A Review Of The Year

Earlier this month I wrote a summary of the Fizzle and TDE Promotions year of activity in Birmingham, concluding that the experimental scene in the city is doing well and is full of optimism. Here I would like to share some more general thoughts about the jazz and improvised music scenes, and point to some new trends.

There are quite a few aspects of the so-called ‘new normal’ that are welcome. The reduction in the number of American and European bands touring the UK has meant that the focus in programming has become increasingly on the ‘local’ by which I mean concentrating on both British bands in general, and on bands from the region that promoters work in. In Birmingham Fizzle and TDE Promotions have moved to a programme with many double bills with a band from the Birmingham or the West Midlands, and a band from another city or region, e.g. London, Leeds or Manchester. This is not to suggest that I am opposed to promoting international bands; it was great to finish the season in Birmingham with the Dutch trio Under The Surface.

Interestingly, once we got back to live gigs, audiences have been very good, and, at least up to the new wave of the virus, better than before the pandemic. I have the feeling that the smaller gigs in small intimate spaces have fared much better than the larger gigs in concert halls. This is probably due to an increased interest on the part of audiences in more experimental jazz and improvised music, the wide variety of music that comes under those headings, and the intimacy of the experience in a small venue.

On the topic of audiences, I was happy to read Joost Lijbaart’s description of the tour by Under The Surface on Facebook. Of UK audiences he says:

Touring, and especially touring in the UK is great. I feel a curious, extremely polite and friendly audience with lots of humor, never complaining about anything and having a ‘no nonsense’ attitude. People who go for the experience instead of the quality of the chair they are sitting on.

I found this very heartening and hopefully an accurate description of the jazz community. Look up Joost Lijbaart on Facebook for his reflection on the tour.

Moor Mother

A counter example to the move to ‘local’, was this year’s London Jazz Festival which had a strong international programme as well as a healthy focus on British jazz. I enjoyed Irreversible Entanglements with Moor Mother as well as the two major collaborations between jazz players and orchestras: Soweto Kinch with the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) in White Juju, and Yazz Ahmed with BBC Concert Orchestra playing arrangements of her repertoire for jazz quintet and orchestra. It was also great to hear NYJO tackling Sam Eastmond’s arrangements of material from John Zorn’s Masada Songbook

One other welcome change is that gigs now start earlier; initially this was the result of the curfew on clubs and pubs, but early starts at The Vortex and Ronnie Scott’s in London mean that it is possible to hear the first set, and catch a train back to Birmingham the same night, not even on the last train. Likewise, Jazz At The Spotted Dog now starts a good 75 minutes earlier than it used to.

Soweto Kinch

These changes, more local focus in programming and earlier starts for gigs, might seem relatively minor, but there are signs of more significant changes. A move towards residencies and away from one off gigs is welcome; clearly the concerts with Soweto Kinch and the LSO, and Yazz Ahmed with the BBC Concert Orchestra mentioned above were examples of projects that involved a sustained period of development and rehearsal. Similarly the Composers Collective project in Birmingham I described in my previous post involved three days of developing three new extended compositions.

The use of streaming and video recording became much more sophisticated during the lockdown periods, but many promoters and musicians have stopped thinking about new possibilities for this medium now that it is again possible to put on live concerts. While the return of live gigs has clearly shown that live is so much better than streamed, it is to be hoped that promoters and musicians continue to try new ways of taking advantage of the possibilities of streaming and filming. The links by video between the Berlin Jazzfest and the three music scenes of Cairo, Sao Paulo and Johannesburg was an extremely imaginative use of the possibilities of the technology, but one that also served the aim of linking a major European festival with three scenes in the developing world.

One very welcome aspect of the UK scene is the flexibility of young British musicians. A lot of attention has been given to so-called ‘new London wave’ and bands such as Sons of Kemet, Ezra Collective, Nubya Garcia Quartet and their very successful mixing of elements of sound system music with jazz. But we should not forget other players who move easily between more straightahead and free-er contexts. Here I am thinking of players such as Laura Jurd, Elliot Galvin, Tom Challenger and many more. Also worthy of mention on this point is the number of young Birmingham graduates who have joined Paul Dunmall in totally free jazz gigs and recordings: Steve Saunders, James Owston, Jim Bashford, Chris Mapp, Tymek Jozwiak and Richard Foote. Xhosa Cole also showed in his October gig with Neil Charles and Mark Sanders that he is equally at home in a totally improvised set as in a straightahead context.

Finally six Cds I really enjoyed:

Alexander Hawkins Togetherness Music Intakt

Mujician 10 10 10 Cuneiform Records

William Parker Mayan Space Station AUM Fidelity

Trondheim Jazz Orchestra & Ole Morten Vagan Plastic Wave Odin

Andrew Woodhead Pendulums Leker

Splinters Inclusivity Jazz in Britain (bandcamp)

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