The supposition that great jazz leaps cultural and geographic bounds may be over-stated; even in the U.S. there are divergent preferences for artists and styles from East Coast to West Coast, Chicago to New Orleans. And that’s a good thing; as I wrote for a motto in my grammar school yearbook, “Variety is the Spice of Life.”
An international wrinkle on jazz awards: The British Broadcasting Company on Monday night announced 11 winners of the BBC Jazz Awards, Reunited fusion quartet Return to Forever won for “lifetime achievement,” bassist Charlie Haden received the “international award,” Sir John Dankworth and Dame Cleo Laine were given the “gold award.” But who are these other honorees with little reputation in the States. Are they better known throughout Europe? What are we missing?
So it’s not particularly surprising that British mainstays Humphrey Littleton and Alan Bates won awards for Artist of the Year and Services to Jazz, respectively. But have you heard album of the year All Is Yes from the Bristolian quartet The Blessing, best vocalist Christine Tobin, best instrumentalist Tony Kofi, “jazz line-up band of the Year” Tom Cawley’s Curios, Jazz on 3 innovation award winnning quintet Fraud, Heart of Jazz winner Tommy Smith, or Rising Star Kit Downes?
“Wonky rock-jazz” is what The Blessing (sax, trumpet, electric bass, drums) calls its sound. Several carefully contrived composed and arranged) melodic but stretching samples on its Myspace page, which I suggest checking out before racing off to Amazon to order the cd for $42.99 (it’s an import). The band lists Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler among its influences, along with Cake, E.S.T., Dick Dale, Elvis Costello, Ian Dury, North African cuisine, werewolves and the sun, moon and stars. Eclectic, no?
Ms. Tobin offers a rather bossa nova’d version of Leonard Cohen’s dire “Everybody Knows” on her Myspace page; her influences include Cassandra Wilson, whose spare, folky electro-acoustic instrumentation (violin solo) she approximates (at least on that cut). Her brief syllabic passages are obviously preplanned rather than spontaneous scat solos in the mode of Ella Fitzgerald or Betty Carter. The Guardian called her “the Bjork of Euro jazz,” and British Jazzwise magazine says she’s “probably the most adventurous jazz singer of her generation in this country. She’s Irish, released her debut album on the Babel label in 1995, and recorded her fourth album, Deep Song, in New York in 2000 with U.S. drummer Billy Hart and U.S. saxophonist Mark Turner. It’s available in the U.S. as an import only.
Five tracks by alto saxophonist Tony Kofi and company can be heard free at Last.fm. Among the musicians he’s listed as soundling “like” are John Zorn and Bud Freeman, but I hear him more in the lineage of Cannonball Adderley and Lou Donaldson, backed by organ, guitar and drums with a trumpeter foil. He attended Berklee College of Music in Boston on a full scholarship, was a member of the Jazz Warriors, and has other credits including work with Andrew Hill’s Anglo-American Big Band, Sam Rivers, Digable Planets, a 10 piece ensemble called the Afro Jazz Family and a project of Monk and Monk-inspired compositions, All Is Know, which won the BBC award for best album of 2005; selections from his catalog are available as imports.
Curios, which won the Jazz-Line Up band of the year Award (and has the worst MySpace page), is an acoustic trio led by pianist Tim Cawley that engages in equalateral trianglism in the manner initiated by Ahmad Jamal in the ’50s, exemplified by Bill Evans-Scott Lafaro-Paul Motian in the ’60s, extended by Paul Bley throughout his entire career and currently popularized by Keith Jarrett, Brad Mehldau, the Bad Plus and maybe E.S.T. Their free samples are all originals, though, not particularly brooding, eschew irony for transparent lyricism and don’t use electronics. The trio is engagingly transparent and accessible, but their 2007 album Hidden is just that — available on iTunes but not at Amazon (US) even as an import. But Amazon (US) does offer three cds by Cawley’s previous trio, Acoustic Ladyland.
Fraud, which copped the Innovation award, is a two-drummer quintet led by multi-reedist James Allsopp and experimental percussionist Tim Giles. It demonstrates the jazz-beyond-jazz ethos, derived from Ayleresque saxophonics and burbling electronics that occasionally come into compositional focus like eerie soundtrack music. Their eponymous debut album, also from the Babel label, claims punk and funk dna; those strains are represented on their free sample tracks by attitude rather than full-out thrash or deep backbeat. Nothing wrong with that.
Scottish tenor and soprano saxophonist Tommy Smith leads the Scottish Jazz Orchestra, his own Youth Jazz Orchestra, was in vibist Gary Burton’s band as a teenager and has toured extensively with Norwegian bassist Arild Andersen. I’ve found sample tracks on iTunes — he won the award for Heart, and has a big, deep, smooth, suave sound that substantiates his handsome look and tailored suits. Smith has recorded a lot for Spartacus Records, and conducted an entire rendition of Miles Ahead, Gil Evans’ music for Miles Davis, featuring trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, a native Canadian who lives in New York and stars in Maria Schneider’s Orchestra.
Rising Star Kit Downes is a 22-year-old pianist with a quintet and album both named Empirical — sorry, Stateside readers, another import only. He’s studied with Curio’s Tim Cawley, though, and has been billed with Fraud, and does use electronics, akin to the late Esbjorn Svensson. Hard to get a fix on from online evidence, but if he’s rising I presume there will soon be more to check out.
Is this really the best of British jazz? Voting is by the public, for nominees selected by a committee of experts. Interesting choices. . . worth crossing the pond to hear, perhaps. Let it not be said this blog is exclusively Americanist (which is so unfashionable). And oh yes, I’m still wondering about those so-called International Jazz Awards — rescheduled for the second time this summer, now presumably being held September 15 at the Beverly Hilton in Los Angeles. Stay tuned — I’ll report if it actually happens.
Then there’s the question: Do jazz awards matter?