Every so often, British jazz pops its head above the parapet, gets a Mercury nomination, and has a noodle on telly to remind everyone that it’s still there, like it’s always been, parping away from mainstream view. For many of us, jazz has seemed like something other people listened to. But in the past few years, the genre has had a serious overhaul. When Kendrick Lamar released his landmark album To Pimp a Butterfly in 2015, one of its most extraordinary aspects was its liberal use of jazz, which dovetailed with hip-hop and opened it up for a new generation. Not only did it immediately feel more accessible but, played by the likes of strikingly cosmic characters such as Thundercat and Kamasi Washington, it looked commandingly cool.
In the UK, a new and thrilling jazz movement has evolved. As with Lamar, Thundercat and Washington, it is born out of fresh experimentalism, is reaching far younger, more diverse audiences and doesn’t care for snootiness. Unlike in previous waves, these musicians are in their 20s and early 30s, come from diverse backgrounds and, as with grime, have created their own community outside of major labels and concert halls. Their music, meanwhile, pulls liberally from other genres, whether hip-hop, neo-soul, UK club sounds such as broken beat, or from the African and Caribbean diaspora. And it’s not just at gigs that you can hear it but, much like in the acid jazz days, nightclubs too. British DJs such as Bradley Zero and Floating Points have liberated jazz for the dancefloor to the extent that it’s now not unheard of for a 10-minute Pharaoh Sanders odyssey to be spun on the decks to an appreciative, twentysomething crowd.
Notable, too, is how prolific this wave is, with jazz musicians infiltrating summer music festival listings, signing to indie labels or taking their sound abroad. The sheer volume of talent is being recognised across the world. “Wherever I’m travelling, whether it’s in the States, Argentina, Japan, or all over Europe, everyone is talking to me about the British invasion,” says DJ and broadcaster Gilles Peterson, who himself helped usher in the acid jazz sound of the mid-80s. “I’ve had people talking about Courtney Pine and Steve Williamson in slightly hushed tones, but I’ve never had this before. They feel this is a very important movement.”
The movement hasn’t just sprung out of nowhere. In London especially there is the sense that today’s jazz musicians have come up together over the past few years. They are collaborative, constantly threading through one another’s projects, and jamming together at a number of DIY stomping grounds, including the Church of Sound in an east London chapel and Dalston’s Total Refreshment Centre. South of the river, where much of the capital’s abundant scene has coalesced, music nights Steez and weekly Afrofuturism session Steam Down – recently attended by Kamasi Washington – are where players team up and try out new material. Broadcaster Teju Adeleye says: “The artists don’t feel like inaccessible superstars, they come to all the gigs and jam nights.”