Jazz in the city \\ Manchester: One of the UK’s most inspired Jazz scenes

15th August 2019
Music Journalist Emma Finamore digs deep into Manchester’s music foundations and collaborative spirit. 

Words: Emma Finamore

It goes without saying that Manchester’s musical heritage is a vital part of UK culture, heavily associated with post-punk, rave and indie music, but the city also has a rich tradition of Jazz.

In the 1940s, coronet player Derek Atkinson set up a small trad Jazz combo, the Dixielanders, at the Astoria Club on Plymouth Grove. Some of these band members went on to play in the Smoky City Stompers – according to historian Dave Haslam there’s actually a recording of them playing at the Onward Hall on Deansgate.  The Saints Jazz band played venues like the Old Thatched House Hotel, just off Market Street, before moving to the Grosvenor Hotel on Deansgate. In Moss Side there were clubs playing Jazz and calypso, a result of the area’s multicultural make-up.

This meshing of sounds and cultures in the city threads right up to present day, via the electronica trip-hop / break beat nu-jazz of Mr. Scruff in the 1990s and 2000s, and venues like Matt & Phred’s in the city’s Northern Quarter (originally owned by saxophonist Matt Nickson) – a home for everything from Jazz, folk, gypsy and electro, to salsa, swing and world music. 

Today’s Jazz scene is powered by fusing sounds, just like the Jazz-calypso clubs of Moss Side in days gone by. GoGo Penguin, for example – a piano trio – make electronica-inspired Jazz, feeding pared-down euphoric dance, junglist, trip hop and broken beat through a Jazz lens, likened to everyone from Aphex Twin and Brian Eno, to Shostakovich, Debussy and Philip Glass. Take the deliciously off-kilter broken beat and warm, glowing keys of ‘Hopopono’, the rave-like euphoria of ‘Bardo’, for a sense of how they fuse sounds.

Then there’s the so-called lovechild of trap and jazz, IAMDDB, her flows switching from MCing to singing (and back again) over unexpected beats – something she calls “urban Jazz” – and duo Children Of Zeus, locating themselves somewhere at the points where hip-hop, soul, Jazz and R&B coalesce.

Idiosyncratic jazz-ish vocalist LayFullStop exists in this space too, featuring on Children Of Zeus’ ‘Fear of a Flat Planet’ as well as the recent Vinyl Factory/Lonely Table compilation LP, ‘Untitled’ (along with other UK Jazz and jazz-adjascent figures like Nubya Garcia, Shabaka Hutchings, Joe Armon-Jones, Wu-Lu and Kwake Bass) touching on Jazz, experimental electronic, post-punk, dub and ambient influences. Her recent full-length project ‘Colour Reaction’ showcases her soulful, hip-hop inflected sound.

The Mouse Outfit blend funk, hip-hop, and Jazz – even reggae influences – while the Riot Jazz Brass Band – declaring themselves as coming from the “grimy protoplasm of Manchester’s prolific creative scene” – draw on everything from Jazz, hip-hop, drum n bass and trap, to grime, dubstep, Latin and classical, fronted by MC Chunky. Although they probably sit outside what might be considered “new UK Jazz”, this group are a part of the city’s brightly vibrant – and more importantly, joyful – meshing of sounds. 

Mammal Hands started out in Norwich before being signed by Manchester trumpeter Matthew Halsall, to his Gondwana imprint, and recording their innovative take on Jazz in the city. This trio tell stories and paint pictures through music. 2017 LP ‘Shadow Work’, for example, is full of textural soundscapes, showcasing their knack for innovative production and unexpected instrumentation and their interests in electronic, modern classical and world music. 

Gondwana Records very much supports the Jazz-crossover scene in Manchester (putting out music by people like LA Jazz singer Dwight Trible and Melbourne’s Allysha Joy, alongside local acts) as do stations like Reform Radio and venues such as Band on the Wall – with a long history of platforming Jazz, punk, post-punk, world music, dating back to the 1930s. The Deaf Institute hosts nights like Jazzhop (combining a live Jazz band with turntables and hip-hop) while Soup Kitchen pulls in artists from further afar, like Cape Town’ nu-jazz and folk singer Nono Nkoane, German electronic nu-jazzer Jan Jelinek and Melbourne’s boom-bap neo-soul jazz collective 30/70. 

Yes hosts the vibrant Anti Social Jazz Club – a regular night where you can hear everything from Ethio-Jazz, Afrobeat, highlife and African polyrhythms to flamenco, Brazilian Jazz, Neapolitan funk, bruk and soul. 

Manchester also has a great roster of festivals celebrating and nurturing Jazz and Jazz-adjacent music. Blue Dot‘s 2019 line-up, for example, boasts Sons Of Kemet, Ibibio Sound Machine, the city’s own GoGo Penguin and Emma-Jean Thackray, to name a few. Manchester Jazz Festival celebrates international, national and local jazz – for example bringing nearby Leeds’ Jasmine and Noya Rao quartets, platforming the innovative sounds coming out of the North West of England. 

The likes of Manchester International Festival, Parklife and Sounds From The Other City mean that the city is awash with everything from dub reggae and DIY punk to grime, hip-hop, drum n bass and R&B. A richly diverse medley forming the backdrop to one of the UK’s most interesting new Jazz scenes. 

\\ Mammal Hands – ‘A Solitary Bee’

Originally written on wooden flute, this track features folk-like sax melodies, echoing Irish traditional music, and combines the warm, rich instrumentation with cooler, fluttering percussion. They’re no strangers to folding in unusual strains to their Jazz – going back to 2016 LP ‘Floa’, they fused Sufi and African trance music with folk. Also take their melancholic, yearning, driving ‘Kandaiki’, for example, which feels like it’s telling a story, unfurling a narrative. Mammal Hands push the boundaries of what Jazz can achieve.

\\ Children Of Zeus – ‘Fear Of A Flat Planet’ 

A great example of the collaborative community of Manchester’s Jazz and Jazz-ish community. From Children Of Zeus’ acclaimed 2018 LP ‘Travel Light’, Tyler Daley and Konny Kon team up with the instantly recognisable  (and fellow Mancunian) LayFullStop, employing her woozy, smoky vocals to contrast with their own flows, to mellow, soulful effect. DJ Metrodome – from local hip-hop collective, Levelz – adds glowing keys and synths to the laid back beat, making it a real Manchester project. 

\\ Gogo Penguin – ‘Garden Dog Barbeque’

A junglist beat accompanied by rich piano, this is straight up jazzified drum n bass. 

It’s a familiar sound but fed through a different lens – making it feel familiar, infectious even, but unexpected at the same time. It’s not often that this collection of instruments transports you to a jungle DnB rave, or produces a club-ready drop. Citing Aphex Twin and Massive Attack among their influences, and playing with a break-beat style that’s more left field electronica than Jazz, the Mercury Award nominated trio (for 2014 album ‘v2.0’, released via local imprint Godwanda records), have now signed to the legendary Blue Note – taking Manchester Jazz to an international audience. 

IAMDDB – ‘Urban Jazz’

Diana Debrito AKA IAMDDB cut her Jazz teeth touring with her musician father in his homeland of Angola. On returning to o the UK she started producing music, and now combines Jazz and soul – nodding to Nat King Cole and Erykah Badu – with contemporary trap and RnB sounds, something she calls “urban Jazz”. This track embodies that in sound as well as name. Icy trap beats contrast with and punctuate warm, mellow piano loops and hazy soul vocals, pushing it just shy of the neo soul bracket and into an altogether more complex and interesting domain.


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