Jazz re:fest Offers Glimpse of Blossoming UK Scene


Since 2003, Jazz re:freshed has been a major catalyst in the UK’s jazz regeneration. If you’re a rising artist with an upcoming release, a slot at their weekly West London residency likely is what you’re chasing. The platform, led by Justin McKenzie, Adam Moses and Yvette Griffith, is mentioned in every well-informed conversation about the UK jazz scene. And with live shows, a label and successful merch line, they’ve helped launch the careers of Nubya Garcia, Ashley Henry and Yussef Dayes, among many others.

Naturally, Jazz re:freshed has grown to include an annual day festival, Jazz re:fest. And for its sixth edition, they took to England’s South coast, offering jazz-dance workshops, performances by several in demand DJs and a marketplace of merchandise at arts venue Brighton Dome.

“Headliner” increasingly is becoming a dirty word among London’s players. As far as posters and promos are concerned, Jazz re:fest had seven co-headliners, including Blue Lab Beats, Ruby Rushton and drummer Dayes.

One of the factors making the UK’s current jazz ecosystem so dynamic is the age of its players, a majority of those garnering attention still in their 20s. They’re either recent graduates of schools that have joined their jazz education with an appreciation of grime, broken beat and socca—or they’re independently diving into production, self-taught on their instruments. The latter is closer to the truth for Blue Lab Beats, a duo of Namali Kwaten and David Mrakpor, aka NK-OK and Mr DM. Teenager Kwaten makes beats live, while Mrakpor switches between electric bass and keys. Their London sound glides among jazz, electronica and hip-hop, and was embraced by the Jazz re:fest audience. While entertaining, inviting a guest vocalist to enliven their performance would have been a welcomed maneuver.

Ruby Rushton, fronted by flutist Ed “Tenderlonious” Cawthorne, are a band whose audience is positioned to dance, fueled by equal appreciation for broken beat and club culture. It’s one of the tightest ensembles in the UK’s revived scene, easily exemplified by Cawthorne frenetically leading the four piece, frequently from the foot of Tim Carnegie’s drum kit. On the flute, Cawthorne is disarming, floating upon shuffling grooves; on the sax, he bellows relentless energy. “Elephant & Castle” drew upon London’s Latino neighborhood of the same name, while the pacing of “Tisbury Truckin’” celebrated the freedom of driving with a freshly minted license.

Anyone who committed themselves to the entire festival likely would have been left dazed by Dayes. The drummer, who has spent time under the mentorship of Billy Cobham, makes increasingly rare appearances. Since his mysterious 2017 abandonment of the duo Yussef Kamaal, Dayes hasn’t released much music of his own, and his infrequent performances have been improvised, mostly alongside young rising guitarist Mansur Brown. Those who have seen Dayes and Brown play together talk of them almost like myth; you must see them to believe the stories.

When Dayes walked on stage, he owned it. The chemistry between the drummer and Brown was like two brothers challenging each other, frolicking in call and response with playful abandon. They laughed frequently, and Brown looked up toward Dayes’ raised platform, as he would an older sibling. The immediacy in which complex, but danceable, rhythms came to the fore of Dayes’ imagination is almost inconceivable. Audiences swooned when he landed in Brown’s hydro-flow, his electric guitar taken through extremes of liquid looseness and thick distortion.

Dayes nodded several cues toward electric bassist Tom Driessler, who joined the performers a few minutes into their set. He responded either in single notes or with almost nothing at all. Yet, Dayes didn’t cut him short of chances. He got up from his kit, walked toward Driessler and literally pushed him forward. Having played in Yussef Kamaal on numerous occasions, it was unclear why Driessler was dumbfounded. But on this day, Dayes and Brown could have carried the set themselves.

Dayes flirts with time, holding back beats, elasticising the air. He plays with suspense and anticipation, so that when a beat lands in a groove just where he wants it, the result is doubly emphatic. Sweat dripping, he often leaped from his stool, throwing out challenges. Clearly, Yussef Kamaal is not to be the only pairing that we will remember the drummer for.

Following the break-up of that earlier troupe, Dayes quietly has been working up his own storm, with sponsorship from Yamaha and even a few clothing brands. At Jazz re:fest, he offered an excitingly unpredictable stage persona, stylish swagger—even sex appeal. Yussef Dayes showed himself to be a rock star, and rock was born of jazz, no? DB

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June 2019
Jeremy Pelt
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