Blurring the lines between jazz and folk, a variety of artists around the globe are creating music that sounds genuinely fresh.
Words and curation by Eric Karsenty, portrait by Mick Clarke
February 9, 2019, GroundUp Festival, North Beach Bandshell, Miami Beach. Folk legend David Crosby receives a standing ovation after a two-hour show. With him on stage are three young jazz musicians: Michael League, bass player (and arranger of Grammy award winning jazz ensemble Snarky Puppy), Becca Stevens, a singer & multi-instrumentalist well rooted in jazz and indie pop; and Michelle Willis, jazz pianist & songwriter. At the age of 77, is Crosby now making jazz albums? Have these three jazz musicians decided a career in folk is for them? Neither one nor the other, this music embodies the sophistication of jazz and the clarity of folk all together at once. Those lucky people in the audience just heard a group of musicians working in perfect harmony – in every sense.
In 2019 we find ourselves surrounded, somewhat against the odds, by jazz. Both the London and LA scenes are prolific. Kamasi Washington received nominations for both Grammy and Brit Awards, while Sons Of Kemet were nominated for The Hyundai Mercury Prize. Meanwhile, BADBADNOTGOOD soundtrack fashion shows while Kendrick Lamar has put jazz-tinged hip hop in both the charts and high culture, courtesy the Pulitzer Prize no less.
I can hear the purists shout that there’s nothing new about jazz-folk, the likes of Oregon, John Fahey, Jimmy Guiffre and many more pairing traditional folk music with elements of jazz for almost 40 years. They’re right…but there is something different going on right now. This playlist showcases a new wave of (mostly classically trained) jazz musicians heavily influenced by folk singers/songwriters. They write songs with adventurous chord progressions, sublime harmonies, beautiful lyrics and some tricky time signatures. But they make it more accessible than jazz could otherwise hope to be.
Being an advocate of what I call the “Jazz and Beyond” movement, I am always on the lookout for artists blending jazz with other music genres. My first introduction to folk-jazz was by my good friend (and amazing drummer) Richard Spaven. Richard was producing the album of a young Dutch singer, defining her music as “Jazzfolktronica”. Given how much of an electronica fan I am, I was both intrigued and excited at the prospect of hearing this album – which tuned out to be Fridolijn’s Catching Currents. And wow, it did not disappoint. It dawned on me then, that another one of my musician friends was making folk-infused jazz (or jazz-infused folk depending on where you stand!), this was pianist and keys player Oli Rockberger. Oli is a profound songwriter and though Jazz is no mystery for him, his biggest influences are Sting, Bon Iver and James Blake. So, something entirely new was going on with the fusion of styles here.
Oli’s compositions hold the complexity of Jazz chords and rhythm patterns, but the moody styles of his influences. A few years ago, Oli put me onto his friend and collaborator Becca Stevens and that brings us full-circle, back to North Beach Miami and Crosby. Becca’s sublime Regina LP blurs the lines between verse and chorus - something more akin to the art songs of Joni Mitchell. Speaking of Joni, I had to kick off this playlist with a song from probably her most adventurous album Hissing of Summer Lawns, which captures perfectly our topic here - a beautiful blend of jazz and avant pop, employing minor-key melodies and richly detailed lyrics. I hope that once you’ve enjoyed the playlist you’ll take the time to revisit this fine record along with the more recent works featured.
After Joni’s intro, we travel around the world, with stops in Paris, Perth, Brussels, Manchester, Chicago, Amsterdam, Istanbul, Porto, Pittsburgh…this jazz-folk thing might be a niche, but it’s definitely global. Last but not least, I conclude In Perfect Harmony with a couple of more ‘challenging’ tracks, which perhaps represent the more intellectual side of the movement. Build up to it, and you’ll enjoy the payoff.
Playback notes: scheduled with love, so do play in order, no skipping!
Eric Karsenty is a music marketer & story-teller and works with some of the most exciting artists on the London jazz-folk scene. He curates hip-hip, jazz, folk and jazz-folk!