I’m pondering a decent start to this article, but I can think of none. So like many writers and students before me, I’ve resorted to sidestepping this dilemma, and to my own surprise find myself away and free get on with talking about the music that I hold most dear – jazz. As I pump […]

I’m pondering a decent start to this article, but I can think of none. So like many writers and students before me, I’ve resorted to sidestepping this dilemma, and to my own surprise find myself away and free get on with talking about the music that I hold most dear – jazz. As I pump up the volume of Polar Bear’s ‘Peepers’, I reflect on how many modern jazz bands have been reviewing their take on the genre; take a step back, think of all the music that you love in all its diversity and look for your inspiration here. Then start again. Now we have a jazz music that is focused and stripped of ego, but above all fresh and invigorating. I raise this observation not to take away from more traditional styles, but in the name of getting inspired and uncontrollably excited. So you can understand my elation when I noticed that in the space of a week Sheffield will play host to:

Troyka (12th April – Millennium Hall, Ecclesall Road), unleashing a sort of jazz/math rock hybrid, with intervals and rhythm shifts that are so unexpected they make you smile.

Soweto Kinch (19th April – Millennium Hall, Ecclesall Road), who effortlessly incorporates hip hop and conceptual narrative as arguably the band’s main focus while remaining loyal to the jazz purists out there.

Behind this spate of gigs that have pricked up my ears lies Sheffield Jazz, a local organisation that has for a long time now been committed to bringing jazz music to Sheffield and admirably hosts gigs every week on a voluntary basis.

This year has seen Sheffield Jazz take over a weekly slot at the Lescar, in the backroom on Wednesday evenings, to complement their main Friday night slot at Millennium Hall. Last month they hosted Mark Lockhart’s reworking of the music of Duke Ellington at the Crucible’s Studio Theatre, with an all-star band including Seb Rochford, Finn Peters and Liam Noble, as well as Get the Blessing, a punk-rock-jazz band featuring members of Portishead.

I met up with programmer and deputy chair of the organisation Paul Thomas to find out a little more about Sheffield Jazz and what they have in store for the coming months.

When did you get into putting on jazz in Sheffield?

Sheffield Jazz has been running for over 30 years in various different guises. At one stage it was called Hurlfield Jazz, and has moved around various venues, such as the Non Pots Club (Non Political Club), before settling for the last five or so years at Millennium Hall on Ecclesall Road. It’s maintained much the same schedule over the years as now, with two main seasons from January to May and September to December.

I’m sometimes a bit frustrated with having to go to London, Leeds and Manchester to see top jazz bands, especially from the crossover scene I’ve described. What do you think are the key issues in making Sheffield’s jazz scene as vibrant as other cities in the UK?

There are a number of potential reason for that. Those are bigger, more prosperous cities, containing music colleges with a strong jazz department, which goes a long way to laying the foundations for jazz in a city. Neither of the Sheffield universities have such a department. There’s also a difficulty booking the right venues at the right times to fit artists’ tours and ventures up north.

We’ve additionally noticed that, perhaps due to the economic downturn, people are less likely to take a punt on acts they know less about. For acts people know and love attendance is good, but this is less reliable for new and less established acts. We certainly do however have aspirations and are working on developing jazz within the city and at the venues we work with.

Where would you recommend for people who want to see jazz in Sheffield in the coming months?

The White Lion in Heeley has a series called Brilliant Corners that runs on the third Tuesday of every month, hosted by drummer Johnny Hunter and featuring different local talents.

I’m also going to butt in here to mention another event series run by Johnny and his brother Anton called The Noise Upstairs. Turn up, stick your name in a hat if you want to play and three random names are chosen to make music together. The theme is free noise with a fair mix of free jazz, and there’s also a featured artist each week. It takes place on the second Wednesday of every month at The Riverside.

What do you guys have planned for the near future?

Our weekly Friday night gigs at Millennium Hall and Wednesdays at the Lescar will be running over the coming months. Pete Lyons, an excellent jazz saxophonist based in Sheffield, is having a 60 years concert on Friday 14th April, while Alex Hutton, a local pianist, will be playing on 10th May. Liam Noble’s Quintet is also booked and we’ll be back at the Crucible too with the piano-led Zoe Rahman Trio.
It’s great to see plenty of quality acts are booked for the coming months, especially in the crossover styles I’m most keen on, and Sheffield Jazz definitely deserves recognition for the hard work they’ve been putting in to keep jazz represented in the city. However, it is a touch disheartening to see the genre so reliant on volunteers and grant money to make ends meet, with great musicians often not making it past London. In this respect Sheffield may even look like a promised land to other more jazz-deprived northern cities.

I think this is due in part to the public image of jazz, and regular people, not musicians, identifying with the bands and their music. The recent flurry of young jazz artists trawling different genres for inspiration has already set the scene alight in my eyes and I’m confident they will help break down the boundaries to the genre for a lot of people. Reining in solos and providing more musical focal points throughout pieces while still allowing for a sense of freedom and improvisation is a tricky business, but one that for me adds depth to the music and may help unlock new audiences for the genre as a whole.

The upcoming Troyka and Soweto Kinch gigs promise to be unmissable and offer the opportunity to hear what I’ve been talking about with your own ears. Whichever way you look at it, it’s clear there is plenty of jazz in the city if you want it and plenty more in store from Sheffield Jazz in particular, so I’ll see you at one of their gigs soon.

sheffieldjazz.org.uk
thenoiseupstairs.com
facebook.com/BrilliantCornersJazzClub

Interview by Tim Feben.