Is this the shape of British jazz to come?

Once they called the shots, but now US musicians are taking second billing to British big bands - and their leaders. Martin Longley reports on the start of a new 'special relationship' within UK jazz
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The traditional role of the British jazz pick-up band has always been to shut up and play the standards - whichever ones the visiting American titan demands.

Even today, the likes of Scott Hamilton and Ken Peplowski sharpen their reeds on a big book of evergreens, touring the upstairs pub-room circuit backed by a succession of UK combos. The advanced end of this concept is the large-scale tours typified by the Contemporary Music Network, where a grand old artist such as the pianist Andrew Hill would end up suitably impressed by the crack team of UK improvisers who made up the bulk of his big band.

But the trend at the moment seems to be for American players to express a new-found (or at least previously rare) enthusiasm for turning up as sidemen, bending to the will of a British soloist or composer. There are at least three tours on the horizon that are fronted by UK bandleaders, joined by US jazzers whose names are more internationally known.

At the end of this month, the dependable Stan Sulzmann is set to blow his flute and saxophones alongside the New York pianist Marc Copland, the two co-leading a touring quartet. Sulzmann has just released an album called The Jigsaw, on the British Basho label but recorded in Manhattan. Here, he's partnered by three Americans: Copland, the bassist Larry Grenadier and the drummer Bill Stewart. Stan provides nearly all of the tunes.

Next month, the reedsman Tim Garland will be touring his USA Quartet, featuring three Statesiders: Paul Bollenback (guitar), Lonnie Plaxico (bass) and Jeff Ballard (drums). Garland's career was boosted across the Atlantic when Chick Corea invited him to join his quintet. He's already released a complementary album on Sirocco.

The Scottish drummer and Caber label boss Tom Bancroft is embarking on the highest-profile tour, taking out his mostly British Orchestro Interrupto in October, with the US pianist Geri Allen guesting. They will be unveiling a Radio 3 commission, penned by Bancroft, as well as revisiting his old catalogue.

Allen was a pivotal influence on Bancroft. He heard her music during his first trip to New York, in 1988, at the tender age of 21. "I was listening to a jazz radio station playing all this great stuff I'd never heard, basically having my mind blown by the whole New York experience," he recalls. "I think Geri's music, both compositionally and as a player, impressed me the most."

Bancroft stocked up on her albums, and has remained a fan ever since. Nevertheless, he still feels ambivalent about the Stateside hero-worship scenario. "Despite knowing that I needed to study the greats, I also didn't want to apologise for being who I was or where I was from, or give the impression that I felt we needed to import credibility. I think if you're going to develop an individual sound you have to believe in yourself, even if you're just starting out. It's a balance between being influenced by others and also choosing to become more yourself. I think at a certain point I became more focused on the people I was playing with than what I was hearing on the radio."

Bancroft maintains a fiercely Scottish identity, and his Caber Music label has been extremely prolific over the last few years. "The whole Caber thing has been partly to say, 'We are from Scotland and that is one of the things that makes our music interesting.' I didn't want to get famous guest soloists into my big band, because there are so many great soloists in it already. But I love playing with great players, especially from other countries."

Bancroft is obviously enthralled by the prospect of working with Allen, but refuses to get star-spangled banners in his eyes.

It's been four years since the BBC first asked him who he'd like to work with, so this project has been steaming away in his mind since then. "It's a new experience writing for someone whose music I know well and love," says Bancroft. "I guess there are some risks there, but that adds to the excitement. I'm looking forward to seeing how it will unfold. It's definitely weird writing for someone who really inspired you. There are lots of feedback loops that happen in your head as you imagine and then choose to keep or reject things. I don't want to be some kind of musical stalker. It's a little scary. I've been creating situations I could really imagine Geri in, plus ones I just can't imagine her in at all, where the fun is to see what she will do. I'm a bit worried about freaking Geri out if I go too far!"

Bancroft had better be careful. He's talking about throwing her into the midst of a free-form Celtic jig.

Tom Bancroft's Orchestro Interrupto (with Geri Allen), the Stan Sulzmann/ Marc Copland Quartet and Tim Garland's USA Quartet are all touring in the next month

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