The Comet Is Coming
The Comet Is Coming / Photo: Fabrice Bourgelle

Discovering the Sounds of London’s New Jazz

These London jazz musicians are all relatively young and just as anxious to embrace all subgenres of jazz, soul, and funk as they are resistant to the rules of the old guard.

This is a little story about a band I haven’t heard yet.In 2020, the annual Glastonbury festival in Pilton, Somerset, was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The following summer, festival organizers held a live streaming event in its stead with Coldplay as the headliners. People worldwide could tune in (despite some technical difficulties) and take in the legendary festival in real-time! I should have been one of those people because I missed out on hearing the latest Radiohead offshoot, the Smile, making their debut performance.

For those of you who are still unaware, the Smile takes two-fifths of Radiohead, singer Thom Yorke and guitarist/arranger Jonny Greenwood and pairs them up with Sons of Kemet drummer Tom Skinner. Music writers began to size them up right away. In his four-star review of the entire Worthy Farm event, Guardian writer Alexis Petridis described the Smile as “a simultaneously more skeletal and knottier version of Radiohead”. In an interview with NME, Greenwood confirmed that the Smile had recorded an album which longtime Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich told Greg Kot is “an interesting juxtaposition of things, but it does make sense”.

I could take a few moments to scour the internet to look for signs of Smile-related footage, whether it be an illegally-shared video of the Glastonbury stream or practice space footage via Instagram, but I won’t. I prefer to acquaint myself with what may be the Smile’s sound by plunging into a whole new tangent for myself by way of drummer Tom Skinner. Skinner is a member of the London jazz group Sons of Kemet, a highly energetic combo that uses two drummers, a saxophone, and a tuba. Much to my delight, this Afro-influenced free funk outfit is hardly a self-contained unit.

The more I learned about the London jazz scene, the more I noticed the same musicians’ names pop up time and again in various bands and recordings. These musicians are all relatively young and just as anxious to embrace all subgenres of jazz, soul, and funk as they are resistant to the rules of the old guard. While most of us would find it funny to learn that a festival-goer would bother to call the police on Larry Ochs’ set because the music offended him, something tells me that the London jazz musicians of today would take such an episode as a personal affront to their livelihoods. They are serious about their inclusivity.

Back in 2018, Kate Hutchinson wrote a very handy article for the Guardian called “The British Jazz Explosion: Meet the Musicians Rewriting the Rulebook”. In it she profiles several musicians around whole the scene revolves, including Shabaka Hutchings of Sons of Kemet, The Comet Is Coming, and Shabaka and the Ancestors. Despite being a member of three successful bands that are all signed to the Impulse! label, the saxophonist admitted to Hutchinson he doesn’t feel altogether secure with the “jazz” label. He prefers to build his music upon simpler elements, such as a “bashment bassline”. Whatever the method, it appears to be working out just fine for him and his bands. Sons of Kemet’s third album Your Queen Is a Reptile and the Comet is Coming’s debut album Channel the Spirits were each nominated for the Mercury Prize, not to mention the numerous glowing reviews and end-of-year rankings. 

Even if we were to focus on Sons of Kemet exclusively, (which we shouldn’t) we run into even more musicians that were profiled for the piece. Hutchinson mistakenly refers to saxophonist Nubya Garcia as “one of the few female brass players at the forefront of contemporary jazz.” I did a quick internet search to see if she played any instruments besides the tenor saxophone but couldn’t find anything. Oops. Anyway, Garcia plugged away at the London jazz scene for a good three years, releasing two EPs and racking up plenty of award nominations along the way, including a Parliamentary Jazz Award and a Jazz FM Award. Her album Source scored an impressive 81 on Metacritic.

The title track, also the album’s lone single, is heavily Jamaican in beat but aspires to new heights in sound by combining unearthly echoes with subtle polyrhythms. As important drums are to jazz overall, they have an especially important role in London jazz. Not content with having just two drummers on their Your Queen Is a Reptile album, Sons of Kemet recruited drummer Moses Boyd to perform on three of the album’s songs. Boyd has collaborated with Sons of Kemet’s tuba player Theon Cross for the hard-driving single “Rye Lane Shuffle”, a song that Hutchinson singles out as a prime example of both men’s talents. Cross, for his part, won’t hold still either. The tuba player has been quietly building his own Bandcamp catalog since the release of his Aspirations EP.

Someone at my local library must be a music die-hard because they keep adding CDs to their catalog that only music die-hards would bother checking out. In addition to some of the releases mentioned above, they have procured a copy of Blue Note Re:imagined, an album that showcases lots of young UK talent revisiting jazz standards. The aforementioned Nubya Garcia and Shabaka Hutchings make an appearance, as do other artists mentioned by Hutchinson like the jazz-funk band Ezra Collective and vocalist Yazmin Lacey. The latter admitted to the Guardian that she stumbled into a music career by accident, a matter of being in the right bar at the right time to accept the right invitation to sing, and the drummer for the former has provided stickwork for Garcia.

The more names Hutchinson’s article threw at me, the more music I was able to track down within my local library’s database. Sowento Kinch’s name led me to Nubiyan Twist’s Freedom Fables, Steve Williamson led me to Denys Baptiste’s The Late Trane, and Gondwana owner Matthew Halsall pointed me to DJ Shadow’s The Mountain Will Fall, a reminder that the London jazz of today has no problem stepping over the genre lines of dance music and hip-hop. As trumpeter Sheila Maurice-Grey put it to the Guardian, “people are taking from different aspects of their culture and making it a British thing.”

Other albums of note are Tom Misch’s collaboration with Yussef Dayes on What Kinda Music, Yussef Kamaal’s Black Focus, Tenderlonious’ Ragas from Lahore: Improvisations with Jaubi, the Ezra Collective’s You Can’t Steal My Joy, GoGo Penguin’s Humdrum Star, and Man Made Object, and — probably the best of all — a collaboration between DJ Floating Points with Pharoah Sanders and the London Symphony Orchestra named Promises, an album that PopMatters’ own Adriane Pontecorvo referred to as “breathtaking”. Seriously, if you’re looking for rich, abstract music that is completely free of all pretentiousness, Promises delivers.

If all of this sounds overwhelming to you, there is a compilation that was curated by Hutchings himself called We Out Here that is a nice, succinct way to play catch-up. In addition to some artists mentioned earlier, you’ll also hear Maisha, Triforce, and Kokoroko. On We Out Here, you will hear tantric influences from India and America as keenly as the ones from African nations.

So what does this mean for the Smile? We know that intricate drumming was such a key factor in Radiohead’s 2011 album The King of Limbs that they hired Clive Deamer to join them on stage in order to replicate Phil Selway’s overdubs. We know that Jonny Greenwood’s work with Junun means that he’s not always trying to economize his arrangements. “With the Smile and Radiohead, I’m constantly thinking: ‘We could take out half a verse here’, and panicky wondering: ‘How can we move this from three minutes to four minutes?’ he admitted to the NME. “And that’s good, to be worried about fat and things that don’t need to be said. But you also have Indian music which holds your attention for 20 or 30 minutes, because there’s a huge tension involved in melodies that only move occasionally.”

We can probably rule out the Smile recording any 30-minute jams, but rhythm will likely play an important part in preventing Greenwood and Yorke from trimming too much fat. Have a listen to “My Queen Is Ada Eastman” to hear if I’m barking up the wrong tree, but you can’t hire a drummer like Skinner and not use him like that!