The curious stylistic variety of the Mercury Prize – the British new music industry’s award for the “best” album of the year – has come to be something of a joke over its 30-calendar year record. “It’s kind of like a outrageous contest concerning an orange and a spaceship and a potted plant and a spoon,” stated Anohini of Antony & The Johnsons when accepting the Prize in 2005. “Which a single do you like much better? How can you possibly solution that query?”
Just one of the most frequent sources of hilarity, even though, has been the persistent inclusion of “the token jazz album” on the shortlist of 12 albums. Strictly speaking, a jazz album has not but received the award. But, as the British jazz scene has began to reassert by itself in the musical firmament in excess of the past 10 years, albums by the likes of Shabaka Hutchings and Moses Boyd don’t look notably marginal any more, and couple of observers will be questioning the jazz entries on the 2021 shortlist.
The Mercury Prize has constantly been a competitors among pretty unique sorts of tunes – a put where indie rock finds alone competing with hip-hop, folks, dwelling, electronica, prog-metal and straight-down-the-line pop. The 12 albums on the 2021 shortlist appear to be even a lot more diversified than regular, with a classical string arranger (Hannah Peel), a Trinidad-born rapper (Berwyn), an east London grime MC (Ghetts), an Anglo-American soul singer (Celeste) and a mysterious London R&B collective (Sault) all in the blend. And the checklist functions at the very least two functions that could possibly occur underneath the broad umbrella of “jazz” – famous American astral jazz saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, collaborating with British electronica producer Floating Points together with the London Symphony Orchestra, and tenorist Nubya Garcia (fronting her Londoncentric quartet).
“It’s constantly very good to see a wide range of music remaining represented in the Prize,” claims Jamie Cullum, the musician and BBC Radio 2 DJ who has been one particular of the 12 Mercury judging panel for the previous 4 yrs – which suggests he has expended a great deal of the final 4 months ploughing as a result of much more than 300 nominated albums. “Even when I was a punter I pretty favored hearing the Mercury shortlist – it reminded you of wonderful albums and introduced you to plenty of stuff you may possibly not have heard. And, for those people who are amazed that jazz will get integrated so usually, it could possibly be simply because a whole lot of folks on the panel, like musicians and DJs, pay attention to jazz and have a individual fascination in the music coming out of London’s fertile jazz scene proper now.”
Because its start in 1992, the Mercury Prize has often built an energy to include things like artists from genres outside of the pop sphere, but it often arrived throughout as marginally clumsy and tokenistic – like a large pineapple staying presented at a Prize marrow competitiveness. In its earliest several years, the shortlist consistently provided new orchestral composers these as John Taverner, Gavin Bryars, Michael Nyman, James MacMillan, Peter Maxwell Davies and Mark-Anthony Turnage. For numerous decades there ended up also normal shortlisted slots for prominent figures in the environment of regular songs, such as Norma Waterson, Kate Rusby, Kathryn Williams and Seth Lakeman, which led to the twice-shortlisted Eliza Carthy describing herself as the “token folkie” at the 2003 award ceremony.
Whilst the contemporary classical and people acts seem to have dropped out from the Mercury Prize in current several years, jazz seems to have stubbornly held a spot on the shortlist for just about each and every one particular of the 30 years of the Prize. In its 1st number of many years, the Mercury would element venerable figures on the London jazz scene – like Stan Tracey, John Surman, Bheki Mseleku, Person Barker and Courtney Pine – with a slot on the shortlist serving as a variety of life time accomplishment award.
But, by the early 2000s, the Prize began to mirror a new generation of jazz musicians. Soweto Kinch’s 2003 debut LP, Conversations With The Unseen, appeared to kickstart a new generation of British jazz, and was adopted by a slew of albums built by twentysomething musicians who were weaving jazz into a tapestry of songs that incorporated hip-hop, soul, post-rock, minimalism and rave. The Mercury began to shortlist bands like Polar Bear, Portico Quartet, Led Bib, Roller Trio, Package Downes Trio and GoGo Penguin – all jazz-rooted acts who were additional cozy playing at rock venues than jazz clubs and appeared additional like indie bands.
“As a jazz artist, you have a tendency not to encounter the media awareness connected with the Mercury Prize,” says Seb Rochford, drummer and chief of Polar Bear. “The initially time Polar Bear were nominated in 2005, I try to remember being absolutely shell stunned by the purple carpet, by the photographers, by the customers of the press inquiring you tons of thoughts. You’re just not employed to that, coming from the jazz environment!”
Rochford had since been nominated many a lot more periods – as soon as extra for Polar Bear in 2014, once as the visitor drummer with Basquiat Strings in 2007 and various moments as the drummer on albums by Corinne Bailey Rae, Adele and Sons Of Kemet – which implies he’s possibly obtained a lot more Mercury nominations than any other artist. “I assume, 20 years ago, individuals had been really sniffy about the jazz acts on the shortlist,” he says. “You were being an anomaly. Individuals would moan that you were being taking up a slot that really should have been occupied by a rock band. I assume it is various now. Jazz is no lengthier noticed as something hopelessly marginal – people like Shabaka Hutchings and Nubya Garcia are shifting how jazz is viewed by the general general public.”
Appreciate unrestricted entry to 70 million advertisement-absolutely free songs and podcasts with Amazon Tunes Signal up now for a 30-day free demo
The Mercury also presents jazz musicians exposure in front of a large, reside BBC television audience, and a opportunity to steal the show. 1 recalls Shabaka Hutchings, resplendent in a sequinned Union Jack beanie hat, obtaining a standing ovation just after his rabble-rousing overall performance with Sons Of Kemet in 2018. “I understood that we could very own the place with sheer rhythm and quantity,” suggests Hutchings, with a grin. “It was a probability to shine on live Tv!”
Or there was pianist Zoe Rahman earning the gushing praise of Matt Bellamy from Muse immediately after her 2006 slot. “He explained that they may possibly as very well give the award to me immediately after that performance,” states Rahman, with a laugh. “That was rather an accolade! But getting a Mercury nomination does open up doors. It will get you noticed. You get much more provides to attendees with musicians of all genres, you are set on the radar of fixers who place jointly touring bands. You get made available improved slots at festivals and large venues.”
It can be argued that the Mercurys are combating to continue to be relevant in an age where by streaming has devalued the forex of the album as an inventive variety. Nevertheless, it is also accurate that the Prize is a considerably more open and degree taking part in area than at any time ahead of. In a earth where by new rock bands no extended have strike singles – and seldom have strike albums – most of the songs in the Mercury Prize can be thought of “marginal” in some way. Without a doubt, lots of British jazz acts obtain by themselves getting playlisted on 6Songs or 1Xtra – together with latest Mercury nominees The Comet Is Coming, Sons Of Kemet, Moses Boyd, Nubya Garcia and Seed Ensemble. And these aren’t outliers. Even inside the time period of time for the 2021 award, there are lots of jazz albums – such as Emma Jean Thackray’s rave-fuelled Yellow, pianist Alfa Mist’s Convey Backs and Sons Of Kemet’s Black To The Long term – which could be regarded unlucky not to make the minimize.
“British jazz has normally experienced a vitality, but it feels a great deal much more plugged into the broader songs scene far more than at any time in the latest history,” states Cullum. “When I was in the charts, 15 or 20 yrs ago, jazz was categorized as element of simple listening or MOR, which I have no issue with. But there’s some thing quite unique about the new generation of jazz musicians. It seems a great deal a lot more reflective of modern day culture – it is quite varied, there are lots of gals concerned, and it is new music that typically will work on the dancefloor.”
Cullum states that it speaks to today’s musical adventurousness. “People aren’t compelled into listening to music in a selected way – youthful men and women who make songs are getting their influences from heaps of leftfield sources,” he carries on. “A lot of the functions on this shortlist are artists who’ve been championed by leftfield DJs and on the web radio stations like NTS, Rinse, Worldwide FM or Soho Radio. In fact, you’re possible to hear most of the functions shortlisted this yr – such as Sault, Celeste, Laura Mvula, Nubya Garcia, Floating Factors and Pharoah Sanders, even Hannah Peel – all getting performed on Gilles Peterson’s 6Songs clearly show.”
Partly this is mainly because a good deal of the tunes currently being created by British jazz musicians at the minute is converging with a large amount of contemporary R&B and dance music. Certainly, several musicians who have appeared on modern Mercury shortlists, such as Laura Mvula and the 2020 winner Michael Kiwanuka, are educated jazz musicians who studied at music schools, though other functions on this year’s shortlist (like R&B singer Celeste and London soul and funk collective Sault, led by producer Inflo and singer Cleo Sol) have strong one-way links with the London jazz scene. “Jazz is substantially far more element of the dialogue,” agrees Rochford, pointing to Promises as a prime illustration of different worlds converging. “Look at the Floating Factors/Pharoah Sanders album on this year’s shortlist – it’s certainly acquired a jazz aspect, but it’s as much of an electronica album, with a huge orchestra.”
“The Floating Points album does not in good shape into any box,” agrees Cullum. “It’s even beyond songs – it is a exclusive piece of performance artwork that feels a lot more like an art installation or some thing! But, in some means, that would seem to characterize 2021 much more than just about anything else.” In fact, it wouldn’t be an great shock to see 1 of the so-termed “token” jazz albums essentially profitable the Prize this year.
The winner of the Mercury Prize will be declared on 9 September at the Hammersmith Apollo. John Lewis is a music critic and previous judge on the Mercury Prize