Sholto Byrnes: Talking Jazz

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The Independent Culture

The Mercury Prize - or, as we are now supposed to call it, the Nationwide Mercury Prize - allows for leisurely discussion between the recent announcement of its short list and the eventual declaration of the winner in September.

Among the jazz-inclined, talk will be of the pianist Zoe Rahman (right), whose second album, Melting Pot, was chosen for inclusion on the short list despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that she personally hand-delivered it to the judges in a plastic bag. Rahman's album is on her own label - no smart packaging or limos provided for her by the likes of Warner or Sony.

Some people have come to think that the Mercury judges automatically pick one jazz disc each year, thus enabling them to display a breadth of knowledge without having to cast themselves as obscurantists by actually making it the overall winner. This is not, in fact, true. But 11 of the 15 short lists published since the Mercury began in 1992 have contained significant British-based jazz musicians, and the prize's judges have consistently gone for names more deserving than some who are recognised at purely jazz-based ceremonies.

The recent BBC Jazz Awards, for instance, recognised the excellent Tim Garland and Anita Wardell, as well as the stunning young pianist Andrew McCormack, but also Jools Holland. Now, Mr Holland is generally regarded as an all-round splendid fellow, and everyone is very pleased that he is willing to help promote the music. But few make the mistake of considering him to be a jazz musician. This is a man whose style is so rigidly fixed in rhythm and blues-oriented boogie-woogie that I swear he could make the Rite of Spring sound like something that had sprung from the pen of Jerry Lee Lewis. For him to be named Radio 2 Artist of the Year at the BBC Jazz Awards was truly bizarre, and can only be explained by the fact that the category was decided by the votes of a confused public rather than by the jury of 100 who determine some of the other awards.

The Mercury judges, on the other hand, have short-listed those at the forefront of jazz, such as Polar Bear and Soweto Kinch, and British artists of truly international stature, such as Guy Barker, John Surman and Courtney Pine. In 1992, they even went for the wonderful pianist Stan Tracey, who must have been one of the few pensioners not up for a lifetime achievement gong to appear at a music awards ceremony.

I'm particularly pleased to see Rahman nominated this year, since I've observed her development over 16 years, during which she's been the Perrier Young Jazz Musician of the Year and was short-listed a few years ago in the Rising Star category at the BBC awards. Her style is immaculate, highly distinctive and, in my opinion, best suited to leading her own trio. Her work, which is often based on figures that repeat or regularly return, reminds one at times of Keith Jarrett. So it is no disservice to her to say that there are some pianists, like Jarrett (Tracey's another) whose sound is so their own that they ought to be heard as leaders, rather than modifying their language to fit into the rhythm section of a conventional bop group.

Perhaps I should declare a personal interest and say that Rahman has come a long way since she and I played together in a quintet as students. I may have fond memories of our sometimes chaotic attempts to work out how to play Groovin' High or Night in Tunisia, but I'm very proud to hear what she's achieved since. So, to the Mercury judges I say: "Very well done, sirs." Now you only have to be a little braver than normal, and award Rahman the prize in September.