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?"

Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Jenny Lee may have left, but Miranda Hart and the rest of the midwives deliver the goods

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
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.

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there