Like so many hip things, it would have been easy to write off as a product of the ambiance: Everyone at the second of Jazz re:freshed’s two New York shows this August was altogether too cool-looking—they were dancing too freely and Instagramming too often, glowing under Lower East Side venue Nublu’s slick LED lighting. They couldn’t possibly be true students of the music, discerning listeners looking for genuine artistry. Or could they?
Jazz was born as party music, though it’s had a conflicted relationship with that aspect of its identity—try too hard to appeal to those seeking good times and you’re artistically disingenuous, act too precious and you risk sounding clinical. For better or for worse, the jazz that earns the vaunted “crossover” moniker tends to lean towards the former. Audiences unfamiliar with jazz often prefer something to grab onto, whether it’s Robert Glasper’s pop collaborators or Kamasi Washington’s barreling, festival-ready grooves.
That’s the tightrope Adam Moses and Justin McKenzie set out to walk when they launched the weekly Jazz re:freshed jam session in 2003—creating an atmosphere that might foster both new jazz artists and new jazz fans, far removed from the clichés about plush clubs and impenetrable music the genre is still shrouded in today (see: La La Land). The London concert series has since blossomed into a record label, festival and international partnerships like the one that brought the organization to New York, with local-gone-global festival Afropunk. Its growth is rooted in an Internet-age awareness of jazz, one unafraid of acknowledging the music’s wide web of influences and products—in the organization’s U.K. hometown, that means house music, ska and grime, as well as the R&B and hip-hop conventions that have long been incorporated into the contemporary American jazz vernacular.
Native Dancer, the group who opened the concert, offered groove-oriented R&B/jazz at its highest level. Somewhere between Glasper and Hiatus Kaiyote, the group found their own niche—all the synths and hip-swivelling with a touch more bebop, courtesy of tenor saxophonist Josh Arcoleo, who traded melodic duties with Swedish vocalist Frida Mariama Touray. The quintet played with enough purpose to tap into the soul-jazz tradition instead of the smooth one, experimenting with time signatures and improvisation that pushed at the edges of what can be, in the wrong hands, a rote exercise in beat construction.
After a brief DJ set, drummer Moses Boyd brought his quintet to the stage for some sprawling jams, grounded by his own masterful drumming. He’s another artist who sits comfortably between the worlds of capital-J jazz and pop music, having endeared himself early to BBC tastemaker Gilles Peterson and eventually working with everyone from rapper Little Simz to Kanye and Drake sample-ee Sampha. What initially came off a bit scattered grew into heady, rock-inflected improvisations that somehow felt more cohesive the faster Boyd played (and his playing was practically superhuman).
Finally, saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings joined Boyd and his virtuosic tuba player, Theon Cross, for a trio set. He’d played at Afropunk with his usual touring group, the spiritual-jazz acolytes the Ancestors, but this set was something different. The stripped-down sound revealed all three artists’ fiery side, as they played almost continuously for the better part of an hour. The result felt like some jazz/Balkan/New Orleans brass-band mash-up, with house music at the core. The dancing didn’t stop as the band took detours through dancehall breaks, screaming solos and even an ever-so-brief interpolation of grime artist Skepta’s “Shutdown.” In the small space, Hutchings’ reedy tone contrasted perfectly with the round thumping of the tuba—Boyd backed happy oom-pahs and the set’s almost thrash-inducing climaxes with equal ease. It was the ideal end to a night that showed a few of the many ways U.K. artists are pushing at the edges of jazz (which is basically what jazz is about).
Even when you’re trying to reinvent the wheel, though, some things remain constant. “If you want to talk and chat with your friends, do it out in the street,” Moses told the audience for Jazz re:freshed before everything got started, a savvier (and more charmingly British) version of the preliminary chiding you’ll hear at classic jazz venues like the Village Vanguard and the Blue Note. It was proof jazz fans new and old can agree on one thing: The music always comes first.