The shape of jazz to come

As the nominees for the BBC Jazz Awards are announced, Sholto Byrnes looks at the risky business of picking the stars of tomorrow. Are the judges looking in the right places?

Am I the only one to feel rather underwhelmed by the shortlists for the BBC Jazz Awards? There's a widespread sentiment among the UK jazz industry that those in the media who cover the music ought to be supportive of it, and that whatever cavils we have should be withheld from print, left as private thoughts or whispered asides. It's somehow "bad form" to admit publicly that the roll call of names seems distinctly parochial; and that one suspects that some of the shortlists are not the best of a varied catch but the only catch available from waters whose stocks are low.

Am I the only one to feel rather underwhelmed by the shortlists for the BBC Jazz Awards? There's a widespread sentiment among the UK jazz industry that those in the media who cover the music ought to be supportive of it, and that whatever cavils we have should be withheld from print, left as private thoughts or whispered asides. It's somehow "bad form" to admit publicly that the roll call of names seems distinctly parochial; and that one suspects that some of the shortlists are not the best of a varied catch but the only catch available from waters whose stocks are low.

Some of those nominated do deserve prominence and a greater platform. Soweto Kinch, the name that ought to be on the lips of the general public when it turns its collective mind to new British jazz (such a regular occurrence, of course), is up for the Best Band and Best Instrumentalist. His mixture of bop and rap is a rare example of a fusion that promises accessibility without compromising artistic integrity. The drummer Seb Rochford, trumpeter Tom Arthurs and keyboardist Richard Fairhurst are all interesting new (or newish) names on category shortlists, although in their cases I would say that deserving a greater platform is not necessarily the same as deserving prizes.

As for the vocalist category, a good case could be made for scrapping it. We have too few really good jazz singers for a proper competition; and adventurous vocalists like Cleveland Watkiss seem destined always to be overlooked in favour of songbirds with tenuous claims to genuine jazz lineage. Clare Teal will probably win this year. She has a pleasant voice, but there's a hint of Buggins' turn about it. The Best Album category illustrates another point: Soweto's Conversation with the Unseen is a very good debut, the Scottish trumpeter Colin Steele's The Journey Home is enjoyable but not as strong as his previous recording, and Denys Baptiste's Let Freedom Ring! is brave but flawed. None of these could be described as being the work of an artist at his peak - because none have yet to reach that point. Their growth is something to look forward to, but surely the point of the Best Album category should be to recognise a truly outstanding recording and not one that's just a good effort from the foothills.

It's curious too, that while the BBC is keen to make the dubious claim that "recently jazz has become a leading force in album sales throughout the world and is again being considered mainstream music", names that would resonate with the mainstream audience are nowhere to be seen. Andy Summers, Nigel Kennedy and Bill Bruford have all been making very fine jazz over the last year. One would have thought that room could have been made for at least one of them. Is the fact that they have long exceeded the boundaries of this little isle held against them? Or is it that their fame derives from success in other arenas, and that their respective associations with the Police, classical music and Yes exclude them from a jazz prize-giving?

To be fair, the BBC does deserve praise for organising these festivities, to be held this year in the somewhat incongruous surroundings of the Hammersmith Palais, fondly remembered as the setting for teenaged black tie balls and now home of something called schooldisco.com. The event does focus some attention on jazz, and provides a forum for the grumblers, of which I am declaring myself one this year, to meet and air their discontents.

How much more pleasant it would be to be able to laud the shortlists and declare oneself thrilled by their vitality. Instead, I can't help feeling that the chasing after new names is elevating some too early at the expense longevity. A new crop of names arrive and are suddenly ubiquitous, while others whose labours are of equal or superior value remain ignored. It's almost as though there's a collective decision that so-and-so is in this year, after which a blanket view descends and envelopes the jazz consciousness. What would it take for Martin Drew and Mornington Lockett's New Couriers to make the lists, one wonders. They are essentially a tribute band to Tubby Hayes and Ronnie Scott's Jazz Couriers, it's true, but a tighter and ballsier outfit would be hard to find. Or John Etheridge, acknowledged as an inventive and original voice on the guitar - were he to arrive on the scene now he'd be hailed and nominated for sure. But because he's been around for a while perhaps he's not perceived as being "fresh" enough.

There is an excellent new collection of "rare, classic and unique modern jazz from Britain, 1963-1974" on Gilles Peterson's Impressed 2, prompting the thought that those who have nurtured a sound and style that will pass the test of time may not be photogenic and young. They may be fat, middle-aged or elderly, and have bad taste in clothes. They may, however, have something more to say than the present nominees. Hopefully, there will be performances at the Jazz Awards by a variety of performers who didn't make the shortlist and who one will consequently want to hear more from; that was the case last year with Byron Wallen. But looking at the two lists, of artists down for the awards and of those featured on Peterson's collection, there is only one that makes the heart race in anticipation. The fact that it is Peterson's rather than the awards' is surely wrong.

The BBC Jazz awards ceremony is at the Hammersmith Palais, London W6 on 29 July

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