3 British Labels are Deep in Dialogue with the American Jazz Tradition

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Ubuntu label head Martin Hummel (left), saxophonist Tori Freestone and bassist Gary Crosby

(Photo: Carl Hyde/Rob Blackham/Howard Denner)

As the U.K.’s jazz landscape is being defined by performers drawing on the British-bred genres grime and broken beat, there’s no shortage of music for labels like Brownswood, Gondwana, Gearbox and First Word to release.

But there’s also an American influence that’s pervasive in the U.K., one that’s reflected in the albums from the London-based labels Ubuntu and Whirlwind, both run by U.S. natives, showcasing the polyphonic languages of Stateside jazz. The music offers a tapestry of the country’s history—some light and some reprehensible—as well as being a poetic tool for protest, free speech and expression. With American label heads making a point to engage British jazz players, and the U.K. label Edition playing a complementary role by showcasing U.S. musicians, an enlivened dialogue is beginning to emerge.

Ubuntu co-founder Martin Hummel had a colorful transatlantic career in advertising and marketing, handling a number of fruitful campaigns between 1978 and 2016, working with pop icons like Britney Spears, Madonna and Robbie Williams.

“I was born and raised in Montclair, New Jersey,” Hummel said. “A really cool town of just about 60,000 people. Having said that, it’s a very artistic and creative community. Everyone from Joe Walsh and Christian McBride to Dee Dee Bridgewater used to live there”.

Hummel’s career found him moving among New York, the Bay Area, Johannesburg and London, where he’s primarily been based for the past 30 years. It was there that Hummel immersed himself in the local music scene. And in the early 2010s, he found himself with an increasing passion for jazz—and alluring opportunities.

“[Ubuntu] started with the management of a guy named Andrew McCormack,” a pianist Hummel had met during a show at the Pizza Express Jazz Club in London’s Soho district, the label head said. “I spent some time with a guy named Eric Alexander who’s a New York-based tenor sax player, one of my favorites by far. In talking to Eric about his career and giving him my perspective on things, Andrew asked if I would help him in terms of growing and developing his own career. And so, it started as an experiment—an experiment that worked. As a result of that, I took on more artists to manage in the jazz sector, and more specifically, I began my own record company.”

Ubuntu’s roster showcases sophisticated acts, including the aforementioned McCormack, trumpeter Quentin Collins (Hummel’s label partner), saxophonist Camilla George and trumpeter Mark Kavuma.

What’s clear across Ubuntu’s discography—aside from its own distinctive seasonings—is an interest in upholding the jazz tradition. Many of the players represented are graduates of prestigious music conservatoires. Even Turkish pianist Hakan Başar, Ubuntu’s youngest signee at just 15 years old, cites American greats like Bill Evans and Oscar Peterson as inspiration.

McCormack, who received informal mentorship from saxophonist Jean Toussaint as a teenager, is one of many British artists who are taking their love of the American jazz tradition and reshaping it with European flourishes. He’s lived both in the U.K. and in Brooklyn, and leads the groove-oriented band Graviton.

“In 2013, I got myself an artist visa. An affordable room became available in drummer Colin Stranahan’s apartment in Prospect Park,” the pianist said. “That neighborhood also has so many musicians living there, it seemed like the perfect place to be. ... I wanted to go, because New York is a bit like a mecca for jazz musicians.

“There are musicians, certainly in London, who are very interested in that more traditional approach. And, you know, they’re going over to New York loads as well,” he continued. “It’s sort of like a pilgrimage or something, and you go over to New York and spend a bit of time there, then you come back, and you bring that with you. But then, Europe has a thing going on as well.”

Hummel shared a similar sentiment: “I would have said historically, most of the world looked to America in terms of where it was heading, and then either followed suit or created variations on that theme, so to speak.” Although, he added, “accessing music has never been easier than it is today.”

It’s true: Digital advances mean that our world is getting smaller. Twenty- and 30-somethings were the first musicians given the chance to explore any music at any time through streaming platforms. Whether curious about Balkan brass bands or New Orleanian swing, they delved into a deep library of music and found new touchstones. This trendsetting generation didn’t have to check out CDs from the library or wait for bands to come through town in order to satisfy their curiosity for different forms of music. They’d already been galvanized—and deep in research.

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December 2019
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