Over the past ten years, the unique style of jazz that sprung up in London has grown from a small group of passionate young artists into one of the world’s premiere music scenes. What sets London apart from other jazz scenes is its vibrant blend of hip-hop, house, afrobeat, drum & bass, neosoul, UK garage, and countless other modern inspirations that breathe new life into music. Even jazz-hating audiences will be surprised to hear how accessible and instantly enjoyable the music is.
I’ve put together a list of some of the biggest and most representative releases from London jazz artists so that you can dig into the rich and vibrant sounds of the scene. Albums were selected based on the criteria that each record be a viable place to start if you haven’t checked out London jazz before, but also be a worthwhile listen for those who might already know a thing or two about it. I’ve limited artist representation to one entry per discography (not counting artists who perform in multiple groups) so that a wide array of artists and styles could be represented. Without further ado here’s a list of London jazz records you should check out.
We Out Here – Various Artists (Brownswood Recordings, 2017)
We Out Here is a great entry point into the London jazz scene. In 2018, major music tastemaker Gilles Peterson brought together nine of the scene’s creative forces to record a compilation album under his independent label “Brownswood Recordings”. The album, recorded over three days at Fish Factory Studio, serves as a sampler pack of great London artists, many of who’s projects appear later in this list.
What Kinda Music – Tom Misch & Yussef Dayes (Blue Note Records, 2020)
London guitarist/producer Tom Misch is an interesting figure out of the scene. On his other albums like 2018’s Geography and 2015’s Beat Tape 2, Tom cultivates a unique style of hip-hop that’s on the fringes of conventional jazz but is right at home in the London sound. For those looking for a more familiar entry point into the scene, I’d highly recommend checking those projects out, but his 2020 collaboration with drummer Yussef Dayes heavily leans into the roots and aesthetics of London jazz. Dayes is a central figure in the scene, laying down the groove on many of its landmark records. What Kinda Music celebrates the crossroads nature of London jazz, bringing together hip-hop production, psych-rock guitar sounds, jazz-funk grooves, and even featuring a verse from American emcee Freddie Gibbs. The collaboration, released on the historic Blue Note jazz label, marks a major collision of worlds in the London music scene, one that’s ripe with possibilities for the future.
Yellow Ochre – Vels Trio (Total Refreshment Records, 2017)
If you’re looking to cut straight to the heart of the London sound, Yellow Ochre is a fantastic place to start. At about 20 minutes in length, this EP is a short and exciting listen full of the things that make London jazz great: phat grooves, beautiful synths, and infectious melodies. Yellow Ochre was recorded with the help of one of London’s hippest jazz joints: the Total Refreshment Centre, and contains a feature from UK jazz giant Shabaka Hutchings in the form of “40 Point”.
Black Focus – Yussef Kamaal (Brownswood Recordings, 2016)
2016’s Black Focus was a seminal record in the development of the scene, and a must-listen for fans of the music. The album’s popularity made it one of the first London jazz albums to crossover into a wider international audience and put the scene on the map for many people who had been caught out of the loop. The telepathic duo of drummer Yussef Dayes and keyboardist/producer Kamaal Williams formed the two halves of Yussef Kamaal, a short-lived collaboration which ended soon after the release of the record. Both artists have gone on to be major figures in London. While Dayes has released little music under his own name opting instead to work with other groups, Williams has continued to make records both as a keyboardist and as a DJ under the name Henry Wu. While they might not be together anymore, Yussef Kamaal left behind a monumental record in the form of Black Focus that has and will continue to serve as a musical ambassador from London to the world.
The Return – Kamaal Williams (Black Focus Records, 2018)
Following the success of Black Focus and Yussef Kamaal’s subsequent split, Williams set out on his own to carry on the spirit of their hit album, founding Black Focus Records and releasing a much-anticipated sequel, The Return. This record recreates the lightning-in-a-bottle energy that made the first record so popular while bringing new ideas to the table. The Return focuses on developing the first album’s winning combination of break-neck beats and silky buttery synths. Williams just released his new album Wu Hen earlier today (July 24th, 2020), the latest in a string of major London releases this year following records from Dayes & Misch, Yazmin Lacey, Zara McFarlane, and Shabaka Hutchings.
Turn To Clear View (Brownswood Recordings, 2019)
Keyboardist Joe Armon-Jones’ quasi-psychedelic blend of funky neosoul, afrobeat, and jazz has made him one of London’s most recognizable acts. Working alongside London staples like drummer Moses Boyd and saxophonist Nubya Garcia, Jones explores a world of colorful sounds and emotions in his work. His latest project, Turn to Clear View, is a funky, laid back listen filled with great moments. If you like what you hear, definitely go back and check out his first record, 2018’s Starting Today.
You Can’t Steal My Joy – Ezra Collective (Enter the Jungle, 2019)
Ezra Collective is a group made up of young jazz musicians who have been with the London sound since its early days (including the aforementioned Joe Armon-Jones). On their first full-length LP You Can’t Steal My Joy, the group stitches together an energetic array of short tracks, resulting in a truly dynamic listen. Tracks flow together seamlessly, but they never stay in one place, switching between slick soulful beats and fiery hard-driving compositions that make you wanna dance. A definite highlight is the laidback jazzy hip-hop cut “What Am I to Do?” featuring South London rapper Loyle Carner.
Trust in the Lifeforce of the Deep Mystery – The Comet is Coming (Impulse!, 2019)
Saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings is at the center of a handful of groups operating out London: Shabaka and the Ancestors, Sons of Kemet, A.R.E. Project, and the trio that recorded this album, The Comet is Coming (all operating under the revived jazz label Impulse!). Hutchings is not an artist who avoids taking risks, and his work with The Comet is Coming sees him at perhaps his most eccentric, smashing together elements of rock, synthwave, and jazz. As the album artwork would suggest, Trust in the Lifeforce of the Deep Mystery is a cosmic odyssey for your ears. My favorite track is “Blood of the Past” which features a spoken word performance from London poet Kate Tempest. The instrumentals on the record are majestic and mysterious, staring the unanswered questions of the universe square in the face and reveling in their magnitude. It’s truly a work that words fail to describe and must be experienced.
Displaced Diaspora – Moses Boyd (Exodus Records, 2018)
Drummer Moses Boyd is a major player in the London scene, working with many artists on their projects. He takes the lead on 2018’s Displaced Diaspora to make an iconic record filled with exciting and memorable tracks. Immediately apparent are the tuba of Theon Cross and the record’s energetic and sometimes jubilant rhythms and solos, but something that stands out to me is the beautiful arrangements scattered throughout, notably on tracks like “City Nocturne”, “Rye Lane Shuffle” (named after a street in the artistic South London neighborhood of Peckham), and “Axis Blue”. These arrangements have an almost Gil Evans and Miles Davis quality to them, filled out by the bass clarinet of Nubya Garcia.
Arise – Zara McFarlane (Brownswood Recordings, 2017)
Zara McFarlane has one of London’s most powerful and beautiful voices. On Arise she draws a lot of inspiration from her Caribbean background, bringing the sounds of reggae, Kumina, and calypso to the new London tradition, aided by a stellar showing from drummer Moses Boyd. The record features insightful lyrics, beautiful melodies, and rich harmonies complimented by McFarlane’s clean, soaring tone.
McFarlane released her new record, Songs of an Unknown Tongue, just last week (July 17, 2020). Her new album has a bit of a different sound, opting for more heavy-handed production, and the result was another massively creative and strikingly beautiful project. The London sound shines through on multiple spots throughout the album, but the most unmistakable section of London jazz comes on the penultimate track, “Roots of Freedom”.
When the Sun Dips 90 Degrees – Yazmin Lacey (First Word Records, 2018)
The Yazmin Lacey sound is unique lush neosoul through and through with plenty of London jazz fingerprints scattered about. So far she’s released three EP’s, each around 20 minutes in length, and each a fresh and enjoyable listen. On her second EP, When the Sun Dips 90 Degrees, the blend of electronic production and acoustic instrumental elements complement Lacey’s natural breathy tone, giving the record its rich texture and layered sound, a little reminiscent of Moonchild’s first LP Be Free. All in all, if neosoul and jazzy R&B is your jam, you can’t go wrong with a Yazmin Lacey record.
KOKOROKO – KOKOROKO (Brownswood Recordings, 2019)
KOKOROKO is an 8-piece band made up of young Londoners with strong roots in West African music. On their debut EP, the group underscores their love for a good groove, alternating between uptempo dance fuel and rich relaxed beats. Having appeared on Brownswood’s 2017 compilation record We Out Here, the group has found a home at Gilles Peterson’s label, and their output has been slowly ramping up in the past couple of years. With its passionate youth, KOKOROKO is poised to be a leading group in the scene moving forward– definitely one to keep an eye on.
Nubya’s 5ive – Nubya Garcia (Jazz re:freshed, 2018)
Nubya’s 5ive features an all-star band with big names like Joe Armon-Jones on keys and Moses Boyd on drums. The record leans heavily into an aesthetic of creative contemporary jazz underscored by the funky “afro-tinged” polyrhythms of the London sound. Saxophonist Nubya Garcia takes lead on the record, leading the group and composing all but one of the album’s tracks. The group’s chemistry is audible on this record as they naturally complement each other through an unspoken understanding that only comes from deep friendship. The album opener, “Lost Kingdoms” is a major highlight, featuring trumpet player Sheila Maurice-Grey and an infectious opening melody that bookends the track. Aside from the unmistakably London tuba of Theon Cross on the track “Hold”, this album doesn’t reinvent the wheel on jazz instrumentation, but Nubya’s 5ive delights in musical creativity, sounding fresh and interesting in a way only London artists can deliver.
Beautiful Vinyl Hunter – Ashley Henry (Sony Music, 2019)
The music of pianist Ashley Henry has a clean and polished sound. His natural affinity for the acoustic grand piano brings an air of elegance and timelessness to his work, and Beautiful Vinyl Hunter sees him collaborating with a host of artists from varying disciplines. Henry’s keen sensibility towards how jazz can interact with hip-hop shines through on tracks like “Between the Lines” and “COLORS” (not to mention his brilliant reimagining of Nas’ “The World is Yours” from his Easter EP). His ability to make the piano sound wide with rich harmonies makes the jazz cuts on the record lush and constantly engaging. Beautiful Vinyl Hunter is a record that beautifully illustrates Henry’s unique approach towards engaging with the London jazz spirit.
Ley Lines – Emma-Jean Thackray (The Vinyl Factory, 2018)
On Ley Lines, London bandleader, multi-instrumentalist, and producer Emma-Jean Thackray looks introspectively, performing and producing all of the sounds on the 20-minute project. Citing the creative process of legendary hip-hop beatsmith Madlib as an inspiration, her approach fills the album with depth and personality. The short project showcases a variety of sounds and styles, at times chill and vibey and at others intensely groovy, and even going a little avant-garde on tracks like “Howley” and “Outro”. Ley Lines is an interesting listen, highlighting the sheer creativity of one of London’s brightest disciples.
Structuralism – Alfa Mist (Sekito, 2019)
East London Pianist/Producer Alfa Mist’s Structuralism in a word: atmospheric. The music of Alfa Mist is deceptively laid back, but beneath its cool aesthetic, the artist explores complex musical ideas. It’s no surprise that Alfa Mist cites the work of Miles Davis as a critical influence. Like many of his fellow London musicians, he doesn’t shy away from incorporating electronic instruments, but his subtle approach is certainly singular. This album in particular showcases his detailed and deliberate soundscaping. We also get a taste for his fondness towards unusual meters on “Naiyti”, an effect that plays off his style masterfully. Structuralism is an album that presents the listener with a world of musical richness in a relaxed package that can meet audiences where they are. For those who might find the sparse selection of vocal tracks on Structuralism too few, I’d recommend checking out Alfa Mist’s neo-soul-inspired 2020 collab record with London singer Emmavie: Epoch.
Wisdom of Elders – Shabaka & the Ancestors (Brownswood Recordings, 2016)
Wisdom of Elders is a demanding listen. I wouldn’t say its an album for everyone, and if you’re not about 8+ minute jazz tunes I might recommend you look elsewhere on this list. But if you happen to be an avid jazz listener, listening to Wisdom of Elders is a very rewarding experience. Hutchings and his mates draw inspiration from African rhythms and classic jazz fusion sounds to create a truly unique and memorable album. London DJ/Drummer Mcknasty told Red Bull in an interview about the record, “It’s almost psychedelic, but at the same time, it has an earthy influence as well, with an African background to it. That’s dope. Hutchings brought in those South African influences with the team he worked without there. Siyabonga Mthembu… does some of the lead vocals, and he’s got this amazing depth to his voice, almost singing from a very ancestral place. So the mixture of that I think is quite amazing.”
The Shakedown – Tenderlonious & the 22archestra (22a, 2018)
Saxophone and flute player, producer, and label head Ed “Tenderlonious” Cawthorne has been in the London jazz scene since its infancy, when it was centered around live-performances and uncommon to see investment from labels. Through early friendships with Kamaal Williams and other artists, he was involved with pioneering the fusion sound that has made the city’s jazz so unique. After difficulties in finding labels to represent his group Ruby Rushton, he decided to found one himself: 22a. As the London sound began to gain traction, an engineer at historic Abbey Road Studios fell in love with the group’s sound and offered to squeeze Cawthorne in during studio downtime. The informal nature of the studio appointment meant that Cawthorne couldn’t call in all the members of his group, so he called together a group of musicians, including drummer Yussef Dayes, and with little time to prepare, they went in and jammed. That session produced The Shakedown, a triumph of improvisation and kindred creativity.
Ironside – Ruby Rushton (22a, 2019)
Ruby Rushton’s latest album is a great representation of the forward-thinking jazz compositions the group is known for. The compositional strengths on Ironside are highlighted by its short-track format hopping from idea to idea, never stagnating, and always introducing something new and exciting. Listening to this record you can almost picture yourself in a bustling South London jazz spot, going deep into the night, dancing with hip crowds, and having fun, which at the end of the day is what jazz music has always been about.
Finally, I’ve compiled a handful of songs that are worth checking out but didn’t make this list for one of three reasons: 1. the track appears on another album from an artist already featured on the list, 2. the track was released as a single or on a short EP, or 3. the track highlights an area of the scene that is not representative of London jazz as a whole and thus wouldn’t be a good introductory or essential listen. Spotify also curates a playlist called Jazz UK where you can find fresh cuts from around the scene.
Something beautiful is happening in London. Young artists are discovering the richness of black music traditions and enjoying them in modern contexts. By looking to these art forms, people are rediscovering the roots of the music we enjoy today, and simultaneously forging the shape of jazz to come. At its core, this scene is a bunch of young creative Londoners having fun and doing what they love as crowds of people stop by to join in on the excitement. As Kamaal Williams told Vinyl Me Please, “It’s not about being an intellectual or doing anything too fancy; it’s just about being true to the sound of our generation,” and London jazz is the sound of the new generation taking what we’ve learned over decades and giving it a modern flair.
*All images come courtesy of Bandcamp unless otherwise stated