Don't mention the J-word

Meet John Lurie, Bill Frisell, Henry Threadgill - jazzmen for whom jazz is a four-letter word. They constitute 'Sharp New America', says Phil Johnson

Like souls in limbo, American jazz musicians seem doomed to spend each summer wandering through the half-light of European festival grounds, singing for their supper from Paris to Perugia, Grimsby to Gdansk. As they progress from level to level of this ghostly world, each day brings a new airport and each night a fresh concert site. Although they may get to shake hands with the mayor, be presented with the keys to the medieval city or find themselves inducted into some obscure honorary order by a man in lederhosen, they often have only a very vague understanding of where exactly they are. The rigours of the time-honoured if-this-is-Thursday- it-must-be-Belgium syndrome mean that the all-important thematic context - the particular traditions of Sardinia's trumpet festival for instance, or the philosophical background to the 14th annual international Bremen Funk-Fest - is often more apparent to the audience than it is to the musicians, who arrive in a daze and leave in a blur.

Typical jazz festival music reflects this conclusion, with the same players reappearing at supposedly unique events all over the continent and tending to turn in the same performances, which can often leave a lot to be desired. Next week's "Sharp New America" season at the South Bank is an attempt to depart from this lamentable state of affairs, though it also continues the tradition of creating a context that the principals have little knowledge of. The attractions - John Lurie's Lounge Lizards, Bill Frisell's Quartet and Henry Threadgill's Make a Move - are undeniably part of the circuit and they claim not to know that they're part of any season at all, but each represents a definite shift away from the customary manners and manoeuvres of festival jazz. Indeed, talk of jazz may offend them, and it's said that even a whisper of the dreaded J-word can make Henry Threadgill duck for cover. For David Jones of promoters Serious, the intention was "to do something that was more edgy than the rather soft work that normally goes on around the festival circuit. It's a pragmatic link to be sure, but it's also about small, tight-knit units that we like."

The occasion means that John Lurie - a beatnik heart-throb and film actor (Jim Jarmusch's Stranger than Paradise, Wim Wenders' Paris, Texas) as well as a musician - will play his first British date for more than a decade, though he has been trundling around the European circuit each summer for years. When I ran into him in Sicily a few years ago, at the hotel where the Mike Westbrook Orchestra were billeted while they played three nights to a mystifyingly non-fee-paying yet still small audience at a baroque palace in Catania, Lurie's band had performed that same night, he said, to "three sheep and a goat" at a local dance hall. As the Westbrook coach returned to the hotel in the middle of the night, Lurie waited like a sentinel at the gates, bouncing a basketball and looking cool. He had avoided Britain, he said, because of a critical panning when he played the Venue in Victoria in 1980 or so.

Speaking from a hotel in Germany last week, Lurie expanded on the Lounge Lizards' reluctance to play the UK. "We were fed up with the press, but the real reason was that we were boycotting the record companies, EG and Island, and because England is so expensive. When I started the band in 1979 I called it fake jazz and lazy critics kind of stuck with that." The concept - retro-bebop mixed with avant-garde noise and punk attitude - offended traditional Anglo-Saxon jazz attitudes, though Lurie couldn't care less: his new Queen of All Ears album (as yet unreleased) is more of the same, with knobs on. He's temporarily retired from acting, though he says, like any starlet, "If something great came along, I'd do it." His work on the soundtrack to this year's Get Shorty was, he says, "just a job", but he's happy with the continuing episodes of his Fishing with John television show, in which he travels to far-flung locations with the likes of Tom Waits, Willem Dafoe and Dennis Hopper. As to "Sharp New America", he claims ignorance, but he's happy to be in the same ball-park with Frisell and Threadgill: "I respect both of them a lot, and I don't respect many people. I don't know what category they're in but I like them."

Guitarist Bill Frisell, whose Quartet album has been the jazz hit of the year so far, also pleads ignorance about "Sharp New America" but, like Lurie, he's happy to be on board. "Many of them are close friends, and I really don't think about what it's called. Jazz is where I got a lot of what I do. Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and hundreds of others were the people who set the example for me of how to think about music, and so I guess I do think of myself as a jazz musician because of that. But that's not to say that I copy what they did. It's more a matter of looking at how they saw their world, but it's a different world now compared to when Charlie Parker was around."

Frisell - who I interviewed in Berlin last weekend, the city teeming with American musicians on the circuit - talks so slowly that you're constantly poised to ask another question only to find he's still cogitating on the last one. "I'm not exactly a speedy person," he says, "in my way of talking or my way of moving, and I guess the music just comes from that. Earlier in my career I'd try to copy John McLaughlin and try to play fast until I realised it wasn't going to happen. I'm still trying but instead of playing the whole thing I'll kind of imply it in two or three notes. My style is a way of dealing with my limitations, instead of spending your life trying to do what you can't." His band's performance at the Quasimodo club (booked out for the whole of July with circuit veterans) was exemplary, the drum-and-bass-less group summoning up calypso rhythms, Cool School harmonies and occasional nasty noise with consummate skill. Asked if he notices how many other guitarists, such as U2's The Edge, now copy his airy atmospherics, Frisell is impeccably modest. "I don't think they got it from me," he says. "Occasionally I hear something, but I tried to copy Brian Eno myself years ago..."

Meanwhile, Henry Threadgill, the Chicago reeds player who with his group Air and on a later series of solo albums has perhaps more than anyone moved black jazz into the era of "new music", is evidently avowedly opposed to the "Sharp New America" tag. "He feels this is a problem," says David Jones from Serious, "but for us he represents one of the major black composers of today and his music does demand a concert setting." Just don't, one feels bound to warn, shout out requests for "Night in Tunisia".

n John Lurie and the Lounge Lizards perform 15 July; Bill Frisell Quartet, 17 July; Henry Threadgill, 19 July at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London SE1 as part of the Southbank's 'Sharp New America' season. Booking: 0171- 960 4242

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine