In recent years, a legion of talented young musicians has emerged to breathe new life into jazz. They are spiritual and connect with their roots, fully adapted to the sounds of hip-hop and electronic music, oiled with the groove of funk and the swing of soul, and willing to honor the past and reshape the future. It’s easy to recognize this lineage in the mystical figure of Los Angeles-based saxophonist Kamasi Washington, already a global benchmark. But here we’re going to focus on England, where the fertility of the scene has spawned an amazing wave of bands and collective projects.
A good way to get into the new wave of British jazz is Brownswood Recordings’ 2018 compilation album We Out Here. It’s a basic map for immersing in London’s young jazz scene, with key names like Shabaka Hutchings, Ezra Collective and Nubya Garcia. The indie label accompanied the release with a documentary film chronicling the musicians’ comings and goings, with their community spirit, DIY attitude and street life vibe.
Nérija is a London-based female collective that has been shaking up the scene since 2016. They’re something of a supergroup orbiting close to other parallel planets, such as Kokoroko and SEED Ensemble, two fascinating afro-beat-oriented bands led by trumpeter Sheila Maurice-Grey and saxophonist Cassie Kinoshi. Their other saxophonist is Nubya Garcia, one of the greatest exponents of this new gang of jazz musicians, with two albums and several awards to her credit. Nubya is also part of the Afro-jazz ensemble Maisha.
Nérija burst in with a self-titled EP, followed three years later with their only album to date, 2019’s Blume. As is often the case in these groups, its seven members take turns with their instruments to shine live and divide their time downstage to carry out other projects. That’s the case of Kokoroko, the octet led by Maurice-Grey and highly recommended by The Guardian, who just this month released their long-awaited debut album Could We Be More.
Ezra Collective is one of the spearheads of this new wave of British jazz. This quintet led by drummer Femi Koleoso is renewing the musical frontiers of the genre, starting with sound influences from hip-hop and post-rock, towards a cosmic path that unites the past with the present, from Sun Ra to Kamasi Washington. The line-up is completed by TJ Koleoso on guitar, Dylan Jones on trumpet, James Mollison on sax, and the renowned Joe Armon-Jones on keys – with 3 solo albums and an active role in Nubya Garcia’s band.
Ezra Collective exposes different musical sides, from the spellbinding rhythms of Afro-beat to the sweetened melodies of R&B – here it’s worth highlighting their song “Reason In Disguise” with Jorja Smith. One of their most celebrated releases was 2018’s Juan Pablo: The Philosopher, a short but mind-blowing album produced by Floating Points. This year they honored Parliament Funkadelic with their single “May the Funk Be with You” and released their best video with “Victory Dance.”
Shabaka and The Ancestors
There’s more than one project to account for the talent of Shabaka Hutchings. In fact, we should start with Sons of Kemet, the other group that he’s been leading for more than a decade, with four albums to their credit and a line-up that includes Theon Cross on tuba and the two drummers Eddie Hick and Tom Skinner. Nor should we fail to mention The Comet Is Coming, a groovy electronic jazz trio he’s a part of. Shabaka has even played his saxophone and clarinet in the early days of Melt Yourself Down, and has collaborated with bands like Polar Bear and The Heliocentrics, venturing his jazz prowess into the realms of psychedelic funk and experimental rock.
Born in London and moved to Birmingham as a baby, Shabaka spent most of his childhood in Barbados, where his parents are from, and where he first picked up a clarinet to improvise on his favorite hip-hop tunes. He returned to England to study and receive a degree in classical music. Shabaka and the Ancestors debuted in 2016 with the album Wisdom of Elders, the same year he also started The Comet Is Coming – earning the trio a Mercury Prize nomination for their first record Channel the Spirits. Ancestors’ second and so far last album is titled We Are Sent Here by History and came out in 2020.
Moses Boyd Exodus
Moses Boyd is a majestic drummer and a key figure in shaping this new British jazz scene. Moses Boyd Exodus is his jazz band, and features Sons of Kemet’s Theon Cross on tuba, Artie Zaitz on guitar, Binker Golding on saxophone and Nathaniel Cross on trombone. The group, also known as The Exodus, released 2018’s Displaced Diaspora. The title was no accident, as Boyd described his music as “an extension of black music, the diaspora,” with influences from Afro-beat and Afro-Caribbean music like soca and reggae.
Born and raised in South London, Moses Boyd identifies as a second-generation West Indian, with Dominican descent on his father’s side and Jamaican descent on his mother’s. While graduating from the conservatory, he joined the educational program of Tomorrow’s Warriors, an innovative jazz organization that explains the outbreak of so many talents. By then he was already playing with Binker & Moses, the duo he put together with the great saxophonist in 2014. His first solo album, 2020’s Dark Matter is priceless.
Yussef Kamaal is a short-lived London-based jazz duo. The chemistry produced between drummer Yussef Dayes and keyboardist Kamaal Williams was so powerful that it left no rest to follow. But their initial impact, back in 2016 with their only studio album Black Focus, could be seen as the cornerstone of this new wave of British jazz. This record is a musical gale that throws funk breaks and jazz fusion acrobatics into the air, with vibes straight from the street, played with spiritual attitude and spatial awareness.
In 2018, The Return came out and clarified everything from its title: it was the solo debut of Kamaal Williams, aka Henry Wu, and his return, of course, after dissolving the group. It’s a new cosmic journey through the streets of London, fueled by a trio of drums, bass and magical keyboards. In 2020, his second and most recent album Wu Hen was released. This time the trip reaches other continents, with some ethnic airs and a colorful range of sounds, favored by the involvement of multi-instrumentalist Miguel Atwood‐Ferguson.
Cover photo via Nérija