When the DJ Gilles Peterson's compilation album Impressed came out to great acclaim last year, it looked like a backward glance to a long since vanished golden age of British jazz; to an era - the Sixties - of unrivalled creativity, when the conventional genre boundaries (between traditional and modern, American and Anglo, hot and cool) seemed far less important than the transforming presence of some powerful new voices and a sense that anything was possible.
"The Impressed album was truly a labour of love for me," Peterson says. "It's strange because I came to it last, in the sense that I was already aware of French and Italian jazz, far more than British jazz. But when I heard and started to collect these records, I went crazy. It was the crown jewels."
Joe Harriott, Tubby Hayes, John Surman, Michael Garrick, Mike Westbrook, Graham Collier, Harry Beckett, Dave Holland and John McLaughlin were some of the stars and emerging talents of the time, while the relocation of Ronnie Scott's London club (which had opened in 1959) to Frith Street at the end of the Sixties left what was known as "The Old Place" in Gerrard Street to become a focus for the free-jazz experiments of the South African Blue Notes and Keith Tippett. Compared with this heroic period, the "jazz revival" of the late Eighties - when the saxophone displaced the guitar as the most popular musical instrument - now looks relatively conservative; a jazz version of economic monetarism, Milton Friedman in beret and shades.
But what if the golden age of British jazz wasn't the Sixties or the Eighties? What if it is happening now? I'm not talking about the new easy-listening of Jamie Cullum and company, either, although it's possible that we might see a trickle-down, cuddly-jazz dividend, in the same way that the popularity of Sade presaged the Eighties jazz revival. No, the renaissance I'm thinking of is taking place without anyone - or hardly anyone - listening. Who knows, but this might even be the reason that it's occurring. Shhhhh! It's the new British jazz. If you keep very quiet, you can hear some of it at this year's Cheltenham Jazz Festival, which begins next Thursday.
It's certainly not anything to do with the major record labels, as not a single British jazz instrumentalist - not even Courtney Pine - has a contract with them any more. But if you look out for releases on small, one-man-and-a-dog imprints such as Basho, Caber, Dune, Provocateur and Voiceprint, plus the German independent ECM, which has been home to the Sixties stars John Surman, John Taylor and Kenny Wheeler for 30 years, there's been a steady stream of uncommonly good albums for quite a while now.
Just lately, at a time when major American jazz releases are almost uniformly dull, things have suddenly gone up another notch. We're not just talking British jazz-as-proud-to-hold-its-head-up any more; we're talking world leaders, gold medals, outright winners. Of course, because this is jazz, and British jazz at that, no one has taken the slightest bit of interest, and perhaps they never will. It's not all about young, twinkly-faced jazz babes, either; more the sort of people who've been doing what they do at a very high level for a very long time, and as a result have become incredibly good at it.
Take My Ideal (Basho) by the alto saxophonist Martin Speake, 46, who as part of the sax quartet Itchy Fingers, won the 1986 Jazz Services/Schlitz competition that helped to kick-start the Eighties jazz revival. On the face of it, My Ideal is nothing special: duets of standards with the pianist Ethan Iverson from the American trio The Bad Plus. But listen again and it soon begins to stand comparison with anyone, anywhere. Speake's creamy, almost ingratiatingly melodic flights of fancy are continually brought crashing to the ground by the mad chromaticism of Iverson's piano vamps. It's ancient and modern at the same time; Beauty meets the Beast as written by Cole Porter, and then spoiled by Ornette Coleman.
Similarly, the new disc by the tenor saxophonist Julian Argüelles, As Above So Below (Provocateur), represents a leap forward from an artist who's been one of the big Brit-jazz talents for some time. In an orchestral suite inspired by a Suffolk church, Argüelles sets Vaughan Williams-like pastoral strings alongside reed and brass laments of such deep and soulful longing that they will quite possibly move you to tears. There's also the amazing Nightfall (Naim) by the duo of the US bassist Charlie Haden and the English pianist John Taylor, who is this year's artist in residence at Cheltenham, where Argüelles is also playing. But such successes - and these are albums you could play happily for the rest of your life - will not be measured in sales; they'll be lucky to sell a thousand copies between them. Initial print-runs will no doubt disappear eventually through sales at gigs up and down the country and in Europe, where Speake, Argüelles and Taylor all play more than at home. But it's hard to see how either the labels or the artists will gain much financial reward.
Does it matter to the musicians if no one is listening? Does the creation of new and important music depend on commercial success? "Philosophically, if you look at it on the highest level, it probably doesn't matter," says Argüelles, who is 38. "In some ways, it wouldn't matter if sales and audiences were even smaller; it's a calling. But on a social, practical level of wanting to get the music heard, it's a drag, although I don't feel things are any worse now than they have been since I first came up, except perhaps for the earliest days when I was playing with Loose Tubes [the popular big band formed by the composer Django Bates in 1983]. Too many musicians, not enough clubs: that's always the problem."
So how does Argüelles maintain the motivation to make great music that hardly anyone will hear? "It's slightly discouraging, but only in the same way as it is for lots of other musicians," he says. "I'm pleased with the recordings I've done, but I did want to reach bigger audiences. I think, 'What can I do?' Apart from becoming a self-publicist or a hustler, it seems hard to break the next barrier. I don't know the answer."
Nor has Argüelles seen much change from the new easy-listening brigade. "The thing with Jamie and Clare Teal shows that there is interest, and they're good musicians, but I don't really think it affects people like me," he says. "It's almost like they're doing a different thing entirely, something more commercial and accessible."
While I try to argue that the very lack of commercial appeal might provide the cold, hard tempering necessary for steely confidence in one's own abilities as a player, Argüelles is not convinced. He's more concerned with the problems faced by younger musicians. "It's very difficult for young guys to become professional jazz musicians now, apart from a handful of rhythm players, and especially in London," he says. "Life is hard. Unfortunately, they might also have one eye on playing in a certain way in order to make a living, so in that sense I think it has an inhibiting effect. In places where there's more support for artists, in Germany, Sweden and Norway, the music can be farther out because people can take the risks."
Ironically, it is the parallel jazz renaissance in Norway and Sweden that's having an effect on British record sales, with EST (the Esbjörn Svensson Trio) and Bugge Wesseltoft's New Conception of Jazz rapidly becoming the most popular jazz acts in the UK. But while we're listening to them, they're listening to us, or so it seems: it's in Scandinavia and Germany that British musicians such as Argüelles, Speake and Taylor do much of their work, guest workers in a kind of jazz version of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet.
Argüelles has now left London and settled in Scotland, where he has become an important part of the re-energised Edinburgh scene, playing with the quintet of the trumpeter Colin Steele, another upcoming star (as is the group's pianist, Dave Milligan, who also appears at Cheltenham). But Argüelles proves as resistant to the notion of a Scottish jazz renaissance as he does to that of a *
* British one, preferring to be seen in a wider European context. "I travel a lot throughout Europe and there are some fantastic musicians there we never hear about, because they never come to Britain," he says. "There's a very strong thing going on in Spain and Portugal at the moment, for instance, and I find that wonderful. There needs to be different flavours and different colours."
For John Cumming of the jazz touring and production organisation Serious, there is still an audience for jazz. It's just finding it that's the problem. "On the one hand, the audience is there and there's no difficulty in getting people to come to large concert halls to see major international acts, and there's no dropping off of interest in the music," he says. "On the other, there is the difficulty of finding an audience for new and challenging work, but that can be true of any art form."
Cumming, too, is optimistic about the Jamie Cullum effect. "He's certainly doing no harm bringing attention to the scene, and it is reflective of a much broader and bigger success story, but the problem overall for jazz is the same as it has always been: it's the infrastructure, or the lack of one. Investment in the music has been very patchy, but we're beginning to see more acceptance and support form third parties - from the Arts Council and the BBC, for example - and general levels of audiences are up.
"The downside is that some areas of the music are still difficult to make work economically - or at least to do so in a way that reflects their quality - and it's therefore difficult to produce them as much as we'd like to."
This leads to anomalies in the current scene, where it's possible to get an audience (and the all-important Arts Council subsidy) for a tour by the entertaining and yoof-friendly Matthew Herbert Big Band, while Mike Westbrook - who in Europe is fêted as a genius, which he probably is - has had to disband his infinitely superior orchestra because he simply can't get a gig any more. Similarly, important but relatively unfashionable players such as Argüelles and Speake can end up losing out to inferior musicians capable of generating more of a buzz.
Understandably, John Cumming - who has struggled with the unpopular in jazz for three decades - is anxious to accentuate the positive. "There's great new music all over the place," he says. "Matthew Bourne in Leeds, the Caber lot in Scotland, Soweto Kinch and Chris Bowden in Birmingham, and people like Tom Herbert, Jason Yarde and the Tomorrow's Warriors scene in London; there's things bubbling up in different places at different times." Some of this new talent is featured in Future Sounds of Jazz, a current tour organised by Serious with support from the Arts Council and the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation.
Peterson thinks that the contemporary jazz scene has a higher profile now than it had back in the Sixties. "Some of those records from the Impressed compilation only sold 500 copies - people like Michael Garrick and Don Rendall really were super-underground. At the moment, we've got high-quality players and a really good energy, and the marketing machine is a little bit sharper so the profile is higher. There's a really great diversity in the jazz scene: at one end of the spectrum you've got Jamie Cullum's kind of jazz and at the other there is the more adventurous kind of jazz, with bands like Cinematic Orchestra."
The sense of excitement around the new British jazz scene is also reflected in the line-up for this year's Cheltenham Jazz Festival, which gives more space to home-grown artists, with main-stage appearances by Jamie Cullum (who last year played before just 120 people at the Daffodil restaurant), Courtney Pine and Dennis Rollins, alongside shows by the big-name Americans Cassandra Wilson and Joe Zawinul. "It is a conscious strategy to have more British acts, and I think there really is a renaissance going on," says the festival director, Tony Dudley-Evans. "It's patchy, like all these things are, and operates at lots of different levels, from Jamie Cullum - I've got a lot of time for him, because I've seen him play for 20 people and give it his all - and Amy Winehouse, to young players in our Jerwood Rising Stars programme, such as David Okumu and Ben Markland. It's not that I want to move away from American jazz, because I like it and I still programme it, but I do think that a lot of what we hear isn't breaking the boundaries any more."
As if to underline the link between the vibrant Sixties jazz scene exemplified by the Impressed album and comparable events today, on Saturday night Cheltenham features a main-stage show in which Gilles Peterson appears alongside a band led by the veteran Barbadian trumpeter Harry Beckett, one of the stars of Impressed, and the funk-jazz guru Amp Fiddler. "And I can't wait to play with the Matthew Herbert Big Band," says Peterson. "There's a beautiful link to all the old British records, because Dave Green, the bass player, played on them and now plays in Matthew's band. It's adventurous and progressive: Matthew's not just on a jazz tip, he's incredibly talented, he's the Brian Eno of our time. He brings a different perspective to the jazz scene."
Quite where the new easy-listening of Jamie Cullum fits into this transgenerational rainbow coalition I'm not sure, but he will sell a lot of tickets and help to create that all-important buzz. And jazz, it's plain to see, can use all the help it can get.
Five must-have nu-jazz albums
The Journey Home Colin Steele (Caber)
Folk-jazz? Well, sort of. A trumpeter and composer, Steele does soft-bop with a Scots accent and the occasional nod to the Nordic. The result is quietly sociable, foot-tapping music that, while remaining recognisably jazzy, still fulfils our capacity to get all emotional over what the poet Rilke called "audible landscape".
Pick Up Sticks Bill Wells (Leaf)
Stirling's answer to Sun Ra, if you can conceive of such a thing. The self-taught pianist Wells has been playing keyboards for various Scots wimp-rockers (Pastels, Belle & Sebastian, Arab Strap, etc) for donkey's years, and running his own octet for the past 15 of 'em. His previous release, Also in White by the Bill Wells Trio (Geographic), had a single chord change of such staggeringly Gil Evans-like beauty that you'd forgive him anything. Even this - an experimental jamming album made in Berlin with Stefan Schneider, Annie Whitehead and Barbara Morgenstern. Jamie Cullum it ain't.
As Above So Below Julian Argüelles (Provocateur)
This emblematically English suite (that is to say it includes echoes of reggae and South African township shuffle as well as Vaughan Williams or Parry-type pastoral), inspired by a medieval church and partly commissioned by Fenland District Council, brings together at least two generations of British jazz stars, together with the Trinity College of Music String Ensemble conducted by Nic Pendlebury. The 12 themes that go to make up the whole offer such a rich and varied emotional address to the listener that, by its conclusion, one is left almost speechless with admiration.
The Little Radio Iain Ballamy and Stian Carstensen (Sound Recordings)
The ex-Loose Tubes sax-man and the oddball Norwegian accordionist go head to head on a crazy duet that has the chutzpah to mix "Body and Soul" with "The Teddy Bears Picnic" and still come out winning. Logically, it should be pretentious and twee but such is the dotty duo's evident sincerity that you can't help feeling that music should be this unplugged and off-the-cuff more often.
Man with a Movie Camera The Cinematic Orchestra (Ninja Tune)
The band's soundtrack to Dziga Vertov's 1929 Soviet film works on several levels, none of them very much to do with jazz. And that's what is so good about it. From long, slow, trancey riffs to spacey, chilled-out string glissandos, each sequence is built from the ground up with the greatest deliberation, creating a sense of scale and structure that is more usually found in orchestral music. And there's none of the usual bad-tempered, hot-flushed solos either.
The Cheltenham International Jazz Festival runs from 29 April to 3 May (www.cheltenhamfestivals.co.uk; box office 01242 227979)