It’s A Jazz Thing: The Travels Of Gilles Peterson

Talkin' all that jazz with the always-vital selector...

Gilles Peterson likes to stay busy.

Not content with being a globally in-demand DJ, the London selector holds down a weekly 6Music slot, helps run Worldwide FM, and spearheads the always on-point Brownswood imprint. Oh, and he runs a lot of marathons.

Agreeing to curate an area of Cheltenham Jazz Festival, Gilles has decided to give up 20 minutes of his day to chat to Clash. He scarcely slows down, though, with words, expressions, reminiscences, and recommendations tumbling forth at an astonishing rate.

“Hello sir!” he shouts amiably. “Let’s talk.”

We start at the beginning: Cheltenham Jazz Festival. Jazz is hot right now, and Gilles agreed to expand a long-time friendship with the event to pull together a bill of breaking and underground talent from right here in the UK.

“It’s difficult,” he admits. “In fact, it’s really easy at the moment because there’s so many to pick from!”

“It doesn’t feel too thin,” Gilles continues. “In the past sometimes I might have had to look a bit more towards America to get artists in because even though there were always really good English artists they might not have had the profile. Actually now the British groups are really coming up!”

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He’s definitely right there. A long-time advocate for the life-enhancing noises that composite modern jazz, Gilles has watched as a new generation blur the lines still further, with the likes of Moses Boyd, Jordan Rakei, Zara McFarlane and more set to pepper his section of Cheltenham Jazz Festival.

“It’s great to see someone like Moses Boyd coming through,” he enthuses. “We worked with him a little bit through the Steve Reid Foundation, initially, which I do with Four Tet and Floating Points. Part of what we do is mentor artists as part of the Foundation, and he was one of the first ones that we supported. So it’s great to see that he has gone on to be one of the leaders.”

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This is the best it’s been, in a way, because people’s listening habits have changed…

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“Zara… She’s so elegant, for me, as an artist,” he explains. “I’ve released three albums of hers now on Brownswood, and she’s not searching to be the latest hipster type artist.”

“For me, when it comes to going to listen to a singer, there’s no one who’s got such clarity in her voice than Zara. So I always absolutely love seeing her. Especially if it’s in a closed space. I like her in a small room.”

The concert series comes at exactly the right time – Clash went to the Jazz FM Awards earlier this week, and caught a scene in electrifying transition. Kamasi Washington stood at the side of the stage, Pat Metheny was in the crowd, and young guns such as Nubya Garcia and Ezra Collective won key awards. As we said last year: UK jazz is killing right now.

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Gilles Peterson came of age in one of the last great eras for UK jazz, with his legendary sets at Dingwalls bringing together house, acid jazz, rare groove and so much more. It’s little wonder, then, that those sets are often brought up when discussing the new wave.

“I think it’s a little bit different now,” he insists. “This is the best it’s been, in a way, because people’s listening habits have changed. There are less negative associations connected to jazz music.”

“So in that sense people are just discovering it for themselves, and obviously one of the great things that has happened through the internet is that if you are into music and if you do get a hunch that you like something and you want to get into it deeper than you can go from Grover Washington Jr. to Albert Ayler in one evening! Whereas my generation it took about five years.”

He continues: “Maybe that steady journey was really important because we eventually got to that point, but these days I just find the people are so much more… You can satisfy your need a lot quicker. And I think that’s why good music and great legacy artists are getting the props that they weren’t getting for years because people are finding them quicker, and realising that they are the Holy Grail.”

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One of the startling aspects of the new jazz community at work in London and beyond is just how varied, but also how natural it all feels. It’s completely legitimate for Theon Cross, for example, to play onstage with an MC like Kano and then head to Ronnie Scott’s to lead his vital trio.

“I think the new generation is just more open-minded about a really modern, positive take on British multi-culturalism,” Gilles notes. “You can see that in the music and the way that everyone is working together.”

“I’ve also compared this generation to what happened in hip-hop in America a few years ago, with the likes of Odd Future. This lot have learned how to use social media, how to build a community, how to curate their events, how to organise recordings. They’ve done it all really fast. It’s all about a community growing – like, punk was a few people, so was jazz! And a lot of thanks to people like Gary Crosby and Tomorrow’s Warriors and Jazz Refreshed, all those people have had a big part to play.”

“Equally one of the big differences between what’s happening now, and what was happening back in the days of Dingwalls and the stuff that I was doing in the 90s is that in those days the bands and the DJs were quite separate from each other,” he notes. “I was always very much about incorporating live music with DJ culture, but very few of the bands and the artists were particularly interested in the DJ side of things. It was almost like two separate parties on the same evening.”

“So for me, it’s like 20 years of building that context, that concept, and finally this generation do get the club culture. And you feel that in their music – somehow it’s been integrated in the way they approach their music.”

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I see them all as the children of Acid Jazz, in a way…

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Labels such as Rhythm Section and 22a have taken jazz bops to the back rooms of basement clubs in Dalston, creating a peer-to-peer vibe that is exemplified by the promotional work of Total Refreshment Centre, for example, of the Church Of Sound nights.

“Yeah of course!” he exclaims. “To be honest with you, whether it’s NTS or all this different new sub-labels that have come out, I see them all as the children of Acid Jazz, in a way. We were always about that back-room attitude. And suddenly when you see these artists with that in them, it’s basically what I’ve been doing for 30 years really… and others like me! So in a way I’m just really delighted that they’re doing really well with it, and it’s growing and there’s another generation that are making it their own.”

A DIY insurrection aimed against the growing hegemony of club culture, these new nights, labels, producers, DJs, and musicians are reflecting the continual shifts within London, expressing a community feeling in defiance of the developers.

“That’s London,” he says. “I think there’s been a really interesting turn in the last few years with club culture, where people aren’t falling for the generic, shall we say. And everybody is always catching up a bit all over the world.”

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Gilles Peterson Presents hits Cheltenham Jazz Festival on May 5th.

Join us on Vero, as we get under the skin of global cultural happenings. Follow Clash Magazine as we skip merrily between clubs, concerts, interviews and photo shoots. Get backstage sneak peeks and a true view into our world as the fun and games unfold.

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