Gilles Peterson on U.K. Scene, Brownswood, Starting a New Festival

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Since the 1980s, London-based DJ and record label founder Gilles Peterson has been a force in music. The first installment of his We Our Here festival is set to run Aug. 15–18 in Abbots Ripton, Cambridgeshire, U.K.

(Photo: Courtesy of Brownswood Recordings)

Being a curator has become a defining ethos for the 21st century. With digital platforms bombarding us with choice, a curator’s purview—once confined to gallerists and museum professionals—now can cover everything from lunchtime sandwich selections to home interiors. And in the music industry, the art of selection now is applied to the algorithmic churn of daily playlists, removing the necessity of encyclopedic knowledge.

But nowhere is the term better applied than to DJ and record label founder Gilles Peterson.

Beginning his career in 1980s London, Peterson set up a series of DIY labels, including the formative Acid Jazz (which spawned its own eponymous subgenre) and Talkin’ Loud (launching the careers of the band Incognito and neo-soul singer Omar). By 2002, Peterson had established that he possessed an uncanny ability for discovering new talent.

“We were nominated for six Mercury Music Prizes while I was at Talkin’ Loud, which was unheard of for an independent label at the time,” Peterson said. “But after being in the industry for almost two decades, I thought, ‘Fuck it, I’ve had enough of this,’ and I decided to focus on my DJing.”

Not one to do things by halves, Peterson stepped away from Talkin’ Loud and indulged in his record-digging pursuits, working his way up to a weekly slot on BBC Radio 1 and establishing a number of longterm residencies at London clubs. Years later, it was a discovery at one of these residencies that brought Peterson back to the label game.

“I was playing a residency at Cargo, and this guy came up with a CD at the end of the night and asked me to take a listen,” Peterson said. “I put it on in the car on my way home and it was a vocal version of John Coltrane’s ‘Equinox.’ I thought it was amazing. That singer was José James, and he inspired me to set up a new label to release that record.”

That label was Brownswood Recordings, which since James’ 2007 debut has become the focal point of the recent London jazz resurgence. Brownswood doesn’t just release jazz, though. Applying Peterson’s varied DJing style of “playing krautrock next to Detroit house, next to jazz and soul” has earned the imprint a growing following eager to expand its tastes.

“The whole ethos was to have the label solely to put out the records I wanted to,” Peterson said. “It wasn’t about marketing or fashion, just providing a platform. And we set it up at a time where a lot of record labels were shutting down, rather than opening up. So, it was an unusual venture right from the start.”

Brownswood’s roster includes the likes of Cuban jazz singer Daymé Arocena, vocalist Zara McFarlane and London Afro-jazz group KOKOROKO, as well as dubstep pioneer Mala, hip-hop fusionist Skinny Pelembe and grime producer Swindle. But it was the label’s 2018 compilation of London jazz, We Out Here, that has become the authoritative document of the scene, and perhaps the label’s biggest hit, featuring players like saxophonist Nubya Garcia, pianist Joe Armon-Jones and drummer Moses Boyd.

“A lot of people in this country haven’t really heard jazz music,” Peterson said, “or they just think it’s shit, because of how it’s been perceived by the generations of NME editors who were always pushing other kinds of music. So, there was always a stereotype to it, and in a way that’s helped because people are coming to everything fresh now. That’s why this current scene has taken off.”

Having been through “four of these” U.K. jazz resurgences, Peterson is clear that “the hype will fade away,” but also that there is something especially unique about this generation.

“This is definitely the best scene I’ve been part of in my career,” he enthused. “It is the culmination of generations of hard work that has been put in by musicians. But this group has come at the right time, where they can build their own fan base over social media, put on their own parties and sell their own records.”

At Garcia’s recent sold out show at London’s 1,000-capacity Village Underground, the crowd was a mixed one: teens new to jazz, fired up by Garcia’s mix of Pharoah Sanders’ spiritual energy and Fela Kuti’s rhythmic lyricism, as well as pork pie-hatted older aficionados. “This new group is bringing several generations of fans together, which is amazing,” Peterson said. “But in my view, nothing has changed: This current school are just particularly good at motivating and building their community.”

So much so that Peterson shies away from being its figurehead or spokesperson. “I wasn’t even at the We Out Here recording sessions,” he said, laughing. “I was off touring, which is great. They don’t need me talking for them, they’re good enough themselves, and they have their own ideas to get across.”

Like any good curator, Peterson has a deft touch and leaves no trace.

Living in the shadow of its American counterpart, Peterson said, is in part what’s led to such success across borders and communities. “I was in New York for Winter Jazzfest, and it was amazing being surrounded by such heritage and history of the genre,” he said. “But things in America are so controlled by the networks and the stations. Here in the U.K., we have more freedom, because we’ve never had the support. It’s a double-edged sword: We’ve had to do it all ourselves, because the only money that’s been handed out by the government has always gone to opera and classical music. But that’s also why we’re brilliant at putting on a rave.”

Peterson referenced artists such as saxophonist James Brandon Lewis and producer Flying Lotus as current American visionaries, as well as the people behind Chicago-based label International Anthem, which releases work from the likes of drummer Makaya McCraven. But Peterson said that it is the creative freedom and multicultural diversity of the U.K., especially in London, that has allowed the merger of “different jazz elements,” ticking off influences like “hip-hop, funk fusion and spiritualism.”

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October 2019
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