Talking Jazz

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For years, British jazz has been awaiting the second coming - the arrival of a successor to Courtney Pine, a jazz musician who can break into the charts without compromising his art. It is just possible that such a person is now with us. The general public is probably mildly aware of Soweto Kinch: he has, after all, won a Mobo award, been a Mercury prize nominee and carried off the Rising Star gong at the 2002 BBC Radio Jazz awards, all in the past 18 months. But in the same time-frame, the "jazz" artists who have enjoyed the big marketing drives have been singer-pianists who bring nothing new to the party, however lovely their renditions of "The Nearness of You" or "Devil May Care".

The 25-year-old Kinch is the real thing. Watching him sound check at the Cargo club in Shoreditch recently I was struck by his stage presence, his authoritative sound on the alto sax, and his humour. Kinch communicates with his audience. Listening to him and his group, whether swinging hard and raw or rapping over hip-hop beats, what comes across is a desire to connect, a passion to express: it is compelling because it is serious music of great quality. Kinch himself is a serious and intelligent person, not po-faced, but possessing evident integrity. This is not a game to him.

"If screaming girls and signing autographs is success," he says, "well, I've experienced a bit of that, and it's a drag." He'd certainly appreciate the remuneration and decent dressing-rooms that come with it. Such trappings, however, are not what's most important to him. "I'm not resting on any laurels: there's work to be done in putting across quality, in providing thought-provoking role models. I hope that's something I'm doing in my own way."

Kinch had music around him from an early age, both his parents being involved in the arts, started the clarinet at eight and picked up on hip-hop lyrics when he was 10. Aged 13, he met Wynton Marsalis backstage after a concert. "He talked to me for about an hour." Such mentors - Courtney Pine and the bassist Gary Crosby have also given him help and encouragement - only increased his determination. "When I'd bring Coltrane's "Giant Steps" into school I'd be shouted down. But it was such a personal and individual thing for me, and no amount of laughing or decrying could count against that."

Kinch, who will support the jazz crossover colossus David Sanborn at the forthcoming London Jazz Festival, has forged a blend of jazz and rap that could reach out way beyond the hardcore jazz audience but hasn't compromised an iota in the process. His rap "What if bebop ruled the world? (On a jazz planet)" uses a musical vehicle at home on the dancefloor to convey a challenging message with just the right hint of anger in the delivery. It fully deserves to be released as a single. Soweto Kinch could just be the ambassador to bring the good news to the nation.