Jazz in the City \\ Leeds’ forward thinking venues and genre-pushing bands

1st August 2019

Emma Finamore explores Leeds’ Jazz scene, elevated by forward thinking venes and genre-pushing bands. 

Words: Emma Finamore

Leeds has long had a rich Jazz scene, from the New Orleans Jazz revival of the mid-1950s – when little clubs popped up all over town, such as the former Peel Hotel on Boar Lane, and Studio 20 on Upper Briggate – to the acid Jazz parties thrown by DIG! collective in the 1990s, and the thrash metal meets Jazz fusion of TrioVD in the 2000s – as much an acoustic interpretation of Squarepusher as it was an electronic manifestation of Sun Ra.

Now, with the UK Jazz flexing the boundaries of the genre ever further, Leeds continues to be a vibrant part of this movement. It’s a small city full of creatives with a DIY ethos, which is the perfect breeding ground for innovative, experimental music. Venues like Hi-Fi Club  with its long-running Sunday Joint Jazz night – nurture the scene here.  The Wardrobe, across the road from the city’s music school and Hyde Park Book Club both support new experimental Jazz, with the latter recently releasing a compilation of local sounds called ‘To Be Here Now’. Spaces like the West Indian Centre – with its infamously ribcage-rattling subby sound systems and dedication to dub – have long played host to a coming together of musical communities, further powering experimental music.

Essential platforms are found in the Soul Rebels/Re:Soul club and jam night – supporting Jazz and Jazz-adjacent acts – Stretchy Dance Supply (a mainly dance club night, that hosts live bands), KMAH Radio, an online community station with several Jazz shows, and Cosmic Slop – a club night/sound system that also functions as an education charity. Tight Lines (the label of acts like Skwid Ink and Tetes de Pois) records, releases and promotes the most exciting music coming out of Leeds (as well as putting on events), while promotors like Super Friendz nurture the local scene at venues Belgrave Music Hall and Headrow House while drawing the wider Jazz and Jazz-adjacent world into the city, such as this year’s World Island festival, hosting artists like Emma-Jean Thackray, Yazmin Lacey, Ezra Collective, Awesome Tapes From Africa and Madlib.

The music school and universities also feed into this scene. Leeds College Of Music counts Jazz pianists David Newton, Nikki Iles, saxophonists Pete Wareham and Alan Barnes, and trumpeters Chris Batchelor and Richard Iles, among its alumni, while Jazz musicians Neil Yates, Nikki Iles, Mornington Lockett, Dave O’Higgins and Omar Puente have previously taught at the conservatoire, as has saxophone specialist, Richard Ingham. Meanwhile, a massive student population – approximately 70,000 – means a high turnover of artists and acts coming in and out of town, adding to the cross-pollination of sounds.

The city’s a good place to survive as a musician, too. Rehearsal space is plentiful and cheap  – old disused industrial spaces are being turned into DIY venues and workspaces – while a network of supportive record shops (like Jumbo and Crash) are open to stocking local bands. Venues like Wharf Chambers and Chunk hire out rooms on the cheap.

It’s not surprising, then, that a wealth of Jazz and Jazz-ish acts are thriving here. Paper Tiger, for example, sit in the space between a post-Flying Lotus beat scene aesthetic and Jazz. Their keys player is in collective Nubiyan Twist, making electronic soul, while the singer on their track ‘Bioluminescent, Olivia Bhattacharjee, sings with Noya Rao  – another notable electronic Jazz/soul outfit – and has her own solo project as Kashu, producing rhythmic grooves with sumptuous harmonies. 

Skwid Ink (although no longer Leeds-based but had their beginnings here) make Zappa-esque wonky Jazz, while Tetes de Pois and their Afro-fusion sound features some of of the same line-up. There’s a huge variety of sounds in the city: Mansion Of Snakes making tight Afrobeat space-jazz while Project Hilts fuse grime with Jazz (the band is led by a member of short-lived grime crew The Square); Morpher meld Jazz with drum n bass, Jasmine Quintet make hip-hop inflected Jazz stylings, while Captain Over (another member of Paper Tiger) channels grime, broken beat and electronic funk through a Jazz lens. 

Here are some tracks to get you started on this vibrant and exciting scene.

\\ Paper Tiger – Yeah Yeah

Paper Tiger lay hip-hop and and grime bars over horn sections, that at first might appear to be samples. What feels like a break-beat cutup reveals itself to be a drummer laying down a junglist or hip-hop beat. ‘Yeah Yeah’ from this year’s ‘Rogue Planet’ LP features has a distinct UK hip-hop vibe – think Jehst, Skinnyman and Task Force‘s bars – delivered over glitchy keys and sci-fi bleeps. Not your average Jazz cut. A great introduction to this dynamic six-piece. Be sure to make ‘Bioluminescent’, on the same LP, your next port of call.

\\ Têtes de Pois – Cut To The Chase 

From this year’s ‘Framework’ EP, ‘Cut To The Chase’ showcases the musicianship of Têtes de Pois perfectly, as well as showing how switching up (and down) the pace of a track keeps things interesting. A driving, rhythmic Afrobeat-inflected refrain is punctuated by guitarist Ben Haskin’s woozy, seductive noodling solo and a dramatic, slowed-down sax section. The rhythm isn’t down for long though, soon instrumentation layers and builds, ending on joyous high. One to catch live, for sure. 

\\ Skwid Ink – Do You Wanna’ Bow Me

Where to start with this one? The opening bars transport us straight into a raucous, riotous dive bar, the band jamming onstage, listen carefully and a squelchy bass comes through – more than a little reminiscent of Roots Manuva’s ‘Witness’. Skippy keys and building, plucked strings take us through to a quick mood shift – a heavy-eyed glowing interlude – before we’re back in the room again, when the funk and pace take full effect.  And yes, that squelchy bass is back too. Guitars rock out, piano keys lilt and tinkle, indiscernible instruments are distorted to joyful effect – it’s like five tracks in one. But somehow Skwid Ink pull it off. 

\\ Captain Over – Better With ft. Manga Saint Hilare

The self-described ‘intergalactic skengman’ (and member of Paper Tiger) producer Captain Over teams up with Roll Deep alumni – instrumental in the beginnings of grime – on this track, perfecting his trademark blend of dark and sci-fi infused bruk/grime. It’s a twist on grime though, of course, with playful jazz drums, fuzzing funky electronics, lush synths and broken drum beat rubbing up against Manga’s loose, free-flowing bars and (unexpected) soulful singing. A great example of how Leeds’ jazz artists artfully toy with genre and expectation. 

Special credit goes to Paper Tiger and Mansion Of Snakes for providing essential insight for this piece.

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