A New Standard: exploring Bristol's flourishing jazz scenePosted on: 15 Apr 2020
This article was first published in LOUD Magazine: Issue #2, 365Bristol's dedicated music magazine.
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A New Standard
LOUD takes a look at Bristol's flourishing jazz scene, catching up with artists, venues and promoters to find out what's keeping the city at the forefront of a modern musical renaissance
In days gone by, jazz has been perceived by many as an exclusive art form, the doors of the genre open only to people who have mastered a craft and, essentially, know more about it than you do. Jazz has reached around the world and transcended classical, blues, swing and much more to become a truly all-encompassing form of musical expression. Even the term ‘jazz’ itself is open to endless interpretation, allowing for a wealth of innovation and musical creativity spanning well over a hundred years.
Bristol, of course, is no stranger to ‘classic’ jazz. Bars and venues like The Old Duke and The Bristol Fringe regularly host revered wind, percussive and string musicians, and the Bristol International Jazz & Blues Festival has been showcasing some of the world’s most highly regarded artists since its inception in 2013. The festival’s contribution to Bristol music in particular has been massive, bringing genuinely special live experiences to the city’s favourite stages from the likes of Pee Wee Ellis, Dr John and Fred Wesley among others.
Now, though, with sounds and tools more accessible than ever, jazz has taken on intriguing new forms. Musicians influenced by a whole range of other styles, from hip-hop to afrobeat and electronica, are breathing new life into the genre, and in Bristol, a new crop of artists are making strong names for themselves. Whether it’s through the Waldo’s Gift trio’s ethereal improvisation, Ishmael Ensemble’s polished live shows or Run Logan Run’s explosive sound, the jazz scene has emerged as one of the city’s most vibrant.
“A bit of a myth has prevailed over the years about jazz being rather earnest or exclusive. Bristol’s new generation are blowing that presumption out of the water”
- Polly Eldridge, Bristol International Jazz & Blues Festival
The renaissance of the genre certainly isn’t unique to the Westcountry. London’s jazz revival is well-documented and there are highly-regarded artists coming out of Glasgow and Manchester, but Bristol appears to be cultivating its sound in a way others aren’t. The city “affords artists the time and space to create and experiment,” according to Waldo’s Gift drummer James Vine, an element to life here that isn’t necessarily replicated elsewhere.
Not only are a new wave of artists coming through, they’ve got the backing of clubs and promoters that pride themselves on forward-thinking programming. Venues across Bristol, most notably Fiddlers, Leftbank and The Gallimaufry, are providing a platform for exciting local acts. The latter’s role in the contemporary Bristol jazz scene is perhaps the most significant, with various iterations of the genre making up a big chunk of their musical schedule.
“Overall I’d estimate around 90-95% of our programming is Bristol-based artists,” says Galli owner James Koch. “We like to work with artists over a period of time to help them or their night develop, but also have the opportunity to bring new acts into the space in between.” The Gallimaufry’s relationship with Waldo’s Gift, in particular, is a special one. “I know how hard they work on their craft – that and the breadth of their musicianship bodes really well,” Koch explains.
Waldo's Gift on stage at The Gallimaufry. Photo: James Koch
James Vine, meanwhile, tells me in no uncertain terms that his band wouldn’t be what it is without the support of the Gloucester Road venue. “James [Koch] has given us this platform to express ourselves, experiment and find out what Waldo’s Gift is about. He’s incredibly passionate about the music, so invested in the nights, and it shows. The venue has nurtured so much of the new talent in this city.”
After more than three years playing weekly sets and developing their sound at The Gallimaufry, Waldo’s Gift have now released a critically-acclaimed debut EP, played venues and festivals around the UK and Europe, and been tipped by none other than Gilles Peterson as an Emerging Act to Watch in 2020.
Bristol’s thriving scene is reflective of what’s been happening in London over the last few years. Scores of acclaimed artists and groups have come out of the capital, including the likes of Alfa Mist, Yussef Dayes and the Ezra Collective. Crucially, though, Bristol venues are again playing their part by showcasing leading artists on a regular basis. All of the above - as well as Nubiya Garcia, Kamaal Williams and The Comet is Coming - have played in Bristol in the last 12 months, cementing the city as a hub for jazz and further adding to a rich mix of imaginative new sounds.
Pete Cunningham's Ishmael Ensemble on stage at The Marble Factory. Photo: Nick Clague
“In a time of so many venues closing down, I feel incredibly lucky to live in a place where you can go out and find interesting live music every day of the week,” says Pete Cunningham, multi-instrumentalist and the driving force behind the revered Ishmael Ensemble. He highlights the Sun-Ra Arkestra as one of many live acts to have influenced his playing, describing 95-year-old Arkestra director Marshall Allen as “a force of nature” after seeing the group perform at Fiddlers.
The opportunity to experience live sets from some of the most talked-about jazz artists in modern times is a huge plus for local fans and artists alike, but without the efforts of one peerless crew, Bristol crowds may have missed out altogether. You need to have your finger on the pulse and a penchant for a party to keep up with the UK’s constantly-evolving jazz sound. Enter, Worm Disco Club.
The Worm Disco crew have found a winning formula in Bristol, bringing together accomplished musicians and top-notch venues for a wide range of events with positive energy in abundance. “The remit is simple,” says co-founder Nathan Kydd when I ask about his musical policy. “It needs to have a groove.” As a three-man team with a love of upbeat sounds coming from all corners of the globe, Worm Disco Club have hosted some of the most unforgettable gigs and parties Bristol has seen in recent years.
From left to right: Jackson, Nathan and Jake of Worm Disco Club.
Jazz has been a cornerstone of their operation since starting out in 2014, with Joe-Armon Jones, The Heliocentrics and Wolf Muller having headlined for them in Bristol, performing alongside a multitude of local acts at the city’s favourite venues. “We’ve done events in the PRSC HQ on Jamaica Street, The Crofters Rights, at Jam Jar and all these great places,” Nathan tells me, “and Fiddlers really suits where we’re at right now. The room’s got such a great feel, a wooden dancefloor is always a big plus, everyone can see the stage, it’s a little off the beaten track – overall it’s a really unique space.”
In March, Worm Disco Club will be launching their new label, Worm Discs, as part of their first-ever collaboration with the Bristol International Jazz & Blues Festival. In what is a big step for a festival that has historically showcased jazz in more traditional forms, Nathan and co have been given the reigns for two eagerly-anticipated nights at Fiddlers as part of the official 2020 programme.
“The people who play jazz in more classical formats will never go away, but more and more people are starting to recognise that the genre has taken on new meaning,” Nathan says. “Jazz artists today are making music influenced by so many different sounds and styles, they’ve got a bit more freedom to express themselves, and they’ve got a looser understanding or perception of what jazz has to be.”
The artwork for our double whammy end of March madness. Fri 27th/Sat 28th March we return to Fiddlers with two consecutive nights in conjunction with the 2020 @bristoljazzfest. Friday - Join us in celebration for the 'Worm Discs' label launch with sets from 3 of Bristol's most promising bands @run_logan_run, @snazzback @waldosgift. Sat night - acts Glasgow and London with @ejthackray, @corto.alto @akutrio and special guest DJ @rebeccavasmant . That one is gonna go off!! Tickets are moving along nicely for these now. GET THESE IN YA DIARY!! ???????????? #wormdiscoclub #fiddlersbristol #ukjazz #bristolgigs #bristoljazzandbluesfestival #cortoalto #emmajeanthackray #snazzback #waldosgift #runloganrun #rebeccavasmant #akutrio
The presence of more young and innovative acts and promoters than ever before at the 2020 Jazz & Blues Festival is perhaps the best indicator that contemporary artists are being taken seriously. There’s an overwhelming sense of positivity coming from the festival team about the prospects of the city’s jazz scene, as Artistic Director Denny Illett explains:
“Historically, older generations have been full of negativity about the future of jazz as a viable art form. This new crop of artists has proved them totally wrong. Access to a myriad of new influences has created a new, vibrant and original path for the genre, and not only that – these young musicians operating in Bristol are more technically accomplished than so many before them.”
“We really like what WDC do, the artists they pick and how much they love putting really fun events together,” adds Festival PR Manager Polly Eldridge. “Sadly a bit of a myth has prevailed over the years about jazz being rather earnest and exclusive. Brilliantly, though, Bristol’s new generation are blowing that presumption out of the water.”
There are plenty more artists and venues we could have spoken to as part of this article. The likes of Snazzback, Run Logan Run and Stanlaey are rightly receiving plaudits across the city and beyond, while venues like Leftbank, The Canteen and The Jam Jar continue to provide vital live platforms.
Small venues are offering their spaces to lesser-known but fiercely creative acts who are, in turn, drawing serious crowds with their exciting new interpretations of the genre. Whether it’s the artists themselves, the stages they’re playing on or the events and promoters bringing it all together, Bristol’s jazz scene is truly firing on all cylinders right now.
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Having moved to Bristol from Cornwall in 2015, Matt graduated from UWE with a degree in Journalism in 2018. He's keen on a wide variety of musical genres, as well as taking an interest in art and illustration, producing his own work in his spare time. Matt makes the most of Bristol's diverse nightlife and attends gigs and club nights regularly. Get in touch via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.