The curious stylistic diversity of the Mercury Prize – the UK music industry’s award for “best” album of the year – has become something of a joke in its 30-year history. “It’s kind of like a crazy contest between an orange and a spaceship and a potted plant and a spoon,” said Anohini of Antony & The Johnsons upon accepting the award in 2005. “Which one would you prefer- you ? How can you answer this question? “
One of the most common sources of hilarity, however, has been the continued inclusion of the “symbolic jazz album” on the 12-album shortlist. Strictly speaking, a jazz album has yet to win the award. But, as the British jazz scene has begun to reassert itself in the musical firmament over the past decade, the albums of Shabaka Hutchings and Moses Boyd no longer seem particularly marginal, and few observers will question the jazz entries on the 2021 Preselection.
The Mercury Prize has always been a competition between quite distinct forms of music – a place where independent rock finds itself in competition with hip-hop, folk, house, electronics, prog-metal and pure pop. and simple. The 12 albums on the 2021 shortlist look even more varied than usual, featuring a classic string arranger (Hannah Peel), a Trinidadian rapper (Berwyn), an MC grime from East London (Ghetts), an Anglo soul singer. -american. (Celeste) and a mysterious London R&B collective (Sault) all in the mix. And the list includes at least two acts that could fall under the broad umbrella of ‘jazz’ – legendary American astral jazz saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, collaborating with British electronics producer Floating Points alongside the London Symphony Orchestra, and tenorist Nubya. Garcia (in front of his London quartet).
“It’s always good to see a wide range of music represented in the award,” says Jamie Cullum, the BBC Radio 2 musician and DJ who has been one of Mercury’s 12 juries for the past four years, which means he’s spent much of the past four months browsing over 300 nominated albums. “Even when I was a punter, I enjoyed hearing the Mercury preselection – it reminded you of great albums and introduced you to a lot of things you might not have heard. And, for those who are surprised that jazz is so often included, perhaps this is because many of the panel members, including musicians and DJs, listen to jazz and are particularly interested in music from London’s fertile jazz scene. now . “
Since its launch in 1992, the Mercury Prize has always strived to include artists from genres outside the pop realm, but it has often come across as slightly goofy and symbolic – like a giant pineapple featured in a Prize marrow competition. . In its early years, the shortlist regularly included new orchestral composers such as John Taverner, Gavin Bryars, Michael Nyman, James MacMillan, Peter Maxwell Davies, and Mark-Anthony Turnage. For many years, there were also regularly shortlisted niches for prominent figures in the traditional music world, including Norma Waterson, Kate Rusby, Kathryn Williams and Seth Lakeman, which led to the two-time shortlisted Eliza Carthy to be describe as the “folkie token” at the 2003 awards ceremony.
While contemporary classical and folk artists seem to have dropped out of the Mercury Prize in recent years, jazz appears to have stubbornly occupied a place on the nominee list for almost every one of the prize’s 30 years. During its early years, The Mercury would feature venerable figures from the London jazz scene – including Stan Tracey, John Surman, Bheki Mseleku, Guy Barker and Courtney Pine – with a shortlist spot serving as a sort of award. for his entire career.
But, in the early 2000s, the award began to reflect a new generation of jazz musicians. Soweto Kinch’s first LP in 2003, Conversations with the invisible, seemed to launch a new generation of British jazz, and was followed by a host of albums produced by musicians in their twenties who weaved jazz into a tapestry of music comprising hip-hop, soul, post-rock, minimalism and rave. The Mercury began shortlisting groups like Polar Bear, Portico Quartet, Led Bib, Roller Trio, Kit Downes Trio, and GoGo Penguin – all groups rooted in jazz who were more comfortable playing in rock venues than in jazz clubs and looked more like independent bands.
“As a jazz artist you tend not to receive the media attention associated with the Mercury Prize,” says Seb Rochford, drummer and frontman of Polar Bear. “The first time Polar Bear was nominated in 2005, I remember being absolutely shocked by the red carpet, by the photographers, by the members of the press asking you tons of questions. You’re just not used to that, coming from the jazz world!
Rochford had since been nominated several times – once again for Polar Bear in 2014, once as a guest drummer with Basquiat Strings in 2007 and several times as a drummer on Corinne Bailey Rae, Adele and Sons Of Kemet albums. – which means he’s probably received more Mercury nominations than any other artist. “I think 20 years ago people were very sensitive to jazz artists on the shortlist,” he says. “You were an anomaly. People would complain that you were in a niche that should have been occupied by a rock band. I think it’s different now. Jazz is no longer seen as something hopelessly marginal – people like Shabaka Hutchings and Nubya Garcia are changing the way jazz is viewed by the general public.
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The Mercury also offers jazz musicians exposure to a large live BBC television audience and a chance to steal the show. Shabaka Hutchings is remembered, resplendent in a sequined Union Jack beanie, receiving a standing ovation after his rousing performance with Sons Of Kemet in 2018. “I knew we could own the piece with pure rhythm and volume,” explains Hutchings, with a smile. “It was a chance to shine on live TV!”
Or there was pianist Zoe Rahman who received high praise from Muse’s Matt Bellamy after his 2006 niche. “He said they might as well present me with the award after that performance,” Rahman laughs. “It was a hell of a reward! But getting a Mercury nomination opens doors. It gets you noticed. You get more guest deals with musicians of all genres, you get put on the radar of fixers who form touring bands. We offer you better slots at festivals and big venues.
Arguably, the Mercurys are fighting to stay relevant at a time when streaming has devalued the album’s currency as an art form. However, it is also true that the Prize is a much more open and level playing field than ever before. In a world where newer rock bands no longer have hit singles – and rarely have hit albums – most of the Mercury Prize music can be considered “marginal” in some way. Indeed, many British jazz bands can be found on 6Music or 1Xtra playlists – including recent nominees from Mercury The Comet Is Coming, Sons Of Kemet, Moses Boyd, Nubya Garcia and Seed Ensemble. And these are not outliers. Even during the time frame for the 2021 award, there are plenty of jazz albums – including Emma Jean Thackray’s rave-fueled one. Yellow, pianist Alfa Mist To bring back and the sons of Kemet Black into the future – which could be considered unlucky not to make the cut.
“British jazz has always had a vitality, but it feels a lot more connected to the larger music scene than at any time in recent history,” Cullum said. “When I was on the charts 15 or 20 years ago, jazz was classified as easy listening or MOR, which is fine with me. But there is something very different about the new generation of jazz musicians. It sounds a lot more representative of contemporary culture – it’s very diverse, there are a lot of women involved, and it’s the music that often performs on the dance floor.
Cullum says it speaks of today’s musical adventure. “People don’t have to listen to music in a certain way – the young people who make music draw their influences from many sources on the left,” he continues. “A lot of the artists on this shortlist are artists who have been championed by leftist DJs and online radio stations like NTS, Rinse, Worldwide FM or Soho Radio. Indeed, you will probably hear most of the shortlisted artists this year – including Sault, Celeste, Laura Mvula, Nubya Garcia, Floating Points and Pharoah Sanders, even Hannah Peel – all performed on Gilles Peterson’s 6Music show.
Part of the reason is that much of the music produced by British jazz musicians at the moment converges with a lot of contemporary R&B and dance music. Indeed, many musicians who have been on recent Mercury shortlists, including Laura Mvula and 2020 winner Michael Kiwanuka, are trained jazz musicians who have studied in music schools, while other acts on the This year’s shortlist (of which R&B singer Celeste and London soul and funk collective Sault, led by producer Inflo and singer Cleo Sol) have strong ties to the London jazz scene. “Jazz is much more of the conversation,” agrees Rochford, emphasizing Promises as a prime example of the convergence of different worlds. “Check out the Floating Points / Pharoah Sanders album on this year’s finalist list – it obviously has a jazz element, but it’s as much an electronic album, with a huge orchestra.”
“The Floating Points album doesn’t fit in any box,” agrees Cullum. “It’s even beyond the music – it’s a unique piece of art that’s more like an art installation or something! But, in some ways, it seems like 2021 more than anything else. Indeed, it would not be a huge shock to see one of the so-called “symbolic” jazz albums win the Prize this year.
The winner of the Mercury Prize will be announced on September 9 at the Hammersmith Apollo. John Lewis is music critic and former Mercury Prize judge