, and the modern music of Los Angeles-scene stars such as Robert Glasper and Thundercat, the arrangements are as timeless as a skinny tie or bourbon. Dayes’ drums really snap, while Williams’ stylish keys wander freely, helping to carry the album’s smoothly bumping melodies. The pair’s chemistry is perhaps best displayed on closer “Joint 17.” It takes supreme skill and unlimited cool to make such an off-kilter arrangement sound so relaxed and effortless.
On Nubya’s 5ive, Camden-born saxophonist Nubya Garcia serves the smoothest nectar in London. Take the dapper “Lost Kingdoms,” which slinks along soft as satin on the ear, while the more traditionalist “Red Sun” evokes Wayne Shorter’s freewheeling approach. Though Garcia is undoubtedly the star here, she assembles an all-star band from the local scene that add their own sense of style to the album. Moses Boyd’s offbeat drumming offers the perfect bedrock throughout the album, while Joe Armon-Jones’ skewered, borderless piano tinkling on “Fly Free” is an energetic, crescending piece of freestyle play. “Hold” is powered by mean-as-hell, low-rumbling brass. That the song is present here in two different takes highlights the crew’s dedication to freestyle expression.
Zara McFarlane music pulls in shards of her East London background, Jamaican heritage and extensive formal music training, which includes stints at London College of Music and Guildhall School of Music and Drama. She showcased her quivering voice and late night jazz club sound on the still-great album If You Knew Her, which picked up Best Jazz Act at the MOBO Awards 2014, but Arise is the most accomplished full-length in the singer’s catalogue. Working with drummer and producer Moses Boyd, who shares McFarlane’s Caribbean background, the album explores the rhythms of Jamaica: reggae, Kumina, nyabinghi and calypso. The focus on history is evident right from the short opening track “Ode To Kumina,” which is inspired by the Kumina tradition, an Afro-Jamaican religion developed by indentured laborers from the Congo in the 19th century. Elsewhere, the gorgeous rhythm of “Peace Begins Within” underscores a righteous anthem of self-empowerment, with McFarlane’s fluttering falsetto proving her most important instrument.
The London jazz scene frequently serves up soothing antiseptics to Brexit-era Britain. Led by that man Shabaka Hutchings, Sons of Kemet unleash one of the most politically engaged records to emerge from the chaos. Instantly striking are the song titles, each named after great and influential black women. Opener “My Queen is Ada Eastman,” for example, is dedicated to Hutchens’ great-grandmother. When guest vocalist Joshua Idehen screams, “Burn UKIP, fuck the Tories / Fuck the fascists, end of story,” he unleashes the fury of the multicultural capital that soundly rejected Brexit yet must live with the rise of nationalist sentiment. Sonically, Your Queen is a Reptile, the group’s third album, expands on their musical palette. The busy “My Queen is Harriet Tubman” ties together some low horns, peppy solos and hyperactive percussion that’s easy to dance to, while the rumbling “My Queen is Mamie Phipps Clark” bares the handprints of ska groups like The Specials.
Keyboardist Joe Armon-Jones honed his craft as a member of Ezra Collective and alongside his good friend Maxwell Owin on the joint EP Idiom, but debut solo album Starting Today offers a full representation of the breadth of Armon-Jones’ musical proclivities. His love of throwback R&B, funk, hip-hop and boogie is deep in the record’s grooves. Even the album artwork, created by artist and friend Divya Scialo, features images of Armon-Jones’ London pad, reflecting the personalized nature of the six songs.
Highlights include “Almost Went Too Far,” a silky number that reaches for the 1970s American R&B sounds of Larry Levan, Paradise Garage and Shuggie Otis. The title track features the impassioned croons of vocalist Asheber, offering a timely rallying call to London’s most disenfranchised (“Starting today, I’m gonna wipe the blood off these streets,” he chants. “Starting today, spread love in the community”). Sometimes the best debut records are amalgamation of ideas — as if the creator is unsure if they’ll ever be allowed into a recording studio again so best to make the most of it. Here, Armon-Jones gives us everything he has.
We might never know what caused Yussef Kamaal to suddenly splinter. After Black Focus, losing the pair felt like a devastating blow to the London jazz scene. Whatever the reasons behind the split, Kamaal Williams was quick to pitch himself as the natural continuum to the group. The album artwork and cover fonts of The Return match those of Black Focus, a clear land-grab of the group’s legacy. More importantly, The Return served up more of the cosmic grooves that satisfied just as much second time around. The drums are funky, the bass is turned way up, and Williams’ retro-futuristic keys are gloriously silky. As soon as the sluggish chords and spaced-out synth waves of opener “Salaam” hit, it doesn’t take a musicologist to tell this represents a quick return to business for the South Londoner.
Tenderlonious, aka Ed Cawthorne, is a saxophonist, DJ, label head and all-round key figure in the London jazz arena. The Shakedown is the result of a single eight-hour session, but with some of the scene’s finest musicians in the squad — dubbed The 22archestra, which includes Yussef Dayes on drums and Hamish Balfour on keys — it’s a funky record of cool grooves, urbane flute work and laid-back keys. There’s a strong hip-hop influence here too: “SV Interlude” and “SV Disco” are in tribute to Slum Village, while Tenderlonious’ flute play on “Togo” is said to be inspired by the grooves of Slum’s one-time virtuoso J Dilla or MF DOOM.
The Shakedown, though, is a jazz record to its core. “Yussef’s Groove” kicks off with driving drums, and each of The 22archestra enter steadily, fully utilizing their virtuosic power, switching between low-slung bass, chic open piano solos and hazy electric piano. There are moments of more restraint, with Bitches Brew-style ambience providing a palpable sense of anticipation and passion, while still retaining that stomping, low-riding ’70s swing they do so well. The Shakedown might have been cut in about the same time it takes to fly from London to New York, but the band are in such a sweet groove, they sound like they’ve all the time in the world.
There can be only one Flying Lotus but that doesn’t mean Moses Boyd can’t comfortably fit into FlyLo’s esoteric lane. Boyd makes electronic music rooted in jazz tradition. Having first laid out his unusual remit on four-track 2017 release Absolute Zero (a song like “Square Up” sounds teased from a hacked Sega Genesis), Boyd expands the outer borders of his sound on Displaced Diaspora. See how opener “Rush Hour/Elegua” mixes traditional African chants with Boyd’s soulful electronics. Zara McFarlane guests on the midnight-blue ballad “City Nocturne.” Meanwhile, experienced band Kevin Haynes Grupo Elegua feature on four tracks, helping to add a more traditional jazz feel to the cuts. Best of all might be “Rye Lane Shuffle,” the busy concoction of blustering brass, guitar solos and speedy drums captures the bustling Peckham street after which it’s named.
As a child, Camilla George’s mother would often read her stories from The People Could Fly, a book of African tales steeped in the theme of slavery. The strong sense of the human spirit the Nigerian-born, London-based artist drew from these stories influences her album of the same name. This set of immaculately produced, tightly arranged jams have a breezy feel to them — none go beyond six minutes. But George’s sentiment track-by-track is palpable. The sound of jangling chains powerfully underpin George’s saxophone at the start of the mournful “The Most Useful Slave.” Far from one-note, “The People Could Fly” offers a more peppy side to her artistry. The album ends with a cover of Curtis Mayfield’s “Here, but I’m Gone,” linking George to the socially conscious grooves of the 1970s, resurrecting timely tales for the here and now.
Dean Van Nguyen is a music journalist and cultural critic for Pitchfork, The Guardian, Bandcamp Daily and Jacobin, among others. His first book, Iron Age: The Art of Ghostface Killah, was released in 2019.
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