Since the virtuosic Californian saxophonist Kamasi Washington featured on Kendrick Lamar’s politically charged and era-defining jazz rap album To Pimp a Butterfly (2015) jazz has made a triumphant return to our contemporary musical and cultural conversation. Washington went on to release the magnificent and surpassingly elaborate The Epic and helped to introduce many people to the jazz genre.
In Britain, and most prominently in London, a uniquely vibrant and buzzing new wave of jazz artists has sprung up and begun to turn heads. Like its US counterpart, it is likewise experimental, countercultural and politically insurgent. Like grime, London’s notable musical origination, it bares all the hallmarks of a multicultural melting pot. Departing radically from traditional jazz, the London scene throws afrobeat, hip-hop, soul and psychedelia into the mix. Its artists are tightly interwoven with many working together in bands and alone on solo projects like Yussef Kamaal and Kamaal Williams. Ardently DIY and inherently down to earth, many of its artists jam together at community orientated venues Church of Sound in East London and the Total Refreshment Centre in Dalston.
The scene’s political edge comes from the same source as its genre-blending qualities: London’s ethnic and cultural diversity. One of its leading saxophonists, Nubya Garcia has spoken of jazz as a form of protest. London’s scene reflects how many Londoners and in particular, ethnic minority Londoners, feel towards the Windrush scandal and our fear-mongering prime minister, as well as the post-imperial and anti-immigrant character of the looming Brexit.
Oscar Jerome is a graduate from the Trinity College of Music. After four years of studying jazz it is the base upon which his musical style and creativity is built. He treats the genre with upmost respect and has been enraptured by it since he was fourteen. However, like the rest of the London scene he regularly ventures outside of the classic sound to experiment with hip-hop and soul. On ‘Give Back What You Stole From Me’, Jerome raps over a broody jazz guitar line with compellingly subversive and Marxist-esque lyrics about how we are all dominated and held back in life by greed of the super rich and the British economy in 2019. Not since Gil Scott Heron has jazz guitar melded so well with political radicalism. Another favourite, ‘Gravitate’ is a sonically lush composition of just under six minutes which combines dreamy vocals with a meandering guitar and impressively experimental drum beats. Jerome played in Glasgow at the Blue Arrow Club on 1st November.
Jazz has often had a reputation in the past for being a genre for elites, and for being inaccessible to lots of audiences. Its complexity and depth has associated it with snobbery and pomposity. The five-piece, multi-racial and infectiously innovative London group Ezra Collective want to bring the genre back to its unpretentious roots, to a time when it was a grassroots and experimental form of musical expression amongst ordinary urban communities in cities like New Orleans and Los Angeles in the early 20th century. By mixing jazz’s traditional sound with influences from hip-hop and afrobeat they are breaking out of fusty old conventions and reinvigorating the genre for new generations. Thanks to Ezra Collective’s vivacious energy and the scene’s other trailblazers jazz is now seen as danceable again. Hits like ‘Pure Shade’ and ‘Mace Windu Riddim’ can now regularly be heard on the dancefloors of London nightclubs and stylish venues like Fabric and Café Oto. Ezra Collective play Òran Mór on 22nd November.
Image: via Justin de Nooijer via Flickr