Music: Jazz lives, OK?

So Denys Baptiste's album has made the Mercury Prize shortlist. Does this mean jazz in Britain is on its way up again? Not quite, says Phil Johnson

Last week, Denys Baptiste was rehearsing with his band when he heard that his debut album, Be Where You Are, had made the shortlist of 12 for this year's Technics Mercury Music Prize. The 29-year-old saxophonist was so shocked that he had to down tools for the day. "I was completely gobsmacked and I'm still trying to work out what it means," he says. The album, released in April, had sold only 400 copies before becoming the only jazz choice on the shortlist.

Like all the jazz and classical releases that have made the final selection of the Mercury Prize since it began in 1992, there's not even a remote chance that Be What You Are will win, and William Hill's opening odds of 16-1 look very poor compared to 3-1 for favourites The Manic Street Preachers. The publicity value, however, will make all the difference for Baptiste, his independent record company, Dune, and the close circle of mainly black, London-based jazz musicians with whom the artist and label are associated.

With luck, more gigs will come in with higher wages, and appearances at prestigious foreign festivals might be easier to obtain. Steve Sanderson of New Note, distributors for last year's Mercury Music Prize jazz choice, Proverbs and Songs by John Surman on ECM, estimates that the shortlisting more than doubled Surman's sales. That this was only about 5000 is a reminder of jazz's minority appeal.

"It's good for the label, good for Denys, and good internationally," says Janine Irons, who runs Dune Records with her partner Gary Crosby. Crosby, a bassist and the leader of the groups Jazz Jamaica and Nu-Troop, is himself a survivor from the last big jazz boom in the mid-Eighties. In 1986, he appeared on Courtney Pine's debut album for Island, Journey To The Urge Within, which - and it's hard to believe now - sold 600,000 copies, compared to Baptiste's 400 so far. Crosby and Pine offered Denys Baptiste advice on the repertoire for his album, which in turn led to the title Be What You Are. "They both told me to be myself, and to choose music for the album that I most wanted to play," Baptiste says.

Perhaps as a result, Be What You Are is a good, unpretentious album, with Baptiste's tenor sax coming across strongly whether he's blowing forcefully or adopting a more tender mode of address. It's unmistakably a jazz album, too, and not entirely dissimilar to Courtney Pine's own debut. To what extent it represents what is happening in British jazz today, however, is debatable. For some people, another of this year's shortlist, OK by Talvin Singh - once Pine's percussionist - might seem more groundbreaking.

For jazz, though, breaking new ground isn't always the problem: it's what to do with the inevitable hole. Every year, it seems, jazz is pronounced dead, but pubs and clubs around the country persist in showing off the corpse, which somehow revivifies in time for an encore. Despite the much- vaunted jazziness of records by Talvin Singh, and DJs and mixers such as Roni Size, DJ Cam and Peshay, their live shows are unlikely to allow an apprentice like the younger Denys Baptiste to sit in and thereby learn the trade, which has always been the jazz tradition.

Mercury Music Prize shortlists have also failed to reflect what's really happening in British jazz. Three of the most distinctive and radical releases of recent years - Scapes by the saxophonist Julian Arguelles in 1995; Angel Song by trumpeter Kenny Wheeler in 1998; and this year's Food by saxophonist Iain Ballamy - all failed to make the Mercury grade. In a decade when European jazz has experienced something of a golden age, the list of Mercury nominees has tended to favour - John Surman apart - American- derived models.

While this is understandable, the US being where jazz comes from, it is also ironic. American jazz has been experiencing a crisis for quite a while now, and if jazz really is dead, New York is where you will find both the corpse and the smoking gun. Split between the neo-classical militant tendency of Wynton Marsalis and his acolytes, for whom anything after 1960 is dangerously modern, and the new guard of Steve Coleman's M-Base crew (already sound ing increasingly old-hat), and an avant-garde who increasingly take much of their inspiration (and gigs) from Europe, the US scene has long since fragmented into rival factions. Major labels continue to clone latter-day bop albums from musicians who studied Miles and Coltrane, but most of what sounds new comes out of the leftfield.

Intersections with other musical forms, such as the pianist Uri Caine's European-sponsored albums "re-composing" Mahler and Wagner, trumpeter Dave Douglas's "tribute" projects and "Balkan-style" folk forays, vocalist Cassandra Wilson's crossovers with pop, blues and folk, and the Brazilian- meets-punk "noise adventures" of the self-declared non-musician Arto Lindsay, constitute much of the best US jazz I've heard recently. And for some, none of it even counts as jazz.

In contrast, European jazz has by and large maintained a sense of aesthetic integrity in recent years. Jan Garbarek's last solo album, Rites; Tomasz Stanko's Litania, Ria Marcotulli's The Woman Next Door, and much of the catalogues of the German ECM label and the French Label Bleu, have succeeded in creating a recognisable European identity while still endeavouring to swing. In Britain, Courtney Pine produced a previous Mercury shortlist album, Modern Day Jazz Stories, that gave an emphatic Anglo-Caribbean spin to hip hop, while the other big names of the Eighties revival such as Andy Sheppard and Tommy Smith have sounded fresher since signing with independents.

Original British proponents of free improvisation such as Evan Parker, Barry Guy, and Keith Tippett now work in a variety of contexts, and are increasingly revered by the new generation of American artists. English eccentrism is kept alive by Django Bates and Iain Ballamy, both of whom have collaborated with musicians from Scandinavia - perhaps the new New York for cutting-edge jazz - and artists on the Babel label such as Steve Buckley and Chris Batchelor who, together with guitarist Billy Jenkins, remain dedicatedly different.

"I don't think jazz is dead," says Denys Baptiste. "But I do think it's becoming more and more difficult to market. It's seen as music for people who have an IQ of 150 or whatever, which isn't always helpful. To me, it's music you have to work at a bit. I remember the first John Coltrane album I borrowed from the library. It was a fairly late, rather weird recording, and I took it back straight away. But a couple of months later, when I'd heard some of his earlier stuff, I got it out again and really got into it. Music has to be a bit challenging, doesn't it?"

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