Led Bib And How The British Got Something Right

I would like to point out that the band behind this video performed live on national television throughout the U.K. and Ireland on Tuesday night:

The group is called Led Bib, and the song they played live, "Yes, Again," is even more frenetic. (You can watch the performance itself on the BBC Web site — the video is for whatever reason not embeddable.) It was part of the ceremony for the Mercury Prize, an award given every year for the best album from the British Isles. Led Bib didn't win; the award went to Speech Debelle, a South London rapper with a proclivity for jazz-influenced production. (Dig the backing roles for reedmen Shabaka Hutchings [clarinet] and Soweto Kinch [alto sax] at the live performance.) Even so, the fact that a jazz act, and especially one so outre, made it to the national spotlight at all should cause a double take.

The Mercury Prize is not the Grammy Awards; a more direct analogue might be the BRIT Awards, which, like the Grammys, are a national recording industry's celebration of self. But just for poops and giggles, it might be useful to compare the Mercury nod to the closest thing the U.S. has: the Grammy for Album of the Year.

Since 1992, the Mercury Prize has been awarded every year, and just about every year a jazz record is shortlisted for the prize. Bheki Msekelu, Stan Tracey, Guy Barker (twice), Courtney Pine, John Surman, Denys Baptiste, Soweto Kinch, Polar Bear, Zoe Rahman, Basquiat Strings, the Portico Quartet, and now Led Bib: these artists have all been nominated. That's 14 in the span of 18 years. In contrast, there have been two jazz albums nominated for Album of the Year Grammys in the last two decades. That number becomes one if you define jazz as to exclude Norah Jones' Come Away With Me — a tired debate which I'll simply remain agnostic about. You'd have to go back to 1977 and George Benson's Breezin' to find another jazz record in the nominees — again, if you call that a jazz record — and before that, 1965's winner Getz/Gilberto.

OK, so some jazz guy from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences is going to cry foul on me. We only nominate five albums every year, compared to the Mercury's 10-12, he'll insist. Furthermore, when the opportunity to award a jazz album with the title emerges, we haven't been afraid to do it. Herbie Hancock's River: The Joni Letters surprised everyone, including jazz fans who liked the record, in winning the 2008 Grammy. (It was a nice record, sure.) No jazz artist has never taken home the Mercury.

Tokenism is a serious and common charge of U.K. jazz (and classical and folk) fans. If jazz can enter the national conversation, but is never seriously considered for the victory, doesn't that amount to lip service? To which I respond: sure. But where were the Grammys when Herbie Hancock made Takin' Off, Empyrean Isles, Maiden Voyage, Speak Like A Child, Fat Albert Rotunda, Sextant, Head Hunters or even Gershwin's World (to say nothing about other Blue Note releases, or the late fusion and electro-pop records, or the Miles Davis second quintet discs, or the Chick Corea collaborations, so forth). To say that Herbie won for an album among his very best work would be a stretch; there's no way career retrospective concerns didn't enter the picture, especially considering the tendency of the Grammy committee to dole out awards to older artists who simply had not been recognized before. Had that album been helmed by any pianist other than Hancock, it likely wouldn't have entered the Grammy field of vision. Talk about your token victories.

Furthermore, that's a critic's discussion: the majority of the home audience doesn't really consider the politics of genre, but rather likes or dislikes what it hears intuitively. The fact that in the U.K., jazz is getting some exposure beyond a tiny sphere — the fact that it's being treated on the same wavelength as far more heavily promoted pop music — this is the takeaway from the discussion. Never even mind that Led Bib are some crazy, pounding, proggy, downtown-style free jazz musicians; they get the media play and national airtime also reserved for the flavo(u)r-of-the-moment British rock band. It forces NME to cede a few column inches to the "obligatory avant-jazz coffee table act," and more fair-minded music journalists to present full previews for all the musicians shortlisted. And I guarantee that at least a small handful of new Led Bib fans are now internalizing: "I had no idea jazz could be edgy and for young people!" The lip service is reaching some open ears.

The Guardian's John Fordham points out that album sales of 2008's "token" jazz inclusion, the Portico Quartet featured in the video above, increased 256% after being shortlisted alone. Imagine Andrew D'Angelo's Gay Disco Trio, or the Chris Potter Underground, or Jason Moran's Bandwagon performing at the Grammy ceremonies. Wouldn't that bring adventurous, uncompromising jazz into the realm of music-making acceptable to mass audiences — which it fundamentally is? Wouldn't that turn a lot of people on to this stuff?

I might propose that some consortium of U.S. music industry types conspire to create an alternative album of the year award like the Mercury Prize, one with a purer, all-inclusive bent on the year's best music regardless of commercial or legacy considerations. (It wouldn't really have to include jazz as much as the Mercury Prize does, honestly — that might be refreshing enough as it is.) But really, I'd be content to see more influential music editors recognize that jazz doesn't live exclusively in its separate sphere — I'd be happy to see a jazz artist make it to Pitchfork or Stereogum every once in a while. Interesting new jazz belongs in the conversation with all interesting new music. At least in the British Isles, some people understand that just a little bit more than we in the states do.

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