Rebirth of the cool

Keith Shadwick reports on why the Mercury Prize nomination of the jazz outfit Polar Bear has met with a frosty reception
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The Independent Culture

In fact, no jazz artist receives the sort of attention routinely dished out to the rock industry. This year's Mercury Prize nominations, announced last week, crystallised a number of the prevailing attitudes in the UK music and media industry. Certainly one nomination, the instrumental, jazz-based quartet Polar Bear, have already come in for their fair share of random abuse for even daring to exist.

Polar Bear are a group of four young British musicians - two saxophonists, a bassist and a drummer - creating highly energised music with few references to traditional jazz schools. They share personnel - the drummer Seb Roachford, saxophonist Pete Wareham and bassist Tom Herbert (the tenor saxophonist Mark Lockheart does not double up) - with another young band, Acoustic Ladyland, who started out four years ago on manic re-interpretations of Jimi Hendrix songs. Since then they have moved into samples, dance beats and other bolt-ons to their core ideal of energised improvisation. Their average tune sounds a little like The Damned with a sax out front instead of Dave Vanian.

Both bands have a mountain to climb if they intend to escape the jazz ghetto. A quick trawl of websites showing an interest in the Mercury nominations finds the sites' self-appointed critics almost universally hostile to the idea of a jazz group receiving a nomination, even if nobody has even listened to the nominated album.

By this school of thought jazz - especially British jazz - is crap; terminally uncool and listened to only by sad old men. The lunchtime presenter on BBC Radio 5 Live on the day the nominations were made was openly contemptuous of the presence of Polar Bear on the list. His argument was that they were not famous and had no chance of becoming so. Jazz doesn't even rate as exotic, like Fado or other world-music fads. Why waste time with such nonentities?

This all has uncanny echoes of the mid to late 1960s, when a handful of jazz players - Roland Kirk, Charles Lloyd, John Handy, Herbie Mann, Miles Davis, Ian Carr's Nucleus, John Surman - managed to slip out of the night clubs and start playing rock venues and festivals, where they found a young audience willing to embrace what they were doing. Lloyd even had a million-selling album, Forest Flower, and the Jazz Crusaders became The Crusaders and toured as a support to The Rolling Stones.

All these players shared a refusal to stick to well-worn models and modes, welcoming contemporary influences and ideas into their music. Polar Bear and Acoustic Ladyland are doing the same thing today. What must give them hope is that when they play live they generate reactions from audiences that are not part of the jazz ghetto and who find themselves swept up in the energy of the group in front of them.

This attempt to forge something fresh from elements of other genres is surely to be welcomed. Or it would be if the media were at all concerned with music, rather than lifestyle statements. They are being denied the oxygen of publicity.

After all, wholly instrumental breakout acts like the uniquely persuasive Esbjorn Svensson Trio from Sweden, Yuri Honing from Norway (a saxophonist who has recorded Bjork songs to dramatic effect) and The Bad Plus, Charlie Hunter and Medeski, Martin and Wood from the US all receive respect here. They have all secured a substantial live audience.

All of these people are incorporating sounds from the cultures around them, from funk and R&B to rock and club beats and techniques. Polar Bear and Acoustic Ladyland do the same thing - it's just that the wells being drawn from are different. The British bands have a distinctly British edginess to them, a nervous energy that is not simply of the outright "are ya' havin' a good time?" blasts from the US college and stadium circuit. They are expressing a different spirit. These bands are after an audience that stretches across the usual genre barriers.

So what can the Mercury nomination do for them? It won't get them on Radio 1, Radio 2, Smooth FM or any mainstream terrestrial TV station. Radio 3 does play them, but in the appropriate graveyard slots. Xfm is apparently toying with the idea of adding them to its playlists. They need and deserve wider exposure.

Jazzwise magazine's Jon Newey thinks this will help. "Polar Bear are fearless improvisers and composers drawing on Monk, Ellington, avant-rock, electronica and even circus polka, all channelled through the kind of curious English eccentricity and emotion that still makes Robert Wyatt so special. Their ability to fire up audiences well beyond the jazz spectrum not only deserves the Mercury nomination but should be greatly enhanced by it."

So perhaps, through triggering articles like this one, the nomination will help Polar Bear and Acoustic Ladyland find their natural audience, the types of listeners that a few generations ago supported all those similarly-placed groups that went on to influence the course of popular music culture. Fame may be a self-perpetuating hall of mirrors, but the occasional window on to the world outside can work wonders. Especially when you get to hear what that world can sound like.

Polar Bear's 'Held on the Tips of Fingers' and Acoustic Ladyland's 'Last Chance Disco' are out now on Babel Records