By Peter Hipkin
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The redefinition of the UK’s jazz scene over the course of the last five years has not received the attention it deserves. The influence of Nu-Jazz is pervasive in contemporary mainstream music. Think of iconic chimaeras like Jorja Smith or Tom Misch. Yet, at its core is something far more exciting: a dynamic and burgeoning, though still fledgling, home-grown jazz scene. Despite emerging from our generation’s passions, ideas and tastes, British Nu-Jazz remains to be fully embraced, or perhaps discovered, by its progenitors.
I first encountered Nu-Jazz in the summer of 2019, at an open-air jazz event held to mark the 60th anniversary of the foundation of Ronnie Scott’s, the legendary jazz club in London. The stage – erected in the narrow streets of Soho – was shared by jazz musicians from all genres and generations. One especially memorable set witnessed Pee Wee Ellis – the pioneering jazz and funk saxophonist who sadly passed in September last year – play alongside Nubya Garcia, a fellow saxophonist and one of the leading lights of the current jazz revival. In retrospect, it is hard not to see the performance of these two saxophonists, so removed in age yet possessed by the same musical verve, as suggestive of the generational significance of London’s Nu-Jazz explosion.
So, who are the artists leading the charge?
Ezra Collective – the quintet composed of drummer Femi Koleoso, bassist TJ Koleoso, keyboardist Joe Armon-Jones, trumpeter Ife Ogunjobi, and saxophonist James Mollison, has been described by the music platform Boiler Room as “pioneering the new wave of UK jazz music.” Their 2019 album You Can’t Steal My Joy, which contains big-name features from Loyle Carner and Jorja Smith, is perhaps the best example of the uniquely energetic sound generated by the blending of traditional jazz with elements of Afrobeat, Hip-Hop and Soul.
Kokoroko – the eight-piece group led by Sheila Maurice-Grey – similarly embodies the collaborative spirit characteristic of Nu-Jazz. Their self-titled 2019 EP, alongside the singles, Carry Me Home and Baba Ayoola, both released in 2020, sees jazz and Afrobeat collide most effectively. The chanted vocals typical of Afrobeat layered onto Oscar Jerome’s virtuosic jazz guitar and Onome Edgeworth’s high-energy percussion creates a genuinely enigmatic sound. What’s more, it’s a sound that resonates with many: hit single Abusey Junction has over 40 million streams on Spotify.
For those yearning for the sometimes aching, sometimes euphoric, sometimes downright bizarre sound of the mid-century halcyon days of Jazz, multi-instrumentalist Kamaal Williams’ most recent album Wu Hen may whet the appetite. Toulouse evokes the aching, Pigalle the euphoric, and Mr Wu the brilliantly bizarre.
Despite all this, my personal favourite artist of London’s Nu-Jazz scene – someone who consistently makes my Spotify Wrapped – is Oscar Jerome. The singer, guitarist and producer not only epitomises the genre-bending experimentalism of UK Jazz; his instantly catchy guitar hooks and memorable vocals produce a popular sound that is the perfect point of entry for curious wanderers navigating London’s kaleidoscopic jazz scene. His blending of jazz and funk keys and guitar with minimalist house beats – as in his 2021 single No Need – creates the perfect accompaniment for a sunny Sunday morning.
Why, then, does Nu-Jazz have a claim to be the ‘soul’ of modern Britain?
For me at least, the UK’s Jazz artists and the music they create embody and amplify the best of modern Britain, and signal what it ought to be going forward.
It is inclusive and collaborative, in terms of artists, listeners and the music itself. Musically, you only have to look as far as the album Promises, produced by the DJ (and neuroscientist) Floating Points, in collaboration with iconic saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders (now 81 years old) and the London Symphony Orchestra.
It is also reverent of, though not fettered by, our historical inheritance. The African and Afro-Caribbean cultural input that is so central to its unique sound finds an especially authentic and powerful expression in Nu-Jazz. Yet it is also highly innovative and experimental. Artists such as Portico Quartet are constantly extending the boundaries of what exactly constitutes ‘Jazz’. In their case, Jazz is pushed into more cinematic and ethereal realms. Thus, what we have, is a sort of historically connected futurism. The paradox (or not) of authentic escapism.
Closer to home, the Jazz Society brings a little microcosm of London’s Nu-Jazz scene to Durham every Sunday evening in Fab’s – what’s not to like?
Illustration: Rosie Bromiley