There are things happening in UK jazz right now that even 12 months ago would have been thought impossible. New acts seem to emerge on a weekly basis, while promoters such Church Of Sound, Total Refreshment Centre, Jazz Cafe and more are providing sites for new connections to be made, new ideas fostered. Electronic imprints such as Eglo and 22a are furthering the conversation between jazz musicians and club culture, a reminder in its centenary year that the nebulous, fluid, and forever-in-flux term ‘jazz’ has no definitive meaning. UK jazz has no fixed abode: this is its wot-do-you-call-it moment.
Moses Boyd sits at the centre of this. The South London percussionist channels bop in a grime context, throwing nods to everything from UKG to Afrobeat in the process. A stunning technician, it’s all a long way from those after-school sessions in Catford.
“It was at school, the first proper time I played the drums. No rhythm, no coordination!” he laughs. “I remember trying to play beats when I first started and it just was not happening… it was a lot of work! A lot of work went into it.”
“If you think about it, a 13 year old being into jazz is quite odd,” he continues. “Back then, it wasn’t the status quo, it wasn’t what was being played. So I was an anomaly anyway. But I was already listening to music, so I was already up to date. So it was never weird for me to think ‘oh, let me take this grime bassline, and some of this...’ it was just trying to put in what I’ve always been into, really.”
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We’ve all come up through that melting pot, that weird culture of London.
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Gathering a close-knit group of South London jazz-heads, Moses & Co. used to travel in to Central London, scooping up jazz compilations from FOPP in Covent Garden and swap ideas on the bus home. “We just went and cleaned up,” he recalls. “We got every Blue Note record. I was absorbing so much of what was going on. And also what people were giving me. Mentors! I was trying to go to as many jam sessions, as many gigs as I could.”
Small acorns lead to mighty oaks, as the cliché holds; this is certainly true in UK jazz, where a small group of fanatics have been able to forge some of the most exciting sounds in the country right now. Yussef Kamaal’s debut album ‘Black Focus’ felt like a line in the sand: a heavily percussion fusion-led workout that could only come from South London. “Simply, I suppose they’ve come up in the same way I have. We’ve been through similar things. We’ve all come up through that melting pot, that weird culture of London. And then got into playing instruments – jazz, in particular.”
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Jazz in the UK has always swung between two poles – a traditionalist, almost historian-led viewpoint, and a future-forward attitude. With the ice now melting, it seems that the progressives, the club kids are now in the ascendancy.
“It’s always had its camps,” Moses says. “I feel, maybe about four or five years ago it was a lot more separated. Whereas now I’ve noticed it’s a lot more… the scenes cross over a lot more, which is good. I was able to jump between all of them. But not everybody did. I think there was a lot of people that were clinging to this traditionalist view – not just musically, but even as a business how it works and as a brand how it works.”
“And it’s quite interesting now. It’s more like: one day you’ll see this, one day you’ll see another thing… and it’s less about even the labels and the context, really. You can go see a great gig in a book store or in a warehouse, or in a jazz club. And it’s all the same music. It’s really cool.”
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It’s a folk music of the black experience...
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The shift in context may be subtle, but it results in something profound. An album launch show at a tiny West African restaurant in Camberwell last year closely tied Yussef Kamaal to the environment that prompted them, while Moses Boyd Exodus’ next show is at vital London club-spot Corsica Studios. “From what I understand from talking to older musicians, it was never intended to be this elitist, concert hall, conservatory style of music,” the percussionist insists. “It’s a folk music of the black experience. It’s American, and it has it’s traces in the West Indies and West Africa, as well. And over here, as well. Although it became that – and it’s not necessarily a bad thing – with all of my projects I’m always very conscious of that, to not necessarily put it in that setting. To try and bring it to other places.”
One of the places Moses Boyd is heading next is SXSW. Vital London promoters Jazz Re:Freshed have helped organise a crew of jazz musicians, who will be playing a special showcase at a festival more closely tied to indie rock, hip-hop, and pop. A musician eager for big challenges, Moses Boyd accepted the invitation in a heartbeat. “From what people have told me, I’m getting all sorts of thing on email and social media that people are really ready for it. People who go to SXSW every year say they don’t see it often, and I think it’s a good time to showcase.”
“Not necessarily trying to compete with Americans, but we just have something that is unique – in the same way they have something that is unique – and because of costs and fees and everything that it takes to even get into America, this opportunity has been denied for decades to a lot of people. And I think now, particularly with what’s going on, it’s a really important and really bless time to be able to go there.”
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British jazz has long been viewed in the shadow of its cousin sound, despite developing innovative ideas, hues, and sounds of its own. “I think you have to look at them as independent things,” he insists. “One borrowed from the other, initially, but we have our own experience here. London is a very, very different place socially and economically to New York, New Orleans, or L.A. and that’s reflected in the music. Now, the beauty of the internet means you can share ideas so easily, and I think that’s highlighted even more. It’s no longer us and then, it’s now just the music.”
One of the many special things about the current resurgence within British jazz is that this shouldn’t really be happening. It functions at a natural, organic, community level, at time when people – particularly within London – are more divided, more separate than ever. Passers by browse social media, while the continuing disintegration of social housing means that London’s boroughs feel like like cohesive communities than perhaps ever before. In the middle of this, though, a disparate group of musicians, clubbers, DJ, producers, and promoters have found a common cause: jazz.
“It happens once every 20 or 30 years,” he says. “I think there was something beyond our control. It was brewing. And I think the beginnings of it was just community. It was us trying to better ourselves, and there was this network and fortunately we all went on to get better and do bigger and better things. And now people are seeing that.”
In his own modest but exceptional way Moses Boyd has helped make UK jazz impossible to ignore. With – in his own words - “a lot more music coming”, it seems that this only the beginning.
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British Underground x Jazz Re:Freshed present a SXSW showcase ft. Moses Boyd Exodus, Yussef Kamaal and more at Main II, 603 River St, Austin on Wednesday (March 15th).
Moses Boyd Exodus play Corsica Studios, London on March 23rd.