Dance, Don't Swing: the New Jazz Scene in London and the UK

Over a long weekend in late August 2021, DJ, broadcaster, and contemporary music scholar Gilles Peterson and his Brownswood recordings label hosted the We Out Here (WOH) festival in Abbots Ripton, Cambridgeshire, 80 miles north of London. 20 stages. 15,000 attendees. Peterson called it "the British Jazz Woodstock."

The We Out Here Festival—named for a 2018 double-album on the Brownswood label—presented musicians from the burgeoning UK jazz scene, one of the most vibrant, experimental, and popular jazz scenes to arise since early '70s jazz fusion, or maybe since Dizzy Gillespie collaborated with Chano Pozo and created Latin jazz.

What is British jazz? Most obviously, it's current jazz from Britain. Beyond that, it's hard to define except to say that it combines traditional jazz elements with ethnic and cultural ingredients associated with British musical culture: African, Caribbean, and sometimes Indian influences, among others. It's equal parts improvisational and elastic groove. The artists involved in the uprising explore, for example, spiritual jazz mixed with synthesizer sounds or brass arrangements fired by an Afrobeat pulse. Acoustic and electronic sounds blend with funk, African, and Caribbean rhythms. Soul and R&B vocals soar over jazz-funk beats with references to dancehall, calypso, soca, and highlife.


The Ezra Collective, L–R: TJ Koleoso, Joe Armon-Jones, Femi Koleoso, Ife Ogunjobi, James Mollison. (Photo: Bob Jones)

It's hard to say who is part of the scene and who is not, but the WOH 2021 lineup included many of its leading musicians and groups: Nubya Garcia, Alfa Mist, Sarathy Korwar, Chiminyo, Ashley Henry, Ezra Collective, Moses Boyd, Matthew Halsall, Tenderlonious, Sons of Kemet, Joe Armon-Jones, Yussef Dayes, Emma-Jean Thackray. The festival also welcomed old-school beat DJs Kruder & Dorfmeister and James Lavelle, suggesting that while this style of jazz—rather, this cluster of styles—is mainstream in the UK, it hasn't forgotten its roots.

"Joining the musical dots between soul, hip hop, house, afro, electronica, jazz and beyond, we showcase both outstanding live music and some of the best record collections in the world," states the WOH Festival's "About" page. That's a decent description of current UK jazz and its vinyl-centric, club-based roots.

Founded in 2009, London's Gearbox Records has recorded and released records by some of the scene's firebrands: Binker and Moses, Sarathy Korwar, Theon Cross, and a newcomer, Graham Costello's Strata. Gearbox is an audiophile-friendly label with a state-of-the-art recording, mastering, and vinyl-cutting facility and an Audio Note–based monitoring system (see the sidebar). They cut their own lacquers on a Haeco Scully lathe with a Westrex 3DIIA cutting head, driven by Westrex RA1700-series amplifiers. Their records are pressed at some of the world's finest pressing plants. Gearbox even employs its own vinyl-mastering and cutting engineer, Caspar Sutton-Jones—who also plays saxophone in London funk band Space Ghetto. Gearbox records come in vinyl-friendly poly-lined sleeves.


Graham Costello (Photo: Fabio de Oliveira)

"Binker and Moses were [among] our first contemporary artists," Gearbox owner, founder, and producer Darrel Sheinman wrote in an email. Binker Golding plays saxophone; Moses Boyd is a drummer. "Their Dem Ones arrived in 2015; I was blown away by their refreshing take on free jazz. They followed with Journey to the Mountain of Forever, which spawned two live versions of the album recorded at their launch gig at Total Refreshment Centre in Stoke Newington northeast of London, which fast became a hub for the new UK jazz scene. Binker and Moses will release a new record in 2022, co-produced with Hugh Padgham at Peter Gabriel's Real World Studios."


On Dem Ones, Binker and Moses improvise over nimble grooves and circling free melodies. Binker and Moses are at their best when the mood is light and spirited, the grooves open and airy. Journey to the Mountain of Forever is more mature and also more experimental; the pair are no less free and spontaneous, but here Golding brings a wealth of new ideas and the album adds clever studio effects. As with all new Gearbox recordings (footnote 1), the sound quality of the vinyl is exceptional.

The church of sound
One influence that may not be obvious but that makes musical sense: British jazz has some of its roots in the spiritual jazz of John and Alice Coltrane, Lonnie Liston Smith, Albert Ayler, and Pharoah Sanders. "Sarathy Korwar, a drummer, producer, and composer, offered us the Church of Sound recordings, which we released as My East Is Your West in 2018," Sheinman told me (footnote 2). "The fusion of the spiritual jazz songbook with Indian instrumentals was truly original."


My East Is Your West seems to arise from the same tradition as Joe Harriot and John Mayer's Indo-Jazz Suite, Trilok Gurtu's many albums, and John McLaughlin's Shakti: spiritual jazz via an Indian classical framework. It's an enthralling, soulful performance by drummer/percussionist Korwar and the UPAJ Collective: Domenico Angarano, acoustic and electric bass; Aravindhan Baheerathan, bansuri; Giuliano Modarelli, acoustic guitar; Al MacSween, keyboards; Tamar Osborn, baritone sax and flute; Jasdeep Singh Degun, sitar; John Ball, santoor and tabla; Jesse Bannister, alto sax; Aditya Prakash, vocals; and B C Manjunath on mridangam and kanjira. Cerebral, dreamlike versions of Abdullah Ibrahim's "Hajj," Alice Coltrane's "Journey in Satchidananda," Joe Henderson's "Earth," and Don Cherry's "Utopia and Visions" stay with you long after the tonearm is at rest.


Theon Cross (Photo: Andy Earl)

Deep roots
Tuba-driven grooves firing minimalist tenor sax melodies with percussion-driven, west African and Caribbean inspired rhythms: Theon Cross's 2019 album Fyah reminds me of some of the music I've heard in the New York subway system—I'm thinking of the trumpet, baritone saxophone, and percussion trio Too Many Zooz, although they have more heat and less slog. "I first saw Theon Cross playing at the Love Supreme Festival in the UK," Sheinman told me. Cross, who plays tuba, is also a member of Sons of Kemet. "His dynamism and the attendant audience leaping around the mosh pit was vital, especially for an old punk rocker like me! Fyah is firmly rooted in his jazz/beat, cross-over sound." Nubya Garcia and Moses Boyd also appear on the album.


Traditionalists take note: This music isn't traditional. UK rhythm sections rarely utilize walking bass lines or the dotted eighth/16th–note ride cymbal beat popularized by everyone from Zutty Singleton to Jo Jones. Jazz is not the UK's first musical language, and they don't feel beholden to its rules. The music can sound like Quiet Storm one minute (footnote 3), calypso the next, and overheated Nigerian highlife the moment after that. With little pressure to conform to the standard US jazz norms, UK musicians are free to draw on their jazz heritage including saxophonists Courtney Pine and pianist Steve Williamson, and such progenitors as Don Rendell, Michael Garrick—even experimental pianist and composer Keith Tippett. They are also free to embrace influences from the music of their youth, much of it based in the UK's club and rave culture.

This writer was trained as a jazz drummer in a traditional pedagogy that focused on jazz's master drummers—Tony Williams, Kenny Clarke, Elvin Jones, Philly Joe Jones, and so on—and jazz's great innovators: Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, John Coltrane. When I first started listening, those traditional sensibilities were sometimes rattled by the new UK jazz—yet I also found that it offered a sort of escape hatch, allowing me access to new sounds—new and yet familiar, because, while jazz is my first love, in the early '90s I investigated the UK's club scenes—drum-and-bass, trip hop, rave. That culture (or those cultures) in turn inspired (by circuitous connections, to hear Gilles Peterson tell it) such current UK jazz stars as Garcia, Shabaka Hutchings, Boyd, and Yussef Dayes.

Meanwhile, an older generation of jazz musicians was planting seeds. "Gary Crosby played bass in the Jazz Warriors. Then he created an organization called Tomorrow's Warriors," Gilles Peterson noted from his London office, via Zoom.


Sons of Kemet, L–R: Edward Wakili-Hick, Tom Skinner, Theon Cross, Shabaka Hutchings. (Photo: Udoma Janssen)

Tomorrow's Warriors, which Crosby set up in 1991 with his partner Janine Irons, is "an entry point for young musicians to learn with hardly any subsidy from the government. That schooling informed Garcia, Hutchings, and Sons of Kemet. Shabaka got his education from" the Tomorrow's Warriors elders.

Crosby's program combined discipline with freedom in the great jazz tradition. As a result, "The artists have good technique and are well-grounded in the jazz of their predecessors. It's this respect and understanding of the greats, as well as the wonderful musicians from the recent past, melded with their own new ideas, which has caught the attention of the jazz public." Tomorrow's Warriors also nurtured Moses Boyd, Cassie Kinoshi, Femi Koleoso, and Binker Golding, among many others.

Footnote 1: As opposed to vintage recordings released on the label from broadcast recordings, like recent ones by Don Cherry and Thelonious Monk.

Footnote 2: Church of Sound is a concert series at London's St James the Great Church. My East Is Your West was recorded live there during a sold-out show.

Footnote 3: I had to look this one up. "Quiet Storm" is a smooth, jazzy subgenre of R&B that had a moment in the 1980s. The genre's name comes from the Smokey Robinson song of the same name.—Jim Austin

Anton's picture

Ken Burns could build a new Jazz documentary episode around your article!

Yup, 'jass' was dance music before it wasn't!

Thank you again.

Herb Reichert's picture

Beautiful writing. I loved every word . . . and this is the jazz I listen to.

And now, thanks yo you I have new artists to learn about.

Thank you for writing this.


Jason Victor Serinus's picture

You beat me to it, Herb.


Briandrumzilla's picture

Seems similar to the NYC subway bands performing 5 - 7 years ago. Too Many Zooz and Lucky Chops.