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

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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

books
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Cryer and Ashton Kutcher in the eleventh season of Two and a Half Men

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

    A land of the outright bizarre
    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
    Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

    The worst kept secret in cinema

    A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
    Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
    Why do we have blood types?

    Are you my type?

    All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
    Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

    Honesty box hotels

    Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

    Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

    The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it
    For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

    Magna Carta Island goes on sale

    Yours for a cool £4m
    Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn