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Jazz but not jazz: the experimental fusion sound sweeping the UK scene

Something’s happening on the peripheries of jazz, but what do we call it? Alanna Henry delves in to find out

In the UK, new experimental sounds born from the jazz tradition are transforming the live experience. Fusing with mainstream genres like grime, hip-hop and reggae, the next generation of musicians are creating new soundscapes and reaching new audiences. It’s jazz but it’s not jazz. There are multiple driving factors, the first being the notion that the player is the instrument, by engaging all their life experiences, culture and heritage. The actual instrument then becomes one element in a toolbox enabling them to express every facet of their sound. 

This idea is embodied by artists like Shabaka Hutchings (Sons Of Kemet, The Comet Is Coming) and Moses Boyd (Exodus Records), just two who have fully established confidence in expressing themselves as instruments, and shining examples of the changing face of genre-defying, jazz-infused music.

Composer, producer and label boss, Emma-Jean Thackray, is another force to be reckoned with. “For me jazz is a language, it’s not a genre,” she says. “It’s like we’re using this common language based on traditions and roots that have come through Black American music, but it’s an evolving art form.”

In the UK, particularly, this evolution has progressed to incorporate producer culture, freeing up artists to include DJ sets and live electronic production in their performances. As a producer, Thackray is especially influenced by Madlib-helmed group Yesterdays New Quintet, J Dilla’s iconic ‘Donuts’ and Miguel Atwood Ferguson’s ‘Mochilla Presents Timeless’ album (a collection of music by J Dilla). Hearing different elements blended together on these projects helped Thackray finally find coherence in her own sound.

This new wave of ‘jazz but not jazz’ is rooted in DIY culture, beautifully illustrated by Thackray, who is self-releasing her debut album ‘Yellow’ via her own imprint, Movementt, on 2nd July. Upon reflection of her sound Thackray concludes, “I was talking to [American jazz musician] Angel Bat Dawid and she said, ‘I think your genre is you... I think people can hear you in there, so that is the genre’. That feels good to me, that’s why I started Movementt. Lots of different pathways would have been wonderful, but it felt like if I want to be truly free and be fully myself, this is what I need to do.”

Key breeding grounds for this creativity are weekly nights like Jazz Re:Freshed, started in 2003 by Adam Moses and Justin McKenzie. Moses says, “When we first started it was important to have a space for people to move a bit leftfield from the more traditional-facing jazz scene in the UK. We thought it was important to show jazz in the context of other music as well, blending people who play hip-hop, African jazz — they were able to get together and jam, play and experiment to a receptive audience.”

For young musicians like 24-year-old pianist, Yohan Kebede (KOKOROKO), jams are vital because “when you’re in that moment of improvisation and having to come up with something on the spot, your organic influences will come out whether you like it or not”. Reflecting on his own sound, Kebede states, “There’s strong jazz influence mixed in with soundscapes by people like Brian Eno and Patrick Gleeson, even Herbie Hancock. I’m also into Brandon Coleman, he’s a great keyboardist, and Tyler The Creator.”

 This transformative ‘jazz but not jazz’ sound arises from myriad influences and shows no sign of slowing down, its creators carving out their own lane into the future.

Below, you’ll find some key releases from the world of “jazz but not jazz”. 

Nubya Garcia
‘The Message Continues (Mark de Clive-Lowe Remix)’ [Concord Jazz]

"Nubya’s sax melts like butter over MdCL’s energetic house beats."  

Yelfris Valdés
‘Maktub (Contours Remix)’ [Musica Macondo]

"Future cult underground classic."

Emma-Jean Thackray
‘Say Something’ [Movementt]

"The world needs more Emma-Jean Thackray! Watch this space..."

The Comet Is Coming
‘Super Zodiac (Noss DJ Remix)’ [Impulse!]

"Feel King Shabaka’s full force in this dancefloor heater, spectacularly reimagined." 

Moses Boyd
‘2 Far Gone feat. Joe Armon- Jones’ [Exodus Records]

"Moses is an innovator, Theon Cross slamming the tuba, and intricate melodies by Joe Armon- Jones. Perfection."

Xvngo x Master Mac
'Requiem (Jazz Drill)’ [Dogon Records]

"This young saxophone prodigy is one to watch."

Joe Armon-Jones
‘The Leo & Aquarius feat. Jehst’ [Brownswood Recordings]

"Neo-soul bliss with Jehst bringing the hip-hop flavours we all crave."

Zara McFarlane & Dennis Bovell
‘East Of The River Nile’ [Brownswood Recordings]

"Amazing collaboration illustrating the power of fusing jazz with heritage." 

‘Dimension Stepper’ [Astigmatic Records]

"Loving the punk, electronic funk freshness."

Indaba Is: The Wretched
'What Is History’ [Brownswood Recordings]

"Progressive. Unlike anything I’ve ever heard."