Not enough brass

Music - Sholto Byrnes on why British jazz shouldn't blow its own trumpet

The last day of July sees the second-ever BBC Radio Jazz Awards. Hurrah, we're all supposed to say, and it's certainly true that the recognition such an official bunfight brings to jazz is welcome. But it's also an appropriate time to consider precisely what we have to celebrate. Is Britain producing heroes who could trade eights with the heirs to Miles Davis and John Coltrane; or are we instead prizing minnows who loom large in our island puddle, but would be ignored as insignificant tiddlers by any serious angler?

Newspaper columns offer little in the way of guidance in this matter, as most jazz critics pretend to think (they can't really believe) that almost every album produced by a British band is terrific. The truth is the opposite. The majority of new releases in this country are substandard, half-hearted affairs that deserve praise only in comparison to some of the real rubbish that gets out.

There are two problems here. One is the general standard of musicianship, which just isn't as high as it is in America. The college kids employed by Maynard Ferguson in his big band can blow many of our top players off the stand any day. I'm hard put to think of any British trombone player who can articulate as cleanly at speed as Ferguson's lads, barely out of short trousers as some of them are.

But technique alone is not the answer; indeed, it can be the problem when it is elevated above all else - but that's not something from which many British players are in danger of suffering. The malaise that fells British jazzers is introspection. How many times do we have to hear a saxophonist such as the unspeakable Martin Speake gingerly feel his way round a melody as if passing the teapot to an infirm great-aunt? Or a pianist afraid to comp fully and confidently for fear of betraying any enthusiasm? Over here, diffidence is virtue, angular self-consciousness is proof of depth, the shy guys are prized for their inability to connect. So keen are musicians to avoid cliche that they wend their way down lonely roads where few listeners are willing to follow.

Contrast this with some of the Americans who come over -Frank Foster, tenor saxophonist veteran of Count Basie's Fifties orchestra, swinging his way through his signature tune, "Shiny Stockings", or Rufus Reid laying down four fat, juicy notes to a bar on his double bass. It's almost as though British players are afraid of the masculinity that is the essence of much American jazz. Even more delicate performers like the wonderful US pianist Kenny Barron know how to swagger. Where are their counterparts here? I'm afraid Stacey Kent's helium-toned albums, with their overly perfect recreation of the standard singer format, don't meet the bill. Our best performers, including those dipping their toes in the jazz mainstream, still seem unable or unwilling to approach the medium with the conviction that is second nature to US boppers.

There is another path, seductive on the surface, being trumpeted as the way forward. Musicians who incorporate drum'n'bass, scratching and electronic wizardry are hailed as the voices who will take jazz out of the wilderness back to the days when it was genuinely popular music. Never mind that those days were before the advent of bebop, and that jazz ceased to be pop music in the Forties; never mind that this approach too often becomes indistinguishable from acid jazz, whose brief moment in the sun was over by the mid-Nineties. This musical diversion can be pleasant. But it is a diversion, and one akin to the menopausal male digging out his flares and heading down to the disco.

Some of those nominated for the awards are deserving (Guy Barker, Stan Tracey and John Taylor, in particular). Others are timeservers whose turn it is to be Buggins this year. And if the remainder of the nominees really represent the best of British jazz, then perhaps we should pack away the high hat and snare, put the horns up for hock, and all join together in one final chorus of Charles Mingus's great lament to Lester Young, "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat".

Sholto Byrnes is a staff writer on the Independent and the Independent on Sunday