In the time it’s taken me to complete writing this joint, there’s been an imposition of a nationwide lockdown from which Mzansi’s yet to fully emerge. The state has instituted a ban of the sale of gwaais, and liquor spots are only allowed to sling their goods ’til 5pm, and only on weekdays. It’s all a bit 1984, gimmick-ey governmental bureaucratic bullshit – women are still dying, the cops are still corrupt, and the number of COVID-19 cases is still rising.
Elsewhere, Black people are still marching for their lives; immigrants can’t visit their loved ones due to closed borders; and White Supremacy remains the order of the day. Earth is Armageddon, and we human beings are the masked militia tasked with having to survive this messy horrorcore encounter.
While streaming some music recently, the Internet’s Al-Gore-Riddims threw super-sized cuts my way; some Moses Boyd, Kokoroko, Alfa Mist, Kamaal Williams – outfits and artists who are active on the jazz scene in the land of Brexiters and authors of the Windrush Generation’s eviction notices.
Freestyle, The Art of Rhyme
The funk was undeniable when Joe Armon-Jones’ music invaded the speakers and re-arranged a few bones in my body. A keyboardist and producer, the 27 year-old is counted among the busiest of his contemporaries. Preferring the title of improviser to that of jazz musician, the Londoner has released two impressive solo sets so far – Turn To Clear View (2019) and Starting Today (2018). He is also a member of the super-sized ganda-ganda machine named Ezra Collective.
The first step towards building a successful scene is paying homage to them ouens who came before. Listening to the Joe Armon Jones’ 2018 joint endears recollections of Courtney Pine, Ten City, 4Hero; it excavates explorations of dub in the tradition of King Tubby, Mad Professor, and fada Lee Perry. I’m hearing the horn section and thinking about E.T. Mensah’s Highlife, Fela’s Afrobeat, and the vibes from Caribbean carnival festivities.
There’s a second layer, barely written about, and hardly mentioned: The frequency assigned to a place in the sonic wave’s spectrum. Joe’s sound is the quintessential Londoner experience; rich, raw, vast, and unfiltered. His music wouldn’t sound the same, were it recorded anywhere else.
He tells an interviewer: “Being in London, with the different kinds of music you get exposed to, I don’t think about [genres]. I just let the musicians do their thing. Everyone has their influences, inspirations and they’ll put their feeling into it. It’s not discussed or spoken about. Now and then, I come around with, ‘This is going to be a strict dub tune”, but even then there is space for things to move away from that.”
Starting Today is a delightful and celebratory cut that kicks off the above-mentioned album of the same name while locking its chants deep in your cranium. Mollison Dub is the sound of Jah Shaka, were Jah Shaka an improvisational outfit making 21st century soundtracks to space inquests. Ragify, with its cascading hip hop beat, will get your head bopping to no end.
You’ve Gotta Have Something To Say
The tight-knit London scene is a by-product of Tomorrow’s Warriors, a conservatoire-style ground zero organization that centres jazz music education and artist development. It was co-founded by Janine Irons and Gary Crosby in ’91, and to this day remains committed to “increasing diversity across the arts through jazz, with a special focus on those from the African diaspora.”
Spaces like Tomorrow’s Warriors are the stimulus needed to help young people find their voices, something Miles told bra Hugh to do back when the now-deceased elder arrived in America, fresh from a stint in the UK that no one ever seems to recall, though the details are there in his memoirs.
Shabaka Hutchings, Nubya Garcia, Moses Boyd, and Zara McFarlance are but some of the Tomorrow’s Warriors graduates who are responsible for undoing the old to re-make this ‘nu thing’. Their music is grounded in jazz, but they aren’t afraid to fleece the grooves and riddims in any and every direction, as long as the foundation is intact.
We Outchea, the Brownswood Recordings compilation released in 2018, gave a stamp of approval to the ‘new’ London thing: A sound unnamed, a feeling unfelt, an emotion unspoken; undergirded by easy-to-recall horn lines, guided by funkadelic keyboard chord progressions, interrupted by cascading, crashing cymbals, layered with phat kicks and thundering basslines, and topped with an awareness, and spiritual and communal responsibility to liberate the music, to extend its impact beyond pretensions of novelty.
Listening to the music and watching the accompanying documentary film, one can’t help but think about the interplay between sound and imagery when building a scene. Thus, the third ingredient when building a movement is to acknowledge people and make them listen, while emphasizing the look of where this nu thing is at.
We Outchea is the devastating effects of urban regenerations; the aggravated assault on the soul due to austerity measures that undercut essential services, especially among the youth and elderly; and the unanswered questions about who voted YES, who is responsible for Grenfell, and why knife crime remains a cause for concern among officials and the masses.
Kokoroko’s Abbussey Junction tested the Al-Gore-Riddim’s limits. The Brownswood marketing team ensured that the tune came up on the side panel of my YouTube window everytime I logged into the matrix, and I still instinctively click on it to hear those indelible, undeniable vocal harmonies towards the end. It’s spiritual inquest for those searching for something meaningful, and an affirmation for those who’ve found their calling. It says to me: All of this shit’s possible.
Recorded over three days in 2017, We Out Here features contributions from musical director Shabaka Hutchings (Black Skin, Black Masks), Joe Armon-Jones (Go See), Theon Cross (Brockley), Nubya Garcia (Once), and more.
Liberate The Model, Spread It Far And Wide
Brownswood transplanted the We Out Here model and housed it in Melbourne, Australia. It not only took root, but resulted in the Sunny Side Up compilation released in 2019. Through this experiment, the Gilles Peterson-founded label has successfully demonstrated how to build a scene, and expand the creative ethos of that scene to other territories, too.
Sunny Side Up is the sound of cats that are still searching for an identity, still building upon disparate ideas of the self. Compilation opener Banksia by the mutli-instrumentalist Phill Stroud is deep-rooted funk, and recalls the ’70s explorations of cats like Roy Ayers and Donald Byrd. Dufresne’s Pick Up/Galaxy is a synth laden horn fest that flirts with London two-step and soul music. Alt RnB vocalist Audrey Powne’s Bleeding Hearts is about as straight-ahead jazz as it gets.
Overall, the sound of Melbourne is, as presented on this compilation, concerned with the space jazz of Sun Ra. It indeed confirms that there are corners, crevices, and worlds we’re yet to hear about.