After years of going to jazz gigs and being the youngest person in the room by a good quarter of a century, I can’t tell you how happy it makes me to see a (too) cool, 20-something festival crowd lose it over a virtuosic bass solo.
I watched it happen time and time again at Field Day in London’s Brockwell Park this weekend, which had a packed programme of jazz acts alongside the usual DJs and leftfield hip hop artists who help make this festival one of the UK’s most self-consciously hip. For anyone doubting whether jazz (or at least a certain, dancefloor-focused strand of it) is cool again, this year’s Field Day bill was confirmation.
Though they regularly play to young crowds, the significance of the event wasn’t lost on Ezra Collective who unleashed their storming Afro-beat grooves, bold hornlines and pyrotechnic solos on a packed Dimensions/Total Refreshment Centre tent. “If you’re about supporting jazz music make some noise,” shouted drummer Femi Koleoso, as they kicked off a danceable cover of Sun Ra’s ‘Space Is The Place’. The cheers were deafening.
There were more London ‘new wave’ favourites throughout Friday evening, including the ferocious Sons of Kemet and drummer Moses Boyd’s Exodus, whose set mixed infectious beats and visceral tuba basslines with rock textures, episodic horn melodies and massive solos – from Boyd, Binker Golding on tenor and guitarist Artie Zaitz. They paved the way for The Comet Is Coming who channelled the sound of intergalactic warfare – all blazing synths, fizzing electronics and hyperdrive drum beats – with Shabaka Hutchings firing tenor hollars and circular breathing through swirling nebulas of notes.
On the open-air mainstage, Norwich trio Mammal Hands dealt in introspective minimalism. New tune ‘Transfixed’ featured minor modes, sax whorls and thrumming tabla, and had echoes of a Jan Garbarek and Trilok Gurtu collaboration. Meanwhile, singer Zara McFarlane and her 10-piece band brought a reggae flavour to the intimate Moth Club/It’s Nice That tent, closing with the bruising, melancholic ‘Stoke The Fire’. Next came one of the highlights, a set from Nubya Garcia, who slayed on tenor, stretching out and showcasing her rich sound as drummer Femi Koleoso and bassist Dan Casimir laid down surging swing feels, hip hop grooves and (once) a burst of UK garage. As much talked-about keysplayer Joe Armon-Jones let rip, Garcia danced and turned her face to the heavens. She looked like a lioness with a mane of braids. Her playing has the same air of fearsome grace. Later on, two of her Nérija bandmates came out to join her: thoughtful guitarist Shirley Tetteh and trumpeter Sheila Maurice-Grey, who was powerful and inventive on the Ethio-jazz tinged ‘Hold’. A Saturday morning appearance from Tomorrow’s Warriors Female Frontline proved there’s plenty more talent where they came from.
Beyond all that, you could hear the influence of jazz in numerous other sets across the weekend – further evidence of its current kudos in the music world. Topping the Dimensions/Total Refreshment Centre bill, Detroit techno legend Jeff Mills battled Afro-beat drum icon Tony Allen and keysplayer Jean-Phi Dary across a psychedelic landscape of subtly-shifting beats, riddled with funky Minimoog basslines and the knuckle-crack of a Roland TR-909. And elsewhere there were electronic music producers backed by horn sections sketching Gil Evans-like harmonies (James Holden and The Animal Spirits) and rappers doubling on alto saxophone (Masego performing his own ‘You Gon’ Learn Some Jazz Today’).
This year’s headliners continued the theme. There’s a jazz sensibility to Erykah Badu‘s vocals – both her tone and the freedom with which she phrases. She’s often compared to Billie Holiday and that certainly came across in her erratic Friday-night set, which also included a rain dance accompanied by some Tanya Tagaq-style throat singing. ‘Out My Mind, Just In Time’ had the dreamy air of a jazz ballad, and on ‘… & On’ she had her backing vocalists scatting over walking basslines.
Saturday’s headliner, Stephen ‘Thundercat’ Bruner, was an even better fit. Bruner is a childhood friend of Kamasi Washington and Flying Lotus, and one of the LA jazz-heads who turned Kendrick Lamar onto John Coltrane. Through those channels and his own music-making he’s done a huge amount to introduce mainstream audiences to the joy of burning swing. In fact, we should probably be falling at his besocked-and-sandaled feet. A lot of people were, including Erykah Badu who came out to dance and hype amid the squelchy funk of ‘Them Changes’ yelling: “Sing that shit, Cat.” Bruner did, his chest voice velvety, his falsetto rich, and much more secure than at Heaven last year. Stoner poems, from breakthrough album Drunk, came thick and fast and there was acres of furious shredding as he jammed with Knower keysplayer Dennis Hamm and frightening drummer Justin Brown (a member of Ambrose Akinmusire’s quartet), who machine-gunned round his tom toms. More, epic solos; more huge cheers.
Who knows how long this jazz boom will last, or how big it’s going to get? But I’m pretty confident that when the jazz historians of the future adjust their Google glasses and try to unravel the renaissance Field Day 2018 will figure. Good things come to those who wait.
– Thomas Rees; http://jazzwisemagazine.com/
– Photos by Lisa Wormsley