Talking Jazz

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The Independent Culture

This has been a strange year for British jazz. In many ways, a good year - one in which forgotten glories from decades past were resurrected and brought to new audiences; some fine indigenous groups continued to build on their work so far; and at least one stunning new player emerged.

This has been a strange year for British jazz. In many ways, a good year - one in which forgotten glories from decades past were resurrected and brought to new audiences; some fine indigenous groups continued to build on their work so far; and at least one stunning new player emerged.

But it has also been a year in which mass marketing hype about a great revival of the British jazz scene has concentrated attention on a few artists with dubious jazz credentials. The oeuvre of some of these, in fact, is so far removed from what the word has hitherto been understood to mean, that if this new, wider definition came to be accepted one might as well say that Neil Diamond's "Love on the Rocks" was a jazz tune just because he sings it in a film called The Jazz Singer.

Although many jazz aficionados find it hard to muster much enthusiasm for all the singers who have grabbed the limelight and the record deals, it has to be to the good of jazz if Clare Teal, Gwyneth Herbert, Jamie Cullum et al bring something of the music to those whose only exposure so far was the clichéd saxophone in the old Blend 37 coffee adverts. Likewise, however much one may complain about Michael Parkinson's conservative taste in jazz, it's still better if he's giving a platform to, say, Michael Cincotti, than to the latest boy band. Like listening to Glenn Miller, it's an easy first step into unfamiliar territory. One must hope that at least a few will be encouraged to explore further.

The problem is when confusion arises from the marketing. Cullum's album, Twentysomething, was on any objective assessment only partly a jazz recording. His track "All At Sea", for instance, is a beautiful, affecting tune, but it's a pop ballad. But because Cullum is marketed as a jazz artist, the general public fails to make this distinction, and so we've had the absurd spectacle of artists such as Katie Melua and Joss Stone being lumped in the same category (especially as the latter's debut album is called The Soul Sessions).

And all of this obscures the more interesting developments. Gilles Peterson's role in helping to re-release British jazz recordings from the Sixties and Seventies has been invaluable. Many of these records only had extremely limited pressings in the first place. The result was that a distinctively British jazz tradition, pioneered by the likes of Michael Garrick, Graham Collier, Harry Beckett and Ian Carr, was unknown to most people, including many younger jazz musicians.

Although Britain has produced many fine players since, I'm not certain that in terms of composition the succeeding generations have come up with anything quite so original. Garrick remains busy, recently recording a tribute album to the late saxophonist, Joe Harriott, with his big band. Bringing the work of Garrick and his peers to a wider audience has been tremendously important.

Someone who has been compared to Harriott is Soweto Kinch. His claiming of the best instrumentalist and best group prizes was the highlight of the BBC Jazz Awards. He and his Dune records labelmate Abram Wilson should be the ones representing any British jazz revival, as their mixing of bop and rap is an inventive triumph. Wilson's Jazz Warrior is my album of the year. What are the chances, though, that he gets the call from Parkinson to appear on his show?

In clubland, Ronnie Scott's celebrated its 45th birthday, and the Vortex in Stoke Newington closed. But a new Vortex should open early next year in Dalston.

There was a lot of hot air about British jazz this year, but some substance behind it too. And whatever seems to be in favour, justly or unjustly, there will always be disagreements about it in the small but highly disputatious world of jazz.

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