Classic interview with Hugh Masekela: “Hey, instead of rhythm and blues, how about ghetto and Bach?”

In 2010, Hugh Masekela, the great South African musician and an inspiration in the cultural and political struggle against apartheid, spoke candidly to Jazzwise's Marcus O'Dair about his continued to fight against the exploitation of the poor and the danger big business posed to the future of the planet. (photo by Tim Dickeson)

“To me,” says Hugh Masekela of the sporting spectacle that recently focused the eyes of the world upon his country’s football stadia, “the international perception, the media perception, is very Marie Antoinette. Let them eat football, and everything will be OK. But that’s not how life works, not after 400 years of turmoil and conflict in South Africa. The country cannot eat football. It was great: the mood was fantastic, it was the best time I think South Africans had ever been together. It’s over now and we’re back to square one.”

His words, delivered – from under a flat cap and over a cognac – on the verandah of an Islington hotel, come not even a month after the end of the World Cup. Yet while international visitors flew home the moment the vuvuzelas fell silent, life for South Africans continues as before. Masekela doesn’t even agree that his country will benefit from improvements in infrastructure brought about in anticipation of the tournament.

“Whose infrastructure?” he asks, rhetorically. “That’s the question. If you fix the highways and the urban centres, and you build a few stadiums, does it improve the quality of life for the other 30 million who are dirt-poor, who are not even reached by the mirth? I mean, they saw it on television, they listened to it on the radio. But it was cake. The only person that was absent was Marie Antoinette.”

Masekela, now just into his seventies, made his name in South Africa a full half century ago: first in the hit musical King Kong, then as a member of the truly seminal Jazz Epistles, the first jazz group in the country to record an album. Yet that act’s career was cruelly truncated by a massacre in the township of Sharpeville, in which the police killed 69 black protestors and injuring many more. Some were shot in the back. When the African National Congress and the Pan African Congress responded by declaring a new policy of armed struggle against the apartheid regime, the government, desperate to prevent a full-scale uprising, placed a ban on all public gatherings. The Jazz Epistles national tour had to be pulled.

Masekela left the country almost immediately, having bribed an official with a bottle of brandy in order to obtain a passport. From this point, he began to emerge on to the international stage. He performed at the legendary Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, played with Bob Marley, Fela Kuti and Miriam Makeba, and toured the world with Paul Simon’s Graceland project.

As well as releasing classics such as ‘Stimela’, inspired by the coal trains he heard as a child, he gave the world its most prominent anti-apartheid anthem in ‘Bring Him Back Home (Nelson Mandela)’. The tune was apparently written on the spot after receiving a birthday card from the ANC leader, smuggled out of prison, in 1985. Years earlier, Masekela even topped the American charts with the feelgood instrumental ‘Grazing In The Grass.’

‘No one group is privileged by nature to oppress another. And if anybody can’t see that, they are mentally deranged’

Yet as well as his virtuoso trumpet and flugelhorn playing and rich singing voice, Masekela’s reputation has long been based on his political views. His vocal opposition to the apartheid regime kept him out of South Africa for a full three decades; he believes he was under FBI surveillance during that time, even in the United States. During that period, family members who had remained at home were hassled by the authorities, while living in conditions he describes as “horrendous… not too far from Nazi Germany or Pinochet’s Chile.”

We all know of specific incidents of apartheid horror: the 1976 massacre in Soweto, for instance, in which perhaps 500 were killed. Journalist and film-maker John Pilger, in his 2006 book Freedom Next Time, details the everyday humiliations that did not make the headlines, including the case of a Robben Island prisoner buried up to his neck and urinated upon by a prison officer, before having his exposed head kicked and punched. Less violent but no less sinister, Pilger also witnessed attempts by the Race Classification Board to divide the population into strict racial categories by assessing hair, eyes, teeth and skull-shape. Such methodology could be described as Kafkaesque – except, as Masekela himself suggests, there is a horrific, real-life precedent in the quasi-scientific hunt for Jews in 1930s Germany.

Masekela was able to return to his homeland only following the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990 – after 27 years in prison. To many outsiders, that momentous event, together with the advent of democratic elections four years later, effectively marked the end of South Africa’s troubles. Yet in a previous interview, conducted in the same hotel three months previously, Masekela told me that the emotions triggered by his homecoming were deeply complicated: “It was heartbreaking to see how much more damage had been done to the country, beyond what had been done when I left 30 years before. The population had quadrupled. Society had changed very much.”

“The borders opened, so everyone – from Eastern Europe, Asia, and all over Africa – came to South Africa. They all came to those neighbourhoods, along with the people from the South African hinterland. It was a whole new population that had nothing to do with how the social structure had been before. It was overrun. And the law, the government, didn’t seem to show interest at the time in that loss. It wasn’t a priority for them.”

In 1996, Masekela even had to close his own club, Hugh Masekela’s J&B Joint, “because they started mugging [the customers].” Anyone who has visited South Africa will know that, even today, fear of crime remains high – particularly outside the postcard-friendly centre of Cape Town. Such problems are inevitable, perhaps, in a country in which millions, as Masekela says, remain dirt-poor. What’s shocking, however, is the extent to which the distribution of wealth seems still to follow racial lines. Pilger goes as far as to suggest that apartheid has not died but instead simply manifests itself through economics.

Though vocal in pointing out the problems that continue to blight his country, however, Masekela is also passionately defensive of his homeland. He refuses, for instance, to compare it with post-independence Botswana, where he spent time in the 1980s.

“I don’t compare countries, because I live in a world of music that takes me all over the world. I don’t recognise borders. In fact, I despise the idea of borders because everybody in the world is an immigrant, historically. I think that comparing South Africa, which has only been free for 16 years, with other so-called territories is unfair. Hey, we’re sitting in a country here [England] that’s probably been free for a thousand years. And there are major problems, you know? I can talk about any other country. Let’s take the G8, those countries. Most of them have been free for over 500 years. There are [still] major problems. Why are people expecting South Africa in 16 years to be so miraculous?”

It’s an important point. The new government in South Africa may not have lived up to all its hopes, but the miracle, perhaps, is that it’s there at all. And it is still relatively early days. Yet Masekela is surprisingly reluctant to be cast as a spokesman for his home nation. He points out that he still spends a lot of time not only in the United States and Ghana but also – “strictly for the rain” – in England. “People always want to identify me with South Africa,” he protests, “but South Africa is a microcosm in my life perspective. I object to the abuse of human beings by human beings, in any area.”

“Let me tell you,” he goes on, “my biggest concern is the oppressed communities of the world and the poor communities of the world. And they far outstrip the population of happy people. All over the world, the underclass catches hell. And then the other thing, my other fucking gripe, is the disrespect for nature universally. Those two things for me are more important than the state of South Africa now, because it goes far deeper than that. It’s that the oppressed and poor remain oppressed and poor, and the disrespect for the ocean, for the skies, for the earth, for the water.”

He believes apartheid ended not because of ethics but due to simple economics: “South Africa during apartheid got to a stage where it couldn’t do business anywhere in the world. So the international industrial community, who were making business there, just said to the South African government, ‘Sorry, we can’t be your partners in racism any more, we’ve got to change. And hey, we’ll make more money’.”

Economic pressures, of course, do not always have such a positive outcome. The malignant influence of international big business crops up regularly in his conversation. Though positive about Obama as an individual – “I don’t think there’s ever been a greater potential president for America” – Masekela does not believe that he truly holds the reigns of power: “I don’t think [his race] makes a difference, because if an African American president would make a difference then the condition of African Americans would change overnight. A president in the western world doesn’t have power. It is the powers given to the president, [or] the prime minister, that call the shots.”

Right or wrong, such an outlook can, in print, look unremittingly bleak. Face-to-face, however, Masekela gives a very different impression, sharing a funny mobile phone photo with his tour manager or gently teasing waiting staff. He asks me not to mention the precise details of his complaint, for fear of embarrassing the hotel – and then, eyes glinting mischievously, leans in close to my dictaphone and states the name of the hotel with exaggerated precision. Neither are journalists spared: he has no sooner recognized me from our previous interview than demanded, in a state of mock exhaustion, how much more I can want from him.

“The thing most people don’t know about me,” he announces at one point, “is that potentially, I’m really into comedy.” Then, with the perfect timing so fundamental to the art form, he adds, reassuringly: “I don’t plan to make a living from it.” His tone is utterly deadpan, as if rumours of a career change, even at an age when most contemporaries have long retired, must genuinely be quashed.

In fact, far from being depressed by the state of his country or the planet as a whole, Masekela claims to be “one of the most joyful-feeling people in the world right now.” At the root of this happiness, he explains, is his enthusiasm for his new band – one he is bringing to the UK for several dates this month – alongside the mbaqanga trio Mahotella Queens. “After more than 50 years as a professional, I feel like I’m playing in a dream band. I hope it never goes away.”

He says he hasn’t felt like this since “1959, with the Jazz Epistles”. It’s quite a claim, given that that band included in their ranks such greats as alto player Kippie Moeketsi, trombonist Jonas Gwangwa, and pianist Abdullah Ibrahim (then Dollar Brand), but Masekela insists he is entirely serious: “I don’t think I’ve ever been in a band like the one I’m in. If you come to a show in November, you’ll see what I mean.”

This excitement is in part the result of a change in his band’s line-up last year. Alongside longstanding sidemen “Fana” Zulu (electric bass) and Francis Fuster (percussion), the band features three young players from Cape Town, keyboards player Randal Skippers; drummer Lee-Roy Sauls; and guitarist Cameron Ward. It’s a smaller line-up than he previously used, but Masekela insists the six-piece is capable of sounding like a big band. “Except for one or two new songs here and there, we’re playing the same material, but even we can’t recognise it. It’s much more relaxed. Everybody’s an outstanding player. I’ve been practising very hard for the last three years to keep up with these kind of guys. So it’s a completely new picture but it’s more joyous and the excellence is much higher. I think I can even dare to mention the word ‘excellence’ now [with] my band. I feel very privileged to be playing with the guys I’m playing with.”

The admission of a renewed vigour in his practice regime is interesting. Masekela, who actually grew up in an illicit shebeen, or drinking den, has been candid about his own struggles with drink and drugs. In Still Grazing, his book with D. Michael Cheers, Masekela states that he and his band “lived for music, women, and getting high” on Jack Daniels, marijuana and cocaine. On one occasion, the partying got out of hand that he arrived to meet the president of Zambia a full three days late.

Without wanting to play armchair psychologist, it would be possible to trace Masekela’s addictions right back to his childhood. Drinking culture was endemic among miners in his home of Witbank, and he regularly watched rowdy customers in his grandmother’s shebeen. Another explanation for his growing dependence on drink and drugs could be, just as for those miners, the pain of exile.

Yet if exile didn’t help Masekela’s addictions, then neither, in truth, did his sudden fame. His first gigs had taken place in venues so violent they were known, collectively, as the “blood and guts circuit”. Such an initiation could hardly have been further from his life in the States, where he rubbed shoulders with Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, The Grateful Dead, Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Marlon Brando among many others. For a period, he apparently shared a dealer with David Crosby of The Byrds and Crosby, Stills & Nash, actually taking his first acid trip at Crosby’s West Coast home.

Masekela admits in his book that rehab, which he began at the end of 1997, was the first time he had played his trumpet sober since the age of 16. He also admits that, at times, the drugs and booze turned him into “an ugly little asshole”. Today, however, he’s a changed man, his new calm signalled by his practice of tai chi – apparently the best thing that ever happened to him.

“Rehab helped me to realise the danger of self-destruction”, he says. Though he denies that it changed him directly as a player, he agrees that going clean has helped him find his mature voice. “I mean, there are great players who practised a lot but they died because of over-indulgence. So I would say that the secret of life is moderation and hard work. Evangelism and purism are a bore.”

Has he always lived by the principles of moderation and hard work? “You mean before? No! I was crazy, man. I was crazy and I was fathomless.”

Happily, the newly fathomable Masekela has lost none of the fire that has informed all his best music, explicitly political or not. In fact, he doesn’t like to refer to any of his material as political, preferring the term “songs of concern”. Besides, he says, the extra-musical influences are hardly even conscious. “My parents were community workers: my father was a health inspector, my mother a social worker. There were always destitute and stray children who slept in our home until they could be placed somewhere. So myself and my sisters hardly ever slept in our beds, but what out parents told us was they don’t know where they’re going to sleep after they leave here, ‘but you’ll always have a home’. I’ve grown up and lived my life from that perspective.”

He goes on: “You can’t come from a community that is under foot, or under boot, and have them as a source for your material, when they’re catching hell, and not say anything about them. And you can’t live in a society that’s oppressed and pretend like it’s not happening. I grew up in a society like that, we grew up in protests and rallies. No one group is privileged by nature to oppress another. And if anybody can’t see that, they are mentally deranged.”

This link to his national culture has always been fundamental to Masekela, though it hasn’t always won the approval of jazz purists. Certainly the genre remains a key thread through his career, going right back to his early love of Clifford Brown and the influence of the film Young Man With A Horn, in which Kirk Douglas portrays Bix Beiderbecke. As a teenager, thanks to the work of priest and anti-apartheid activist Trevor Huddleston, Masekela was even given Louis Armstrong’s old trumpet. Those heroes became real people when Masekela arrived in New York, where he soon met not only Armstrong but Dizzy Gillespie, Sarah Vaughan, Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis. And both Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter studied alongside him at the Manhattan School Of Music.

Yet although Masekela originally went to the United States with the aim of becoming a straight bop musician, he took the advice of Miles, Diz and Harry Belafonte not to turn his back on the music of his homeland. Yet jazz was mixed in with more than township dance styles such as mbaqanga, marabi and kwela. After all, Masekela has laudably open ears, and he was away from South Africa for 30 years. In that period, he absorbed everything from Motown and The Mamas And The Papas to the music from Brazil, Nigeria and the Caribbean.

Such an all-embracing approach can encourage lapses of judgment: Masekela’s rapping on 1984’s ‘Don’t Go Lose It Baby’, for instance, is distinctly ill-advised. Yet at its best, the results of such a broad musical outlook are superb. So how does he feel about being profiled in a jazz magazine? After all, he has a high-profile spot at this month’s London Jazz Festival. “My background comes from growing up in the townships,” he replies.

“So-called jazz was a small part of it. I asked Louis Armstrong when I met him, and Miles and Dizzy. I said, do you consider yourself as playing jazz, or bebop? And they said no, man, we play music. You know what I mean? We’re just a sum total of what we’ve heard. I’m the sum total of what I heard.” He says the same of his current band.

“The most basic thing in what we do comes from the townships of the rural areas of South Africa. But we’re also highly skilled musicians. We can play classical music: I went to conservatory, I played in the symphony orchestra. I can still spit out bebop themes and play with bebop players. I can play salsa, I can play Brazilian music, I can play traditional music. I can sing with rural people if I spend a couple of days with them. I’m a sponge. Know what I mean?

“I feel like the worst thing in music that people subject themselves to is to say well, I’m only into bebop, man – or I’m into rock, or I’m only into salsa or rap or house or garden or garage. When people ask me what kind of music I play, I say our music is a cross of impoverished village and criminal township. With a little ghetto in there, and Bach. Hey, instead of rhythm and blues, how about ghetto and Bach?”

Frank Zappa's jazz legacy

Frank Zappa left a huge legacy of pioneering music and outspoken opinions that has proved obliquely influential in shaping the style and attitudes of generations of rock and jazz musicians, while often upsetting their elders and certain establishment figures. Stuart Nicholson re-evaluates Zappa’s jazz-oriented work and looks at the ways inwhich he made his mark on improvised music

It’s easy to believe Frank Zappa hated jazz. If royalties were paid on quotes, then he would have been a rich man on the strength of his once witty, but now oh-so-overused jibe, ‘Jazz isn't dead, it just smells funny’. Yet in his world of scatological humour, outspoken political criticism, crass satire, send ups, put downs and insider jokes, jazz was something for which he reserved considerable respect. Yet one thing he recognised, right from the beginning, was that jazz was seen by rock audiences as distinctly unhip and could be an impediment to album sales. Jazz was, he once joked, ‘the music of unemployment.'

Consequently he was always careful to position himself firmly in the rock camp, whatever stylistic bridge he had decided to cross, be it to the blues, jazz or classical music. Generic categories tend to be an after the fact rationalisation to define music in its market used by the music industry to organise the sales process and thus target potential consumers. Zappa knew musical genres were not determined by musical style but by the audience’s perception of that style. ‘It’s foolish,’ he once said, ‘every time you hear someone improvise [in my music] to assume it's jazz.’

He knew the music business was as much about organising audiences’ expectations as selling albums. So if you were a rock fan and heard improvisation and didn't immediately associate it with jazz, it brought more people into his music – a music where the listener could be confronted with a wide range of musical challenges under the generic safety net of ‘rock’.

Zappa Absolutely FreeCertainly a large chunk of Zappa's music contains plenty of improvisation, but it’s not all jazz improvisation by a long shot. Yet his music is amazingly rich for broad minded jazz fans, whether it’s jazz or non-jazz improvisation. Zappa admitted in an interview that even when dealing with parody he worked on harmony and melody in a manner which years later he considered musically valid. Thus one of his cleverest songs, ‘America Drinks and Goes Home’ turns out to be his protest at the banalisation of jazz. A parody of a lounge band playing watered down jazz. 'It was based on the same subconscious formula that all those pukers of Tin Pan Alley used: you know ii-V-l progressions modulating all the way round,' he said. It was used in the album Absolutely Free as a parody of a cocktail lounge love song with ringing tills, brawls and drunken revelry. Yet when pianist Alan Broadbent arranged the piece in 1974 for the Woody Herman Orchestra on the Grammy-winning album Thundering Herd, with Frank Tiberi on bassoon, it became an affecting, memorable ballad.

Jazz slotted into Zappa's musical vision, often in subtle ways. ‘Twenty Small Cigars' is a composition considered by many to be his jazz masterpiece, but his first official recording of it was on harpsichord on Chunga’s Revenge (it had made an earlier appearance in the late 60s with Bunk Gardner on flute as ‘Interlude’). And while the album Overnite Sensation might have been insolent and provocative, it was also a synthesis of lyrics and complex arrangements with jazz solos and accompaniment amid the dizzying rush of Zappa's ideas.

‘As a West Coast band the need for his music to be accessible to hippy audiences was a source of frustration to Zappa’

Zappa arrived at jazz through the blues, his first love. The kind of jazz he liked was made clear as early as 1966 on the inside cover of his debut album Freak Out with the Mothers of Invention, one of the first rock double albums, and one of the first concept albums that was an acknowledged influence on the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Included in a very long list of influences cited were Clarence 'Gatemouth' Brown, Cecil Taylor, Roland Kirk. Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy and Bill Evans.

It’s hardly surprising in the light of his own highly distinctive music that the kind of jazz musician that appealed to him shied away from the cliches of conventional jazz. 'People like Eric Dolphy, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus and Archie Shepp are very important in the history of music, and not just jazz,’ he once asserted. And when asked by aspiring guitar players who to listen to, he would advise Wes Montgomery or tell up and coming keyboard players to check out Cecil Taylor. Both were musicians who had highly individual approaches to their instruments.

Certainly he was critical of jazz – what wasn’t he critical about? – but his criticisms were usually directed to the unthinking fan who adheres to the style without understanding its profound values or the sectarian attitude of those who thought themselves to be members of an exclusive musical elite. Yet he was inspired by jazz. As Ted Gioia notes in The History of Jazz: ‘Zappa’s groups, perhaps alone among the rock bands of the day, could match many major jazz combos in terms of breadth and depth of musicianship.'

Born in 1940, Zappa's peripatetic childhood followed his father’s search for employment, and his early interest in music came through playing his father’s acoustic guitar. When he heard Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson’s ‘Three Hours Past Midnight’ his interest in R&B was born. Zappa would blossom into an accomplished, gutsy, blues-based player, and Watson would graduate from early influence to occasional recording companion and life long friend. Zappa’s musical curiosity led him to Edgard Varese and classical studies, and he took to writing for the high school band, including one piece called ‘Visual Music for Jazz Ensemble and 16mm Projector' when he was 17.

Zappa's working musical career began as a rock ’n’ roll band guitarist, forming the Mothers of Invention in 1964, when he met a group of musicians who were willing to experiment with his original compositions. Fired from countless venues because of their refusal to perform cover versions of the then hits, Tom Wilson from MGM happened into the Whisky A Go Go in Los Angeles at the moment the band was playing a blues and, according to Zappa, signed them on the surmise he had discovered a white blues group.

Zappa Freak OutIn 1966 came Zappa's dazzling debut Freak Out. It made Billboard's Top 200 album chart, establishing the Mothers as an 'underground' rock act and setting the tone for Zappa's early musical direction – musically eclectic and weighted towards political debate and satire with songs such as ‘Who Are the Brain Police?' A mixture of good melodies, blasted satire, political contempt, parody and experimentation with black and sometimes immature humour it established a somewhat confusing reputation for the band, who were sometimes reviewed as a comedy act rather than a musical one.

As a West Coast band the need for his music to be accessible to hippy audiences was a source of frustration to Zappa. Nevertheless, while maintaining high musical standards, he set about adding to the vocabulary of rock and contemporary music. In 1967, Zappa and the Mothers decamped to New York City to play a six month residency in the Garrick Theatre, above the Cafe Au Go Go. Performances would vary nightly. ‘I was playing with Jeremy and the Satyrs downstairs at the time,' said jazz vibist Mike Mainieri.

‘We were there on and off for almost a year. Zappa was upstairs with his band. A lot of people are not familiar with Zappa's classical work. He would have workshops and whoever showed up, showed up. He was exploring the more classical approach to composition, written structures. Zappa, myself, Don Preston who played piano for Zappa, and Joe Beck and a few others organised some small chamber ensembles and we would write some weird shit to perform for our own entertainment. That’s why there's a string group on my album Journey Thru an Electric Tube, which was recorded around then.' Mainieri says Zappa often sat-in with the jazz musicians and the Satyrs, sowing the seeds of what would subsequently produce a new colour in his music that would surface in termittently through his career. With his own band Zappa was developing a reputation as a hard musical task master, rehearsing his band during their New York stop-over for long periods as a way of achieving the more complex results he was after.

Two years later, Zappa had Roland Kirk come onstage to jam with the Mothers at the Boston Globe Jazz Festival, and again at the Newport Jazz Festival when the Mothers played between the Newport All Stars and Dave Brubeck. The result was ‘quite literally indescribable,' said Downbeat. As a result the Mothers were invited to tour as a George Wein package, an experience which influenced Zappa's view of jazz profoundly.

‘George Wein, impresario of the Newport Jazz festival put us in a package tour with Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Duke Ellington and Gary Burton,' he said. ‘Before I went on I saw Duke Ellington begging – pleading – for a 10 dollar advance. It was really depressing. I told the guys: “That's it we're breaking the band up".' Zappa would later, not without irony, dub an Aynsley Dunbar drum solo the ‘George Wein Variations', which included a manic version of ‘Ain’t She Sweet.'

Zappa Hot RatsIn September 1969, Zappa was to be found sitting-in with Jean-Luc Ponty and George Duke trio at The Experience in San Francisco, a rock club. Duke and Ponty were playing an early version of jazz-rock, straightahead jazz improvisation over a rock beat. In the same year Zappa produced Burnt Weeny Sandwich, a proto-jazz-rock album and Uncle Meat which anticipated progressive rock. He also recorded Hot Rats, a mainly instrumental jazz-rock album of original compositions and arrangements that showcased his guitar playing. Hot Rats was accessible, sophisticated and unencumbered with disruptive parody, satire, and Zappa’s apparently insatiable need to sneer at and ridicule the establishment. Even the lyrics of ‘Willie the Pimp’, sung by Captain Beefheart, are in context with the gutsy low-down drive of the arrangement. On ‘The Gumbo Variations’ Ian Underwood manages to pay decent homage to Albert Ayler, although he was by no means a great saxophonist. The album highlights are 'Peaches en Regalia' and 'Son of Mr Green Genes’; 'Peaches' contains no soloing or improvisation as such, but related orchestrated variations of the theme. Such was the affection among jazz musicians for this track, it later inspired ‘A New Regalia', composed by Vince Mendoza, on Peter Erskine's 1988 album Motion Poet.

'Mr Green Genes' is a 16-bar tune consisting of two eight-bar melodies, and is shorn of the inane lyrics of the original version that had previously appeared on Uncle Meat. It gave full reign to Zappa's imagination, allowing him to score for highly unusual combinations of instruments. On the track 'It Must Be a Camel’, the jazz violin virtuoso Jean-Luc Ponty guested and would become a member of Zappa’s revolving cast of musicians.

In October 1969, Zappa collaborated with Ponty on King Kong, an album under the violinist's name subtitled ‘Jean-Luc Ponty plays the music of Frank Zappa'. A mixture of absorbing and not-so-absorbing fusion compositions, the title track in the Dorian mode was for years a Mothers jam session favourite. The 19-minute 'Music for Electric Violin and Low Budget Orchestra' sustained interest and momentum through imaginative and resourceful writing from the opening bassoon passage to the demonic closing violin passages in 7/8 while 'Twenty Small Cigars' received its first recognition from a jazz musician. Also that year, Zappa was invited to MC the Actuel Festival in Amougles, and jammed with saxophonist Archie Shepp's group. Fifteen years later, he returned the honour, taking part in one of Zappa's concerts (You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore Vol. 4).

Although Weasels Ripped My Flesh was released in 1970, it was essentially out-takes from the previous three years, albeit containing 'Eric Dolphy Memorial Barbecue’, the only tribute from the rock world to the gifted jazz saxophonist and the free-blowing 'Toads of the Short Forest’, complete with a spoken commentary on the jazz time signatures from the leader.

Waka/Jawaka and The Grand Wazoo, both from 1972, together with Hot Rats, completed Zappa's famous ‘jazz-rock trilogy' (now a three album set). The line-up for both included George Duke on keyboards, Sal Marquez on trumpet, Mike Altschul on saxophones, Bill Byers on trombone and Aynsley Dunbar on both albums, who were augmented to big band proportions on The Grand Wazoo by an array of Hollywood studio musicians. The first track of Waka/Jawaka is the extended 'Big Swifty’. The emphasis is rhythmic, with the original, complex theme – incorporating several metre changes – fading into a modal, bluesy blowing section in 4/4 with solo space for George Duke, Sal Marquez and Tony Duran. Zappa sounds as if he’d been listening to John McLaughlin (Mahavishnu’s Inner Mounting Flame had just been released). Waka/Jawaka avoids repeating the original theme, the arrangement building through complex waves of overdubs and, during the final five minutes, introduces elaborate arranged variations of the main theme complete with tubular bells on the last chorus, displaying unique voicings paralleling the richness associated with Gil Evans. Indeed, Robert Christgau has suggested Zappa had been listening to a lot of Miles Davis, based on the presence of trumpeter Marquez.

Grand Wazoo had a distinctly jazzy feel throughout. The form is intro, theme, solos and theme. However, the theme is 87 bars in length with key, rhythm and theme shifts with a blowing section that has carefully marshalled background figures ebbing and flowing throughout against an intriguing rock-swing feel generated by the rhythm section, the sleeve notes credit the terse sax solo to Funky Emperor: it is, in fact, Ernie Watts. ‘Cleetus Awreetus’ starts with a jaunty light classical feel to it, moving into parody, while ‘Eat that Question’ is in a minor key, with a strident eight bar riff. The soloists build to a dramatic entry by Zappa and a beefed-up recapitulation of the theme to close and fade. How Blessed Relief has not become a jazz standard is a mystery. Performed here as a wistful ballad, Zappa gave full rein to the jazzy direction in which these sessions had been leaning, although Zappa’s music as a whole was too broad and diverse to be limited by conventional categorisation.

Zappa RoxyIn 1973, Zappa reformed the Mothers with a strong line-up that included Tom and Bruce Fowler, Ian and Ruth Underwood, George Duke and Jean-Luc Ponty and Overnight Sensation, a synthesis of unusual lyrics and highly articulate, complex arrangements contributed several future concert favourites to his repertoire. Roxy & Elsewhere, a live set from 1974, captured the impressive elan of the group with strong jazz solos and 'little-big band’ attack including the track ‘Be-Bop Tango’ satirically represented as the anthem of the chimerical ‘Old Jazzmen’s Church’. The tricky 'Echidna’s Arf' would be recorded by George Duke at an even more frantic tempo the following year on his album The Aura Will Prevail. The following year Zappa again sounded decidedly jazz-rock-ish on One Size Fits All amid vocals that ‘gave up on mere scatology and extended Zappa's private mythology to new extremes of obscurity.'

Zappa always employed a number of jazz musicians. His explanation was: 'For me it was always more interesting to encounter a musician who had a unique ability. Find a way to showcase that, and build that unusual skill into the composition... so [it] would be stamped with the personality of the person who was there when the composition was created,' a Duke Ellington-like remark if ever there was one.

His later bands always employed excellent drummers and percussionists who possessed an admirable ability to play and read in a wide breadth of styles. Chad Wackerman later spoke of the challenges of working with Zappa. ‘He pushed everyone who worked for him. He'd ask me to play something incredibly complex. When I couldn't do it, he'd get more specific and ask me to play something even more difficult. I couldn't do that either, but as I would try, then I'd realise I was playing what he had originally asked me to play'. Saxophonist Mike Brecker, who played on 1978's Zappa In New York, then playing highly complex ‘electric bebop' arrangements as a co-leader of the Brecker Brothers, has said he was amazed at the detail and rehearsal that went into a Zappa performance. His performances with the guitarist soared.

In the 1970s Zappa-as-composer started to broaden the musical contexts in which he worked, and the true extent of his imagination started to unfold. As well as the live band, and his more popular rock albums, he recorded in a diverse range of contexts. The orchestral Zappa – inspired greatly by Edgard Varese, Krzysztof Penderecki, Pierre Boulez and Elliot Carter – emerged in 1971 with 200 Motels, the atonal soundtrack music for film of the same name, and continued up to The Yellow Shark, the release of which preceded his death by just a short while. Later in life he was delighted to be asked by orchestras and chamber groups to perform his many orchestral works.

Zappa Jazz From HellThe jazz connection continued, however, the Grammy winning Jazz From Hell (1988), was an album of original compositions for the synclavier, the computer-to-digital interface used among others by Miles Davis on Tutu. On release it contained a warning against offensive lyrics even though it was an instrumental album.

Zappa gave up running road bands in 1988 after recording Make A Jazz Noise Here, The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life and Broadway The Hard Way. His band, augmented by an agile horn section, acquitted themselves with precision, and showed what a fertile musical imagination could achieve using the 'horns plus rock' formula that was quickly exhausted by bands operating in the Blood, Sweat and Tears and Chicago nexus. While not jazz-rock, these albums frequently darted in and out of its shadows and were impressive documents of his final performing band. After sinking a good deal of money into the group, Zappa finally called it quits in the middle of his final tour.

His ability to claim both the musical low ground as well as scaling the heights meant that he was easy meat for critics, who were unable to pigeonhole his music. Hereby lies the conundrum, and the need to dig into his recorded repertoire to discover the gems, aided by the judicious use of the fast forward button. As one reviewer noted: 'The constant temptation is to say that Zappa is a genius (which he is) and consequently to rank highly all his offerings.'

An ideal guide to some of Zappa's finest compositions appeared in 1997 from the New Jersey-based band leader Ed Palermo. Ed Palermo Big Band Plays the Music of Frank Zappa includes pieces such as 'Twenty Small Cigars', 'Peaches En Regalia’, ‘King Kong’ and 'Waka/Jawaka' that successfully realised the potential of these compositions from a purely jazz perspective. Palermo first appeared with his big band at New York's Bitter End playing Zappa arrangements, but the audience reaction was such that he moved to the larger Bottom Line club. 'It took several months of staying up to five in the morning transcribing and arranging this gorgeous music,' he said, ‘and the audience reaction was incredibly enthusiastic.’

The only real constant in Zappa's diverse musical output was his guitar playing, and all his work is littered with good examples of this. From early solos such as 'The Duke of Prunes' (on Absolutely Free), ‘Willie The Pimp' (on Hot Rats) to later examples such as ‘Fire and Chain’ (on Make a Jazz Noise Here) and the sensuous 'Watermelon In Easter Hay’ (on Guitar), Zappa showed a preference for minor moods, spinning sensuously intense lines within his own unique context and musical vocabulary. Shut Up ’n ' Play Yer Guitar (recorded from 1977-80) was a collection of guitar solos while another collection, Guitar (1978-84) contained powerful playing with Chad Wackerman on drums and Scott Thunes on bass. Zappa was not the only guitarist to be heard on his sessions, guitar monster Steve Vai was on his later work, such as his mind-boggling vocalised-melodic guitar solo on 'The Jazz Discharge Party Hats’ from The Man From Utopia.

Zappa continued composing and conducting up to his death from cancer in December 1993. Nominated for at least seven Grammy awards, he became only the second rock musician (Jimi Hendrix was the first) to enter the Downbeat Critics’ Hall of Fame in September 1994 and was inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame in January 1995. But he disdained success, opting instead for 'bad taste' and its attendant lack of air play, although Apostrophe (') was eventually certified gold, reaching number 10 on the Billboard chart and the single from it, ‘Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow’ was Zappa's first in Billboard's Hot 100.

Zappa matched the criteria for a genuinely creative artist concerned with exploring and extending the boundaries of rock, which inevitably brought him into contact with jazz as a means to this end since both have common roots in the blues. Yet while he combined jazz and rock in a particularly individual way producing a classic jazz-rock trilogy and several albums of great interest in the genre, jazz-rock per se was never central to Zappa's musical thinking, more a musical challenge to be confronted and surmounted among many – another musical flavour in a miscellany of musical genres that comprised his remarkable music.

This article originally appeared in the December 2003 issue of Jazzwise. To find out more about subscribing, please visit:

Across the tracks: Ella Fitzgerald's recording of Duke Ellington's ‘I Ain’t Got Nothin’ But The Blues’

Brian Priestley takes the opportunity to put Ella Fitzgerald’s soulful 1957 version of Ellington’s ‘I Ain’t Got Nothin’ But The Blues’ under the microscope

It’s well known that Ella Fitzgerald had the most virtuosic vocal instrument in jazz, at least until Sarah Vaughan, and she’s almost universally revered. In the early part of her career with Chick Webb’s band, and then continuing with the Decca label, she recorded her share of undistinguished material. But, by the mid-1950s when she moved to her manager Norman Granz’s label Verve, she tackled ‘songbooks’ of the previous three decades by Porter, Rodgers, Gershwin etc. The chosen song from her June 1957 set of Ellington numbers is not one of their best known, but it is full of interest.

Despite its conventional AABA design, there’s a rather unusual aspect to the tune, related to the placing of the vocal phrases over their backing. Pop-music history is full of melodies with two or three introductory notes to be sung before the downbeat – and Fats Domino fans will recall the 1920s standard ‘My Blue Heaven’, which has four. But until Duke’s 1935 ‘In A Sentimental Mood’, there was never one with a whole six syllables preceding the first bar (though the same opening phrase occurs in ‘Someone To Watch Over Me’ and ‘P.S. I Love You’, in those cases it falls after the start of the first bar, which has a rather different effect).

This became more common in later decades but, when ‘I Ain’t Got Nothin’ But The Blues’ appeared, Ellington had considerable recent success with two such songs that were also originally instrumentals, namely ‘Don’t Get Around Much Any More’ (its newly added lyrics inspiring several cover versions in 1943) and ‘Do Nothin’ Till You Hear From Me’ (ditto in 1944). It seems that ‘I Ain’t Got…’, first recorded late 1944, was a deliberate follow-up with lyrics already attached but, in popularity and longevity, it was overshadowed by the same session’s ‘I’m Beginning To See The Light’.

Concerning this initial collaboration with Ellington, Ella’s and Granz’s biographers have reiterated the latter’s rather damning comment of 20 years later: “Duke failed to do a single arrangement, Ella had to use the band’s regular arrangements.” Since many tracks are in different keys to the originals, it doesn’t take a genius to realise Granz was exaggerating. Ella said something more revealing: “It was a panic scene, with Duke almost making up the arrangements as we went along”, which clearly relates to Ellington’s rather unorthodox way of rehearsing new scores in the studio. Indeed, the 1998 3CD reissue included half-an-hour of Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Ella and the band working together on their new version of Strayhorn’s ‘Chelsea Bridge’.

Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington‘I Ain’t Got…’, on the other hand, is a more straightforward example of a new chart (by Ellington rather than Strayhorn). The original 1944 recording is fairly laidback, with Al Hibbler intoning the ironic words: “Ain’t got the change of a nickel/Ain’t got no bounce in my shoes” and, most interestingly, with vocalist Kay Davis singing wordless responses in the style associated with Johnny Hodges. The 1957 treatment, despite an identical tempo, is more soulful, thanks to Ellington’s triplet-based intro and Sam Woodyard’s insistent off-beat, while the theme-statements by Harry Carney (0’08”) and Hodges (0’31”) evoke responses from a funky trio of muted trumpets.

When Ella finally appears (0’55”), hanging superbly behind the beat, she sings the written melody quite straight, while backed by a quiet but angular bluesy unison line for the trombones. Even in the B-section of the opening chorus (1’45”) with the lyrics “When trumpets flare up…”, Ellington’s trumpets are not in evidence but just harmonised trombones and bluesy unison saxophones, all at moderate volume. The anticipated high-spot comes at the start of the second chorus (2’31”) with the brass suddenly shouting out the rhythm of the tune in Duke’s patented polytonal chords, and Ella doing responses that retain the words but dramatically open up the melody. The piano also becomes more active in a backing role, right up to Ella’s verbal coda (4’11”), which is then inevitably capped by the polytonal brass one more time.

The saying “simple ain’t easy”, sometimes attributed to Monk, comes to mind when surveying a performance such as this. It might seem unsuitable to focus on Fitzgerald in an ostensibly blues context – in the same way, people claim that sad ballads were not her forte since she always sounded too happy. Her great predecessor Louis Armstrong, however, demonstrated for all time that the genius of jazz was to make blues themes and blue notes into a vehicle for psychological release. Whether putting her energy into scatting like there’s no tomorrow, or bringing out the poignancy of a well-written tear-jerker, Ella was inimitable. This track, like so many others, shows her at her best.

Photo of Ella Fitzgerald, courtesy Herman Leonard

This article originally appeared in the July 2017 issue of Jazzwise. To find out more about subscribing, please visit:

Life-changing jazz albums: 'My Song' by Keith Jarrett

Pianist Gwilym Simcock talks about the album that changed his life, 'My Song' by Keith Jarrett. Interview by Brian Glasser

The biggest turning point I’ve ever had, it was a life-changing thing that nothing else has come close to, was a cassette that was made for me by Steve Berry. He was the bass player in Loose Tubes, of course, but he was also a tutor at Chetham’s School in Manchester, which I attended from the age of nine till 18. It’s had a lot of terrible press recently, but I can only say that I had a very good time there.

Steve was teaching improvisation classes for classical musicians, and he’s an amazing educator. The first class was brilliant: at one point he set up a chord and got everyone to play over it. That immediately connected for me, because my dad was a church organist and he’d always sit down at the piano and play without any music. Not jazz improvisation of course – I didn’t know what jazz was until this cassette – but I was familiar with the concept that you didn’t need music. So realising, thanks to Steve, that there was a whole genre of music where that’s what it was all about was extraordinary.

I’d been in this hothouse atmosphere of music school, doing competitions and so on. I loved it there; but I already suspected at that point – I must have been 15 – that being a concert pianist wasn’t something I’d like. You’d get a piece of music, and learn it, and then play it, and the most important thing was to get it right. That’s not really a good reason to be playing music. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that part of that was also the performance anxiety; but I’ve always loved composing and doing my own thing rather than playing music that’s been played a million times before, and by amazing interpretive musicians like Brendel or Schiff, who really have a huge skill for that.

I’ve listened to the whole record millions of times now, but this is still my favourite track – maybe nothing’s quite like your first kiss!

Steve brought this cassette in for me after the second class, which was amazingly generous of him. The first track was ‘Questar’, off My Song. There was such a strong bridge between the classical world and the ECM approach to the music, the beautiful harmony and melody. But I think one of the main things as a young classical musician at the time was the rhythmic element: the rhythmic thing in jazz is so different. In fact, for me as a player it’s been the hardest thing to get together – the time feel is so different to the more rubato, breathing approach of classical music. On ‘Questar’, the propulsion, the momentum, is continuous but it’s so gentle. The drumming is so tender; and there’s a lot of air in the bass line, which the ECM sound accentuates. I’ve listened to the whole record millions of times now, but this is still my favourite track – maybe nothing’s quite like your first kiss!

I can’t remember whether ‘Questar’ was the first piece of jazz I heard. It might sound a crazy thing to say, but I find it quite difficult to listen to music, because it’s an analytical process for me. I’ve got perfect pitch, which is incredibly useful because jazz is such an aural artform; but the only downside is that you know what’s going on the whole time, which makes it difficult to get recreational enjoyment from it. So if I want that, I find myself gravitating to things like Stevie Wonder, or Earth Wind and Fire, or Tower of Power, or Steely Dan – things which just feel good. (Of course, it’s very clever music too.) When I was at classical music school I found it a challenge to listen to classical music – whereas now I like to! It’s far enough removed from what I do. But for me to listen to jazz is quite hard, because I can’t help analysing while it’s happening.

The first four tracks on the cassette were the ones that did it for me: after the Jarrett, the next two were off the Metheny album Travels – ‘Phase dance’ and ‘Straight on Red’; the last was ‘Lôro’, by Egberto Gismonti. The melodies are so beautiful on all of them – they instantly sit in your head and then you hear the improvisation on top. I didn’t understand how it worked when I was 15, it was just musical expression, which I guess is how most people hear music. It’s always struck me: what we the musicians are thinking about when we’re improvising, the technical things, just doesn’t matter to 99% of the audience. For them, it’s the communication. There’s a definite soaring quality to all those tunes that’s very uplifting. I’ve always wanted my music to be positive and optimistic – and I think part of that comes from that cassette.

The album

Jarrett My SongKeith Jarrett

My Song

ECM (1978)

PERSONNEL: Keith Jarrett (p), Jan Garbarek (ts, ss), Palle Danielsson (b) and Jon Christensen (d).

TRACKS :: ‘Questar’, ‘My Song’, ‘Tabraka’, ‘Country’, ‘Mandala’ and ‘The Journey Home’





This interview originally appeared in the June 2015 issue of Jazzwise. To find out more about subscribing, please visit:

The shape of jazz to come: who to look out for in 2018


Photo: Rohey

It’s time to divine the divine, as we ask our crack unit of writers and assorted other taste-formers to gaze into their crystal balls and reveal the intel on those artists they think are set to sizzle in 2018

Kevin Le Gendre, Jazzwise, Echoes, BBC Radio 3 Jazz Line-Up

The young Guadeloupian drummer Arnauld Dolmen is a very exciting prospect. He’s just made an impressive debut album, Tonbe Leve, that showcases his skills as a composer, as well as improviser, who brings a fresh contemporary jazz sensibility to the rhythmic riches of his heartland.


Alyn Shipton, BBC Jazz Now, Jazzwise

Drummer and vibes player Jonny Mansfield not only plays in the up-and-coming Jam Experiment, but his own Elftet will release an album this year of strikingly original music, mixing whimsy with rhythmic grooves.


Andy Robson, Jazzwise

Look no further than Mary Halvorson, whose unique guitar voice has burned bright for some years and now deserves a wider audience.


Daniel Spicer, Jazzwise, The Wire

For old-fashioned funk-fusion with, ahem, plenty of chops, check out quintet Butcher Brown from Richmond, Virginia.


Brian Glasser, Jazzwise

Colin Steele: technically, a re-entry. Not one, but two, albums have announced the second coming, after a long layoff, of the brilliant but tender Scottish trumpeter this year.


Chris Philips, Jazz FM

Pianist and keyboardist Joe Armon-Jones, already making a name for himself in the highly energetic Ezra Collective, is pianist of choice for China Moses. He is currently working on a raft of different collaborative cross-genre projects, while launching a new solo venture in 2018. Look out for his electronic work with producer and DJ Maxwell Owin called Idiom, set to play at Love Supreme’s all-day event at the London Roundhouse in May and, with a solo album now complete, 2018 could be quite a year for this in-demand musician.


Eddie Myer, The Verdict Jazz Club, Brighton

Zenel Trio, Cesca, Shabaka, Triforce, Maisha, James Beckwith, Yussef Dayes, Binker and Moses, Alex Hitchcock – hanging at the Bandstand at Love Supreme we heard a new generation of UK artists breaking through with a fresh sound – looking forward to New Generation Jazz in 2018!


Helen Mayhew, Jazz FM

Vibes player, composer and bandleader Jonny Mansfield, still at college, much in demand and his 11-piece band Elftet is an exciting prospect. Also, saxophonist Tom Barford, winner of this year’s Kenny Wheeler Prize from the Royal Academy of Music, is about to release his debut album on the Edition Label.


Jan Granlie, editor

Jeppe Zeeberg is a great Danish piano-player whose distinct musical dialect you can hear in his solo work or with his Horse Orchestra. Modern and free, but still in the rich piano tradition. Another Dane, Lasse Mørch, has his own piano-less quartet whose fantastic Imagining Places I Have Never Been was released early in 2017. A great composer and bassist who has been listening to plenty of Charles Mingus.


Jane Cornwell, Evening Standard, Jazzwise

Yelfris Valdés is one of the brightest stars on London’s already vibrant Cuban and latin jazz scenes, having made his name with son kings Sierra Maestra and the pianist Roberto Fonseca. The classically-trained trumpeter landed in the British capital three years ago and swiftly stuck his fingers in a veritable smorgasbord of musical pies. There’ve been sessions for the likes of Quantic, Dayme Arocena, Gilles Peterson, Yussef Kamaal, Cuban/Iranian outfit Ariwo and Henry Wu, with whom he interpreted the music of Freddie Hubbard. 2018 brings a solo project, The World of Eschu Dina. Get ready.


Jez Nelson, Jazz FM

Sam Barnett – 16-year-old saxophonist who’s been playing jazz since he was eight. His compositions are ridiculously advanced for someone so bloody young!


John Fordham, The Guardian

A former BBC Young Musician of the Year as a classical pianist, Sarah Tandy has been making waves on the London club scene this year – notably with young saxophonist Camilla George – as an incisive, exciting and original new post-bop presence on the keys.


Jon Newey, Jazzwise

With their compelling mash-up of spiritual jazz, Afrobeat, drum’n’ bass rhythms and vintage keyboard textures, Maisha hit the head, heart and feet in equal measure. Led by drummer Jake Long and featuring saxophonist Nubya Garcia and guitarist Shirley Teteh their sessions at east London’s Church of Sound have been a revelation and are now set to take their raw, uplifting spirit to a temple near you. Meanwhile, when can we expect astonishing drummer Yussef Dayes’ next venture?


Michael Jackson, Jazzwise, DownBeat

Chicago-based Jason Stein has been flying around on a private jet of late, opening stadium gigs for his sister, comedian Amy Schumer, but it hasn’t changed this bass clarinet specialist’s attitude to making uncompromising music. Check his latest, Lucille, on Delmark Records. Elsewhere, alto-saxophonist Nick Mazzarella’s first crush is clearly Ornette Coleman, but he’s quickly become his own brand of virtuoso and a fine composer who can match lyrical ‘in’ playing with wide-ranging free improv.


Mike Flynn, Jazzwise

The rebith of fusion sees imaginative guitar/bass/drums crew SEN3 emerging among a new armada of drum’n’bass inspired trios with their sumptuous hybrid of lush melodies, kicking grooves and dime-stop dynamics. Also making waves are the frenetic James Beckwith Trio (powered-up by Harry Pope’s fearsome drumming), impressive London foursome Triforce, with their raw and soulful take on the Mahavishnu Orchestra, while US world-fusion threesome House of Waters which sees Max ZT taking the hammered dulcimer to infinity and beyond, as Moto Fukishima’s bass-playing leaves many slack-jawed in awe.


Mike Hobart, Jazzwise, Financial Times

David Virelles is a pianist with serious chops. His latest album, Gnosis, confirms him as an equally serious composer blending classical, jazz and Afro-Cuban traditions. Trumpeter Alexandra Ridout was an outstanding winner of the BBC young musician jazz award of 2016 and just keeps on growing as an artist.


Nick Hasted, Jazzwise, The Independent, Uncut

Istanbul’s Korhan Fatuci & Kara Orkestra show the ritualistic communal power still latent in psychedelic, Near Eastern-rooted jazz-rock. Belgian trio Hermia/Ceccaldi/Darrifourcq are also adding immersive, mysterious atmosphere to their playing’s lucid, high-wire intricacy.


Paul Pace, Ronnie Scott’s, Spice Of Life

Trombonist Rory Ingham is a young man on the way up – excellent musicianship, swagger and a winning ‘can-do’ attitude – his main project Jam Experiment also contain a coterie of other superb young players.


Peter Bacon, Jazzwise

David Austin Grey, Birmingham-based pianist/composer. His energy and creativity mean laurels will not be rested upon. Charlie Haden’s rightful heir, bassist Thomas Morgan, has an impressive CV, but might still be in the foothills of his potential.


Peter Quinn, Jazzwise, The Arts Desk

One of five finalists in this year’s Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition, vocalist, musician, songwriter and educator Tatiana ‘LadyMay’ Mayfield possesses an unfailingly beautiful timbre and a real jazz feel. Her third album, The Next Chapter, is hotly anticipated.


Rob Adams, Glasgow Herald, Jazzwise

Drummer Stephen Henderson has already made an impression with Peter Whittingham Award winners Square One, but has reinforced his credentials this year with superbly buoyant playing in Spark Trio and by adding great shape and assurance to bassist David Bowden and fiddler Charlie Stewart’s new jazz-folk band.


Robert Shore, Jazzwise

Sam Barnett’s New York-London Suite was the very definition of musical precocity. Sixteen-years-old when the album was released, the saxophonist/composer/bandleader was just 14 when he penned it.


Selwyn Harris, Jazzwise

Keep an eagle eye out for a young Norwegian singer-songwriter with a star quality, Rohey – sort of a cross between Eska, Nina Simone and Amy Winehouse. In the UK, check enterprising London-based LUME saxophonists Dee Byrne (Entropi) and Cath Roberts (Sloth Racket).


Spencer Grady, Jazzwise

After a recent series of psychotropic lathes, tapes and other sonic ephemera New York noiseniks Grasshopper (aka Josh Millrod and Jesse DeRosa) will emerge all-conquering from the entrails of 2018 clutching a talismanic third full-length. Quakes from the under-crust ought to be seismic, followers of outlier orbits already thirsty for more of the duo’s blissed-out post-Dark Magus deviancy.


Steve Mead, Manchester Jazz Festival

Hold on tight for the short, sharp shocks of Skeltr – the new Manchester duo of Sam Healey’s alto (Beats & Pieces) and drummer Craig Hanson (Toolshed) – it’s high-energy, compact and immediate. Emerging singer-songwriter Mali Hayes also wowed the crowds at MJF this year, with her neo-soulful vocals and her quirkily funky nine-piece.


Stuart Nicholson, Jazzwise

Keep an eye out for Cologne-based Pablo Held and his Trio. They have been quietly labouring at the coal face of the German jazz scene to much acclaim and a breakthrough must surely be imminent.


Tony Dudley-Evans, Cheltenham Jazz Festival and Birmingham Jazzlines

Chris Mapp continues to work with Gonimoblast and that group’s live album on Stoney Lane Records with special guests Maja Ratkje and Arve Henriksen is wonderful. In 2018, Chris will launch his ‹quiet› band Stillefelt with Percy Pursglove on trumpet/flugelhorn and Thomas Seminar Ford on guitar.

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