New jazz generation

A new wave of young musicians is pushing the boundaries of the genre

The new generation of British jazz musicians is characterised by its quiet confidence. Not for them the endless soul-searching of their predecessors about where they should be looking for inspiration or how their work fits into the jazz canon. Just as American-English pays no obeisance to the language spoken here, the younger British jazz musicians feel no need to compare what they are doing with what's going on in Greenwich Village or Los Angeles.

Listen to the fluid classicism and intelligence of pianist Andrew McCormack, for instance, or the truly personal style of another pianist, Zoe Rahman, and their determination to forge their own paths is evident. Soweto Kinch's alto sax may be strongly influenced by the uncompromising bebop of Charlie Parker, but its setting among rap verses about life in a Birmingham tower block (as on his recent album) is unmistakably British.

It is a compliment to the health of the local scene that Kinch's frequent collaborator and labelmate on Dune Records, the New Orleans trumpeter Abram Wilson, should choose to make his home here in Britain. In different ways, both Wilson and Kinch fuse jazz and rap. It wouldn't gain the approval of the neoconservative guardians of the flame in America, but that doesn't worry them.

Indeed, the line-up for the London Jazz Festival, which begins on 10 November, shows how much the American variety may be in need of regeneration. The greats on the programme, who include Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Lee Konitz, made their names 40 or 50 years ago.

In their curiosity, in their absorption of other musical strands, and in their determination to come up with their own answers to what jazz is today, young British musicians are truthful to the spirit of a music that has always spurned lazy repetition and for whom the dest ination has never been the point: the quest, ultimately, is all.

The London Jazz Festival takes place in various venues from 10-19 November.

Zoe Rahman applied for lots of "normal jobs" before she was nominated for the Nationwide Mercury Prize (formerly the Mercury Music Prize) this year, but says that "the music kept calling me back". And a good thing too: since the nomination, sales of her album Melting Pot have shot up.

An alumnus of Boston's prestigious Berklee College of Music, the 35-year-old's career gathered force while reading music at Oxford. The jazz pianist Julian Joseph mentored her, encouraging her to broaden her musical scope. Although heavily rooted in jazz, her sound has echoes of wider-reaching influences: off-beat improvisation, rumbling South African beats, Arabic tone poems, and her Bengali heritage. The key to her success? "I listen to anything."

Soweto Kinch, a 28-year-old jazz rapper, has got the American music critics all a-flutter. The New York Times recently warned its readers: "Do not sleep on Mr Kinch." In Britain, too, he has a cluster of prizes under his belt, including a Mobo, two BBC Radio Jazz Awards and the Mercury Music Prize 2003.

Kinch is nothing if not a renaissance man. He was a relative latecomer to professional music, having already graduated from Oxford with a degree in history. Diverse influences that have shaped his work include the poetry of Kamau Braithwaite, the jazz master John Coltrane and plays by his father, Don Kinch. Jonzi D, the hip-hop dancer, provided the inspiration for his latest album, A Life in the Day of B19: tales of the tower block. "I think that my music provides a contrast," he says. "Hip-hop is literate and there is an immediacy, an ability to communicate very expressively, whereas jazz describes the indescribable: it captures emotions."

Julia Biel has been variously described as the new Thom Yorke, the Alison Goldfrapp of jazz, a fresh take on Björk, and the new Billie Holiday. Whatever the comparisons, this 30-year-old has a uniquely melancholy voice, brimming with emotional authenticity.

Biel was late to catch the jazz bug. She came from a non-musical household and spent her childhood obsessed by 1980s pop. It was only at university that she unearthed her talent, and soon attracted the attention of the critics, winning the Perrier Vocalist of the Year in 2000.

She describes her moody debut Not Alone (2005): "Maybe it's too mournful for some people. But it could be a cathartic experience, or just a beautiful one perhaps."

Andrew McCormack had the starriest moment of his career earlier this year when he happened to mention to Clint Eastwood, father of his former collaborator Kyle Eastwood, that he had an idea for a film theme. On the spot, he was commissioned to write it for Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers. "That will probably be the widest audience my music ever has," he says.

McCormack's confident debut album Telescope met with a rave reception, and won the 28-year-old a BBC Radio Jazz Award. He has also been working with fellow composer and pianist Mark-Anthony Turnage, with whom he hopes to create a synthesis of classical and jazz: "an organic fusion".

Olivia Shean

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