Dig The New Breed: The UK Jazz Renaissance

Jazz has existed in the UK for around 100 years, with Dixieland jazz reaching British shores after World War 1. Throughout the continued development of the genre, the popularity and health of the UK jazz scene has ebbed and flowed, but the second half of the 2010s has been one of its most exciting and productive eras.

2018 was when UK jazz went overground, as musical shoots that had been quietly gestating over the preceding years bloomed into a series of brilliant albums from young, mostly London-based artists including Moses Boyd, Joe Armon-Jones, Sons of Kemet, Nubya Garcia and Kamaal Williams. And in the five years since, artists including Emma-Jean Thackray, Alfa Mist, Tenderlonious, Kokoroko, Ezra Collective, Nubiyan Twist, Ishmael Ensemble, Maisha and Blue Lab Beats have together produced an impressive collective body of exciting jazz and jazz-adjacent music, with a distinctively 21st-century British flavour. 

The new UK sound includes plenty of straight-up jazz, but also an abundance of hybrid, fresh new takes on the genre, which drew on broader influences than the traditional jazz canon. This is jazz from a new generation of players who’ve absorbed the work of Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Charles Mingus, but who have also grown up in the UK’s multicultural cities where imported Afro-Caribbean musical traditions birthed new electronic genres like dubstep, grime, broken beat, UK funky and afrobeats. It’s jazz that can deftly incorporate elements of Ghanaian highlife, US house and hip-hop, or Jamaican reggae and dub, as well as UK club music with equal ease, and which is often aimed at or informed by what’s happening on the capital’s dance floors. This musical freedom, fluidity and interconnectedness was also reflected in the collaborative spirit of the new wave, with many of the musicians guesting on each other’s records and at live shows and club nights.

Yussef Kamaal’s (Keyboardist/producer Kamaal Williams and drummer Yussef Dayes) superb Black Focus album, issued in 2016, was an important moment for the new vanguard. Williams’ cosmic-jazz synth stylings and Dayes’ fiery breakbeats combined to create jazz that could work on dance floors as well as at dinner parties, and the album signalled the incoming surge of potent next-generation jazz that was just around the corner. However, it was, as is often the case with club/dance/electronic-related music, a compilation album that crystallised the UK jazz renaissance in the public eye. 

2018’s We Out Here was released on UK DJ and jazz-evangelist Gilles Peterson’s Brownswood label and was compiled by sax and clarinet player Shabaka Hutchings. Hutchings is something of a figurehead for the current UK jazz scene, leading two bands — Shabaka and the Ancestors and Sons of Kemet — and he’s also a member of psychedelic funk jazz band The Comet Is Coming. The album provided a convenient and accessible audio snapshot of an emergent young scene in all its varying glories, a growing, confident and creative musical community that was largely outside the mainstream industry. It also showcased an impressive breadth of stylistic invention and musical cross-pollination, with re-worked spiritual jazz, jazz funk, fusion and abstract improvisational jazz all given a brand new flavour via afrobeats, grime, hip hop and electronica. 

While there is definitely a ‘scene,’ the UK jazz renaissance of the last five years includes an extremely broad range of musical styles, temperaments and aesthetics. The solo albums of keyboardist Joe Armon-Jones for example, who also plays in Ezra Collective, are dense, over-dubbed, electronic jazz-fusion, while Kokoroko specialise in afrobeat, highlife and funk-flavoured ensemble-jazz. Saxophonist Nubya Garcia’s jazz is rich with the music of the Afro-Caribbean diaspora, while Greg Foat makes jazz influenced by library music, ambient, psychedelia and folk. Blue Lab Beats happily trample through a number of genre boundaries, incorporating highlife, neo-soul, broken beat, hip hop as well as jazz into their music, and some of Moses Boyd’s tracks feel like grime instrumentals played in a jazz style while others are futurist jazz cross-pollinations that almost defy categorisation. 

Five years into the renaissance and UK jazz is healthier than ever: young artists and bands are regularly appearing at major festivals and on radio and TV, they’re picking up nominations and awards and jazz is played by club DJs and remixed by dance music artists. Jazz in Britain is currently the most mainstream it has been for years and perhaps more importantly, it’s resonating with young listeners and clubbers, mainly because it’s being made by people who have shared dance floors with and listened to the same pirate radio stations as their audiences. 

The last few years of UK jazz have produced a genuinely impressive catalogue of music characterised by invention and collaboration, a body of fresh, outward-looking, innovative, multicultural jazz, connected to what’s happening at street level in the clubs and plugged into various vibrant, creative UK dance, bass and electronic music scenes: dig the new breed.

SOURCE cover

UK saxophonist and bandleader Nubya Garcia’s second album consolidates her warm-hearted Afro-Carribean vision of jazz outlined on her debut while moving into new musical territories, adeptly incorporating dub reggae and Latin cumbia into her musical world. SOURCE is based around the lengthy dub jazz excursion title track, and the moves from tranquil, spacey dub to fiery, frenetic jazz and back again through the track are just superbly done, producing a seamless synthesis. Pace is a yearning, exploratory piece with Garcia’s assured, subtle solo a trip around her impressive chops. Again stepping outside the jazz comfort zone, the affecting La Cumbia Me Está Llamando, recorded in Bogotá, is nothing more than a layer of intricate Latin percussion, Garcia’s smooth tone and Columbian vocal trio La Perla. 

The album moves from languidly swinging to graceful reflection or intense emotion with ease, the worldwide influences Garcia draws into her work perfectly assimilated.

Displaced Diaspora cover

Displaced Diaspora is a collection of tracks that jazz drummer, producer and composer Boyd either played on or produced in 2014. It’s a marvellously varied album where you find hip hop and cutting-edge tuba-bottomed street jazz next to hectic improvisational jams like Frontline and early 70s Prestige funky jazz-style grooves like Axis Blue. Boyd is adept, expert even, at incorporating non-jazz like grime and afrobeats into his musical world, easily blurring musical genres with productions that reference the past while carving out a fresh approach. 

Plenty of top-level London players appear including sax/percussionist Kevin Haynes, Ezra Collective’s Joe Armon-Jones, Sons of Kemet tuba player Theon Cross and saxophonist Nubya Garcia, and while the no-holds-barred dancefloor destroyer Rye Lane Shuffle is the most well-known track here, it’s the splendidly buoyant, retro-yet-contemporary swing of Marooned in SE6 that gets my vote for album standout.

Could We Be More cover

London 8 piece Kokoroko’s 2020 debut album is a jubilant and cohesive demonstration of their afrobeat-highlife-jazz conglomerate sound. Its fifteen tracks, four of which are sub-one minute sketches rather than finished songs, are, aside from the strident War Dance, all upbeat, bright and optimistic. Stacked horns play meandering melody lines and fanfare riffs, the intricate rhythms overlap, interlock and circle around each other, there are snappy, sharply delivered solos and a general sunny disposition hangs over the whole thing. What’s striking about Could We Be More is how comfortably jazz, afrobeat and highlife sit together here; there’s an easy familiarity to the album, as though this latest distillation of musical strands had always existed. Accomplished, generous, sophisticated and full of joy.

Nubiyan Twist cover

Excellent 2015 debut album from Nubiyan Twist, a ten-piece London/Leeds collective who specialise in a sound that draws on jazz, afrobeat, hip hop, highlife, dub, Latin, soul, reggae and electronic music. It’s not some kind of musical jumble sale though, they have a clear and cohesive sound across the album, even as they deftly take on hip hop and dub and work in their highlife and jazz chops. There’s plenty of virtuoso playing on display and Nubiyan Twist excelling at super-intricate musical parts locked together in a churning, interlocking rhythm machine over which they lay big horn riffs, soul vocals and super-tight solos. Highlights include Figure Numatic, an expertly realised seven-minute soul/hip hop jazz excursion that warps into a global-funk workout featuring a snare sound to die for, and Hypnotised, a reggae jazz hybrid (Jazzgae? Regazz?) with soaring horn blasts that also comes with a spacious dubbed out Chief Rockers remix.

Nubya's 5ive cover

UK jazz saxophonist and composer Nubya Garcia’s debut album is made up of five expansive, elongated tracks, all over seven minutes long, along with an additional alternative take. As an opening statement, the first three tracks here clearly illustrate the range and quality of Nubya Garcia’s music, starting with Lost Kingdom which begins with an angular twisting sax melody before blooming into languid, soul-jazz underpinned by clattering, funked-up drums. Fly Free is weightless free flowing ensemble jazz and Hold blends a fat tuba b-line courtesy of Sons Of Kemet’s Theon Cross with a hip hop-ish beat that gradually unfolds into some serious percussion voodoo. 

 

Nubya’s 5ive gives the listener exciting, playful and emotional ensemble playing over a series of songs that range from dreamy reflection to frantic intensity to soaring free flying expression.

The Shakedown cover

Recorded in a single eight-hour session at Abbey Road Studios, the second album from Tenderlonious (Ed Cawthorne) is a contemporary jazz album with hip hop, electronica, afro-beat and jazz-funk references built in. Unsurprisingly, it has an organic, live feel, the limited palette of keys, bass, drums and percussion augmenting Cawthrone’s flute, sax and synth to construct a nimble album of beat-laden, slinky jazz funk fusion. Yussef Dayes is a big presence, supplying the drum fire and a diamond-hard snare sound, his beats on Yussef’s Groove undulating like a deep ocean swell, pulling and pushing the rhythm every four bars. 

Ranging from super-charged flute-funk to languid jazz-funk improvisation, The Shakedown is a deftly executed musical project with hints of that sleek, chrome-edged future-flavoured space jazz funk of Lonnie Liston Smith and Herbie Hancock to its hybrid sound.

We Out Here cover

This nine-track compilation of young UK jazz was put together by bandleader, saxophone and clarinet player Shabaka Hutchings. It was recorded over a three-day period in the summer of 2017 and presented the new vanguard of UK jazz, introducing the public to an exciting, vibrant emerging scene. WOH demonstrated the broad range of styles and approaches that characterise the recent UK jazz renaissance, from the deep, spiritual jazz of Maisha’s Inside The Acorn, to Ezra Collective’s afrobeat-soul jazz hybrid, Theon Cross’s genre-striding tuba-anchored jams and Nubya Garcia’s exhilarating Afro-Caribbean-influenced sound. Joe Armon-Jones turns in one of his detailed, lengthy space-jazz-funk workouts which goes through a series of ever more intriguing musical developments and album finisher is the plaintive, yearning afro-tinged Abusey Junction from Kokoroko. A perfect album to kickstart a love affair with contemporary UK jazz.

Starting Today cover

Excellent 2018 debut solo outing from keyboardist extraordinaire Joe Armon-Jones following his collab album with DJ/composer Maxwell Owin from the previous year. Starting Today is dense, psychedelic jazz and jazz funk with plenty of dub and soul influence, constructed from live performances and then layers of overdubs, post-production and studio trickery. Four of the six tracks clock in at nine minutes plus, their elongated form allowing plenty of space for individual solos and for the ensemble playing to interact and develop. 

Mollison Dub is a slinky and immersive musical blend, a kind of spiritual dub jazz reggae lounge composite, while composer and guitarist Oscar Jerome steps in for vocals on London’s Face, a genre-less song that, like the rest of the album, draws on many of the UK capital’s musical traditions while making something new out of them.

Motherland Journey cover

2022’s Motherland Journey was the fourth album from London-based Namali Kwaten and David Markpor. It’s a seventeen track, fifteen guests, day-glo, sumptuous free and easy musical fusion of jazztronics, jafrobeat, street soul, hip hop and electronica. Just the first five tracks alone deliver an astonishing variation of expertly executed styles: there’s spacey electronica with Sky Reflections (Intro), Labels is straight-up hip hop, I’ll Be Here For You is contemporary R’n’B with vocals from Teni Tinks, Gotta Go Fast heads into expertly played broken beat jazz funk, while A Vibe is a club-friendly 4/4 jazzer. 

Motherland Journey is overflowing with ideas, packed with highlife guitars, Dilla-esque hip hop beats, auto-tuned vocals, beautifully orchestrated strings and never-too-long solos. Afrobeat, neo-soul, broken beat, R’n’B and all the sounds of the UK streets are skilfully merged into Blue Lab Beat’s own, distinctive jazztronica.

Your Queen Is a Reptile cover

SOK’s third album is a broad, bold and expansive revision of the language of jazz through a UK/Afro-Caribbean lens. It’s overtly political, the album name referring to the UK-royals-are-reptilians conspiracy theory, while each song title honours the name of a notable and influential black woman from history. 

My Queen is Ada Eastman’s rattling drums and deep tuba bass provide a stormy backing for spoken word artists Joshua Idehen’s impassioned poetry, while My Queen Is Mamie Phipps Clark cross-pollinates spirited jazz soloing with dub, rattling snares, vocals from Congo Natty and the low-end rumble of Theon Cross’s tuba bass. The reggae feel returns on the more placid My Queen is Nanny of The Maroons but this is a quiet moment of contrast in a storm of an album that trades on its high-intensity flow and uncompromising torrent of sound. A loud, proud and very British jazz album.

Black Focus cover

Across ten tracks, two of them sub-one minute audio sketches, keyboardist/producer Kamaal Williams and drummer Yussef Dayes with a crack team of premier players — Kareem Dayes and Tom Driessler on bass and Mansur Brown, Shabaka Hutchings and Yelfris Valdés on guitar, sax and trumpet respectively — set out their vision of jazz. Black Focus is a musical amalgamation: partly an update of 70s jazz-funk fusion, and partly forward-looking, leading-edge contemporary jazz. Dayes’ impeccably played and pristinely produced drums are at the centre, each tiny sweep of his brushes, every ghost note and moment of percussive intricacy clear in the mix, and Williams’ cosmic synth washes and electric piano lift the whole thing beyond terra firma. A deep, dramatic and potent album that’s all just so classy and effortlessly cool.

Symphonie Pacifique cover

Symphonic Pacifique is the third solo set from keyboardist, composer, producer and DJ Greg Foat. Nikinakinu is superbly executed soul jazz with extensive frenetic soloing and is followed by Man Vs Machine which matches a hazy — I don’t know what he’s done to the drums on this album but to my ears they all sound deliberately scuzzy and grimy, pleasantly so — drum break with a simple synth arpeggio while drummer Moses Boyd absolutely tears it up. It’s a growling, oppressive piece of music in contrast to the plaintive, carefully arranged strings of Before The Storm and its companion piece, the fuzzy-edged piano-strings-and-reverb After The Storm

Symphonic Pacifique is a highly engaging, varied, sensitive album with a consistent inventive approach and moments of alluring beauty.

Yellow cover

Yellow is trumpet player, bandleader and beatmaker Emma-Jean Thackray’s third album, a psychedelic jazz/electronica concoction that features widescreen Rotary Connection-style production, hints of the slick jazz-funk of Roy Ayers and the spiritual jazz of Pharaoh Saunders, along with plenty of contemporary dance floor dynamics. 

Vocal track Say Something is like a microcosm of the album, packing a huge quantity of musical events into its short length: the gentle keys, pad and soul vocal intro, a straight-up house section, a jazz-funk/broken beat vamp and final soaring, expansive climax. This ambition and scope are present throughout Yellow, which despite its mystic, spiritual flavour generally avoids lengthy solo-ridden jams, making it a high-impact album, packed full of vocal hooks. There’s an innate, head-nodding sense of groove across all the tracks and the blend of dance floor beats and psychedelic cosmic jazz is expertly accomplished.

Antiphon cover

Antiphon is pianist/producer/songwriter Alfa Mist’s second album, an intimate, atmospheric and introspective contemporary jazz outing that contains flavours of fusion, modal jazz and hip hop. Opener Keep On is a subtly glowing soul-jazz jam, its peaks and troughs of key and sax solos held down by an endlessly inventive funky drum pattern. Errors is slower and gentler, full of flowing improvisation and melodic invention, while bassist Kaya Thomas-Dyke delivers a pretty, wandering melody over Breathe's cycling chords, muted trumpet and pitter-patter drums.

There’s a mood of melancholy and isolation over this album with only fleeting appearances from major chords and little in the way of musical sweetening; there’s beauty and warmth here but no sentimentality. It’s tasteful, classy even, but there’s a slight sombreness to the mood, a hint of darkness hanging over much of Antiphon that along with regular flare-ups of scorching musical expression neatly prevent things from ever becoming beige.

Where I'm Meant to Be cover

2022’s Where I’m Meant To Be, the second album for the London five-piece is an exercise in successfully merging their ensemble jazz aesthetic with UK club sounds like afrobeats, UK funky and Afro-Carribean music traditions like reggae and soul. And like much of the new wave of UK jazz, this album is more of a transcendence than an amalgamation: Where I’m Meant… feels less like a blend of genres and more like the emergence of a new style. In an album with plenty of high points, the centrepiece is perhaps the seven minutes of Live Strong, drummer Femi Koleoso’s beats and TJ Koleoso’s fluid bass locking in to create a peak performance groove mechanism while the song slowly unfurls into a truly swinging second half. It’s a mostly celebratory album, full of light and joy and unsurprisingly superbly played.

Shfl