Author Archives: Dom Servini

Is That Jazz? Who Cares?!

Sons of Kemet
Sons of Kemet

“It seems like a lot of ideas that have been fostered over the last decade are being realized in maturity at this point in time. Maybe one of the factors in this ‘explosion’ is the fact that a lot of my peers are pretty irreverent in terms of their relationship to the term ‘jazz.’” — Shabaka Hutchings

Has any musical genre caused as much consternation about its own definition as jazz? Over the past year, British artists such as GoGo Penguin, Polar Bear, and Eska have received awards and plaudits that might make you think that jazz is back. However, the artists’ rejection of being part of the jazz scene might actually hold the key to their success.

The genre’s birth in New Orleans in the early twentieth century – drawn from the influences of ragtime, blues, and traditional Afro-Caribbean music – soon led to the sound spreading across the globe, and particularly to Great Britain, where Dixieland jazz and, later, the music of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong were popular imports.

Eska

In the lead up to World War II, the swing sounds of Glen Miller and the growing influence of the BBC gave British artists both inspiration and a place to play their music to the masses. Young, homegrown talents such as jazz pianist George Shearing were thriving on the radio and in the nightclubs, but as the Second World War drew to a close it was clear that the world of jazz was about to split in two.

Traditional jazz revivalists, like Humphrey Lyttleton, stuck to the roots of the music and embraced Dixie and ragtime sounds. Modernists, like Ronnie Scott, embraced the improvised and forward-thinking spirit of bebop with equal fervor.

This tussle between tradition and modernism has been in play in the 75 years since. The 1960s was the heyday of Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club – a bebop mecca – but it was trad stars like Aker Bilk who were topping the charts. The 1970s saw artists such as Miles Davis dabble with rock and subsequently influence countless British musicians to experiment with a fusion of sounds. UK players like Courtney Pine and Steve Williamson invigorated the scene in the 1980s, and in the 1990s acid jazz emerged with its soul, hip-hop and dance music influences. All the while, the more traditional British jazz scene didn’t falter, perhaps even sneering at these fly-by-night trends.

The Comet is Coming

The situation in Britain today remains much the same. While contemporary artists such as Polar Bear, The Comet is Coming, and Sons of Kemet receive accolades and mainstream radio play, there still seems to be a reticence to be acknowledged as being part of the British “jazz” scene.

Although we are, without a doubt, living in a time of huge creativity and diversity in jazz, this doesn’t stop young musicians from being uncomfortable with the tag. Last year’s Mercury Music Prize short list featured the sophomore album from Mancunian trio GoGo Penguin, and this year’s competition had the long-awaited debut from a vocalist who’s worked both within and out of the jazz scene – Eska – also shortlisted for the prize. Yet GoGo Penguin prefer to label themselves as an “acoustic electronica” act rather than a jazz trio, and Eska is far from being a traditionalist: “I have checked out some of the happenings in the modular synth world, including Polar Bear and James Holden, and that feels more like future jazz than anything I’ve heard in a long time.”

One of the most highly regarded young saxophonists and bandleaders, Shabaka Hutchings, explains, “It definitely feels like something exciting is happening at the moment. I guess all music is about people and the progress they make individually, or collectively, in expressing themselves…There comes a point artistically when you’ve got to ask what you want on your own terms, what’s the message that you have to give in the context of your own surroundings? This seems to be the zeitgeist today. Many musicians are coming from a place of having studied jazz music and are trying to recontextualize the lessons this art form has to offer to service their own worldview.”

Nat Birchall

Patrick Forge, who has been a leading DJ in the scene for over three decades now, is a member of the band Da Lata and still runs his decades-strong Sunday Afternoon at Dingwalls jazz-dance sessions with Gilles Peterson. Forge says, “I think we’re talking about a generation of musicians who have a much wider perspective, definitely not purist, drawing influences from club culture and cinematic composers, and bypassing some of the snobbery and elitism that has often pervaded jazz culture. Jazz should be a very liberating music, but maybe it’s become a straitjacket in some ways too; the immense weight of all that great tradition is too much to live up to. It’s much easier to make music if you don’t think about comparing it with what’s gone before.”

And maybe that’s the key; perhaps players like Shabaka Hutchings and Seb Rochford (of Polar Bear) are sick of being compared to their predecessors? Perhaps as music fans we shouldn’t bog ourselves down with genres and simply open our ears to the music? “I don’t even think in terms of ‘British jazz,’ to me there’s just the music, in all of its forms,” suggests Nat Birchall, a saxophonist who, perhaps ironically, released his latest album on Jazzman Records. “But I believe the rise of the internet and the simultaneous decline, or shift of dominance, of the major record labels has made it easier for musicians to find their audience and also the audience to find the music,” he adds. Backing up Birchall is Aly Gillani of First Word Records, who adds, “I think the younger fans are probably less concerned with the genre names than before. Labels like 22a release beats, house, hip-hop and jazz, and their fans embrace that without a problem.”

Matthew Halsall and The Gondwana Orchestra photo by Simon Hunt
photo by Simon Hunt

Whether these musicians should be concerned with making jazz their own, or look beyond it and simply continue to push boundaries, their growing popularity is without doubt. “If you go to see The Comet Is Coming or Yussef Kamaal, the crowd is young and energized. I think it’s a worldwide movement and acts like Robert Glasper, Badbadnotgood, Thundercat, and now Kamasi Washington are showing artists that they can be brave and still find an audience,” says Gillani. Matthew Halsall, trumpeter and head honcho at Gondwana Records, adds, “In 2008 I set up my own independent record label and I’ve witnessed a steady increase in sales, media interest, and concert ticket sales.”

So, apparently it’s the music that matters, not how you choose to label it. Let’s hope the 2016 crop is as good as 2015.

Final words have to go to the erstwhile editor of jazz bible Straight No Chaser magazine, and a man who has always understood that music is music, Paul Bradshaw: “Last Wednesday I enjoyed hearing veteran sax player Evan Parker with Black Top, and was buzzed up to hear him riding cut-up reggae bass lines, belching electronic funk and a touch of Go Go. It’s how I like it — deep and underground with a touch of humor! You know, like Rahsaan Roland Kirk… ‘Can’t you feel the spirits up above… up above…’”

Dom Servini writes about all kinds of music when he’s not running Wah Wah 45s or playing Dad.

Playing the Changes

ESKA by Jaroslav Moravec

“I can definitely say that I’m excited for ESKA right now. I’m a new mum and I’m finally releasing music as an artist. Yes, I’m enjoying the changes.”

Eska Mtungwazi is something of a phenomenon in the U.K. music scene. Hailing from Lewisham in South East London, this multitalented musician, songwriter, arranger, and—most importantly—vocalist, has become a go-to person for many of the most discerning artists and producers around. For the best part of two decades Eska has, often somewhat anonymously, lent her tones to a myriad of musical offerings, including work from The Cinematic Orchestra, Matthew Herbert, Zero 7, and Grace Jones. She’s seen very much as “the singer’s singer,” and one whose fans have been desperately waiting for far too long to hear her full-length album. The wait is over. Eska’s self-titled, full-length, solo debut album is out now on Naim Edge Recordings.

Essa comes from Zimbabwean stock, but is very much a London girl. It seems her father’s musical taste had a significant impact on her. She explains, “His vinyl collection was incredibly eclectic. We could end up listening to Quincy Jones, Madonna, Bob Marley, Freddie Hubbard, and Peter Frampton all in the same afternoon. I believe it taught me to be open-minded. Dad had an acoustic guitar and would improvise along to his records. The record player and TV were, unfortunately, in the same room and more often than not Dad would have the urge to play records just when the cartoons happened to be on. This wasn’t met with enthusiasm on our part. The compromise would be that we could watch the TV, but with the sound turned down. In the end, we’d eventually give in to the spectacle of Dad dancing around the living room and playing his guitar whilst trying to get us to join in with the fun. Those are very dear memories to me.” She goes on to say, “One of the earliest words my little brother learned was ‘speakers.’ As we grew older, Dad would ask for our suggestions on new records to buy. He was accommodating of our tastes, even if they were radically different to his. Nonetheless, Dad periodically reminded us that eventually, ‘No matter what you do, you will always return to jazz!’” She adds, laughing, “I would shake my head in disbelief back then.”

With a voice reminiscent in tone of one of her heroines, Joni Mitchell, and the fearless style of another, Kate Bush, Eska’s vocal chords alone are enough to stop you in your tracks. But this lady has far more up her sleeve. As a renowned multi-instrumentalist, she plays keys, violin, cello, percussion, recorder, clarinet, guitar, and vibraphone on her debut. And in typically modest style she admits, “I wouldn’t expect anyone in their right mind to ask me to play any of those instruments on their album.” Impressively, she taught herself the recorder at the tender age of eight, and once again it was her father who encouraged her into the world of music. She explains, “Dad bought us all a descant plus a couple of exercise books. That made the transition to violin a year later a lot smoother.”

Eksa’s first experience as part of a band was with open-minded outfit Quite Sane, who she hooked up with through a friend of the family, Oroh Angiama. She says Oroh was “obsessing about this band that was looking for a new vocalist to join them. He said it was a jazz band. Jazz was synonymous with my Dad so I didn’t think that was particularly cool at the time. I was dismissive of Oroh’s enthusiasm for Quite Sane and wasn’t in any hurry to go and meet their band leader, Anthony Tidd. Anthony (bass) started the band with his school friends Richard Cassell (drums) and Eric Appapoulay (guitar). Oroh was unusually persistent about me meeting up with Anthony. His love of jazz seemed to know no bounds. Oroh was also eagerly taking me out to hear these great musicians who were passing through town. I recall us going to see Betty Carter at the Royal Festival Hall and witnessing Steve Colemen and the Five Elements at Dingwalls. I didn’t get the music at all. Strangely enough, I did notice that there seemed to be the same faces in the audience at a lot of these gigs and a lot of them were young people. I was drawn to this very attractive scene as much as I was intrigued by the funk and intellect in the music.”

ESKA by Jaroslav Moravec

Being part of Quite Sane garnered musical relationships for Eska that still exist 20 years later. Other long-term relationships are also evident on Eska’s debut: collaborators David Okumu (from highly regarded U.K. outfit The Invisible), Louis Hackett (of the afro-electronic Owiny Sigoma Band), and celebrated British producer, composer, and band leader Matthew Herbert were all instrumental in the recording and production of Eska’s eponymous long-player. As she enthuses, “These have been three great personal and creative relationships. The fact that there was no dynamic shift whilst working on my record is a testament to the huge level of mutual respect. I found three exceptional artists to help me steer my thoughts and facilitate me in distilling my ideas.”

A solid base on which to build has helped Eska deal with expectations for the album. She says, “I did my utmost not to pander to expectations early on, especially when I was previously being ‘hotly-tipped.’ Had I made an album back then, it would have contained so many affectations due to the influence of my collaborations at that time. I don’t think anyone has higher expectations of me than I do.” She continues, “Trying to live up to my own expectations whilst keeping the external voices in their right place has been a process of becoming my harshest critic yet being my biggest fan most of all.” And that attitude looks like it’s paying dividends with an album that perfectly captures Eska’s unique spirit. Songs like “She’s in the Flowers” and “This is How a Garden Grows” highlight this incredible talent’s folk leanings, whereas the excellent “Heroes and Villains” shows her love for a dub bass-line—all delivered with lashings of soul, naturally.

ESKA by Jaroslav Moravec

It seems that in her own good time, Eska has delivered not only the album that fans have been waiting for, but the one that she’s happy and comfortable releasing.

She states, “As a work in progress, I can definitely say that I’m excited for ESKA right now. I’m a new mum and I’m finally releasing music as an artist. Yes, I’m enjoying the changes.”

And without wanting to jump the gun, what of a sophomore release?

She confides, “It’s mainly written. I just have to find the money to finish it. Nothing has changed in that department!”

Photography by Jaroslav Moravec

 

Love and Light

Polar Bear by Jacek Zmarz

“The last album is night and this is day… I wanted to make an album that hopefully would lift people and myself, too.”

U.K. avant-jazz outfit Polar Bear have released their sixth album, Same As You, exclusively on Bandcamp. It’s something of a natural progression from In Each and Every One, which was shortlisted for the 2014 Mercury Music Prize. It is also a distinctly more optimistic and uplifting offering. The album features lauded saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings (who has also played with Courtney Pine’s Jazz Warriors, Mulatu Astatke and the Heliocentrics, and Melt Yourself Down), as well as spoken word from London shop owner Asar Mikael, vocals from Toronto-born songstress Hannah Darling, a fully formed choir, and drummer/bandleader Seb Rochford on the very catchy crossover “Don’t Let the Feeling Go.” I caught up with the latter to discuss his influences, his method, and the making of the album.

Bandcamp: Same As You feels like a particularly optimistic, direct and personal album, almost as if it represents moving from dark into the light. Is there some truth in this?
Seb Rochford: Yes, the last album is night and this is day–the moon and the sun—because of certain situations in my life and all of the heightened war, greed, racism, and prejudice in the world today. I wanted to make an album that hopefully would lift people and myself, too.

BC: There’s a kind of serenity and feeling of being at peace on this album. How did the place you recorded the album and the people you recorded it with influence that atmosphere?
SR: This album was very much influenced by the desire to share positivity and love, but also by my experience in the Mojave desert, where I found amazing inspiration and perspective. The vastness of nature there gave me a heightened sense of awareness. The album was mixed by Ken Barrientos, an amazing producer and musician from Los Angeles. We spent a couple of days at his place and then headed to the desert for a week to mix at Red Barn Recorders, a studio in the Morongo valley. I think Ken really captured how the desert feels, and being there was a hugely important part of the sound of this album.

Polar Bear by Jacek Zmarz

BC: The album also has an almost classical feel, like every track is a movement of a more cohesive body of work. Was this intentional?
SR: I thought a lot about how we could deepen the communication of what I wanted us to express and give to people on this album. Feeling it as a whole was important to this process, and at the same time, if people want to listen to one track in isolation, then that’s their free choice. Each track on this album holds the emotion of the album as a whole—this was my intention.

BC: Following on from this, how relevant is the idea of “the album” to you?
SR: Personally, there are some songs I love to listen to in isolation and some albums I love listening to as a whole. For me there is room for both, and I’m sure both ways of listening will continue to coexist. One of the beauties of music is that there is no right or wrong way—everyone’s expression is valid no matter what. I don’t feel the need to lock down where I think a certain music trend is going. There is always an exception to the rule and, as someone who creates music, this is an integral part of my growth.

BC: Same As You is your sixth album in just over a decade. With the output of contemporaries Melt Yourself Down, Roller Trio, Matthew Halsall, and more recently, Mammal Hands, Sons of Kemet, Zara McFarlane, and GoGo Penguin, would you classify this period as being somewhat of a “golden age” for British jazz—be it improv, avant-garde, vocal, or otherwise?
SR: I feel like this is not something I can comment on since I’m involved in some of these. But U.K. music, in general, seems in a very healthy place to me. If you look in the right places and see music as one, then it’s always a “golden age.”

Polar Bear by Jacek Zmarz

BC: How have the previous generations of British jazz artists, from Courtney Pine back to Ian Carr and Tubby Hayes, influenced your take on the genre?
SR: I’ve seen Courtney play and consider him to be a master of his instrument. He could play for days and never run out of ideas or energy. I think the most influential people for me, in terms of U.K. jazz, have been Django Bates, Julian Arguelles, Stan Tracey, Steve Buckley, Martin France, Gene Calderazzo, and the people I play with. From the little that I know, we, like generations before, have mixed influences to make our own flavor of improvised music.

BC: Do you think there has been a more open-minded stance to jazz from the mainstream music press, and the music industry in general, in recent years—especially in light of the Mercury Music Prize nominations for both GoGo Penguin and yourselves?
SR: Open-mindedness is always a positive thing in my mind. In these times I’m aware there seems to be a promoted leaning toward closed-mindedness and prejudice, which is reflected in some of the music media, but also I feel there is a big move toward being open-minded, which is also reflected in the music media. I guess what I’m saying is that I feel both. I do feel that younger generations can sometimes have less stigma attached to jazz and are able to just like what they like.

BC: Did the nomination for your last album ramp up the pressure on this one? If so, how did the musicians around you, and your label, help alleviate that? Did you feel it was important to get this album out quickly?
SR: We had already recorded the next album by the time we found out about the Mercury Music Prize, so I didn’t feel any pressure at all. My relationship to writing the music for this band is that I can’t force it. We make albums when it becomes clear to me what I wish to express.

BC: I’m sure you’re already planning album seven. Any clues on what we can expect from your next opus?
SR: I know what it feels like and have some colors, even a couple of tunes, but it’s still forming in me.

When he’s not running the excellent Wah Wah 45s label, Dom Servini also writes for Echoes.

Photography by Jacek Zmarz