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The Mercury Prize and predictions


Hallelujah. There is hope. People who make their opinions public can and do change them when faced with the undeniable. Until last year, Evening Standard Pop Critic David Smyth appeared pathologically incapable of mentioning jazz without dolloping in an allusion to “turtle-necks” or “chin-scratching”. No longer. This year he is a Mercury Prize judge. So , rather than indulging in the generally uninformed speculation on Tuesday when the nominations came out, he wrote:

British music is so strong that this year could have had 30 nominees

[…]Unlike the Brits, which reward sales, the Mercury considers artistic merit alone, which doesn’t often tally with the people’s favourites. It’s surprising then, to count that seven of the 12 albums have been in the UK top 10.

As a member of the dozen-strong judging panel for the first time, I can confirm that the judges are as yet no wiser on the eventual winner than anyone else. We decide on the day of the ceremony, at Mayfair’s Grosvenor House hotel on September 7, moments before Jools Holland opens the envelope. […]

And let us not forget the jazz nominees, the Kit Downes Trio, who emerge at the top of what turns out to be an exceptionally strong year for British piano jazz. Who knew? Jazz belongs perfectly on a shortlist which could only please everyone if it were 30-strong. What a great sign for British music that this year it could have been.

Wow , let’s raise a half-full glass to Luke 15:7! Yes folks, this is a transformation. “Wolle die Wandlung,” said the poet,

Meanwhile, at the other, grumpier end of the scale, there are laggards who haven’t clocked what’s going on yet, like Neil McCormick of the Telegraph.

I’m not particularly surprised by any of the other six, apart from the Kit Downes Trio, which takes the annual token jazz album spot with a record that has had no impact outside of its tightly enclosed genre whatsoever. […] The question is, [..] does anyone still want to win the Mercury Prize? Maybe they should just give it to the Kit Downes Trio, then nobody will notice if it proves a career killer again.

I had an email from one friend responding to this: “You should take this self-important shit to task.” Thanks but no thanks. I’d rather not, and here’s why.

Yes, I can see that the opinion has been reached without the writer seeing any need to inform his readers with any knowledge whatsoever of what Kit Downes’ music is about. The question, then, must be how long zero knowledge can remain a tenable public stance for a professional with the role of pundit, or advisor, or gatekeeper in any field.

Calmos. Heads can’t stay in the sand forever. Self-correction will happen of its own accord. Unless people want to treat the profession of rock journalism as a safe way to drift into retirement on a final salary scheme, eventually they will – inevitably – latch on that something quite astonishing has been happening in the past few years in British jazz.

I’m told that up to 15% of the entries in a typical year are jazz albums. And therefore by law of averages the judges – who are paid to LISTEN, rather than to regurgitate received opinion- are probably going to find something they like.

Anyway, rather than uninformed speculation or punditry, have some information. Here’s the betting. The favourite is The xx at 3/1 (apparently there’s been one substantial bet) and the Kit Downes Trio have the joint longest odds at 26/1.

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7 replies »

  1. Neil McCormack was also seriously rude to and no doubt about Joanna MacGregor the year she was nominated (and indeed almost won according to the grapevine). He is really pretty ignorant so we should almost celebrate his idiocy!

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  2. As a serial Mercury Prize enterer, who has been through the whole process (with releases by Polar Bear and Portico Quartet) I would reiterate that the Mercury people take jazz seriously and there is never a doubt in their minds that any jazz album entered or on the final 12 is not token. Indeed, that commitment is shown by the fact that one of the judges is Mike Flynn (jazz writer for Time Out and Jazzwise).
    However, we have to clear an important misconception about the award. Albums are entered by the record label. There is an entry fee, and then, if an album gets through, additional costs. The Prize is a commercial entity and has to make money. If an album isn't entered it won't get added to the initial choices, which in jazz's case can be a shame. It is also just for UK and Irish artists. So releases like Phronesis, which can get on to other lists can't be entered.
    Overall, the jazz selection over past years hasn't been that bad in hindsight. Polar Bear, Basquiat Strings, Soweto Kinch, Zoe Rahman, Led Bib to name a few. To argue for, say, TrioVD as opposed to Kit (as I could do as having released and entered their album) is purely subjective. Kit is a great musician who will get better, and likewise for the other members of the Trio.
    What is lacking though is adequate outlets to show the thriving jazz scene (particularly with a bit of money attached!) The BBC Awards are gone. The only one with any clout is the Paul Hamlyn Foundation Awards which tend to include one jazz musician who gets a without-strings grant for 3 years (the last 3 being Evan Parker, Chris Batchelor, Iain Ballamy).
    In Germany by contrast, all the radio stations have jazz awards, usually with a sum of €10000+. There are now Jazz Echo awards – their equivalent of Jazz Brits. And awards sponsored by several of the car companies, such as Skoda and BMW.
    It supports a scene which is no less vibrant creatively than ours. Yet appears to be better recognised. Turning up to such awards is great for our self-esteem alone, even when we don't win.

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  3. While I'm all for doing away with prejudices, and of course supporting jazz, I have to say that when Neil McCormick writes –

    “…takes the annual token jazz album spot with a record that has had no impact outside of its tightly enclosed genre whatsoever.”

    – he strikes me as correct on both counts! Despite what you say, Oliver (and obviously you are far more privy to the Mercury ins and outs than me!), there really does seem to be a 'token jazz album' nomination each year, to the extent that when I heard the nominees had been announced I instantly thought, 'Wonder who's got the jazz nomination this year?!' and sure enough, there was one truly jazz album, and it was Kit's. So even if the Mercury panel try not to make it so, it does seem a little odd, because each year there's one jazz album on the list, and one alone.

    Neil's also correct in his second statement – Kit's album *hasn't* made an impact outside of its genre. But then I'd argue that no nominated jazz album *ever* has, of course! 😉

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  4. Thanks Oliver, Andrea.

    Shouldn't people who talk about music professionally be using their minds and ears, rather than trying to second-guess “impact” and “relevance.” There are enough bean-counters and bookies out there already.

    This may be a minority view, but I'm not alone:
    Try this link

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  5. Oh, absolutely. But sadly, prejudice and laziness goes with 'music critic' territory :(. I used to freelance alongside one (who was white, male and in his 30s – of course), and he once dismissed Norah Jones as “coffee table music”. I asked him to explain what he meant. After huffing and puffing for a while, he grudgingly admitted that he couldn't.

    I also think that music critics – especially on the announcement of a list of nominees like this – are often required simply to explain what it means to The Man In The Street. ie. what does this year's Mercury list signify/how do you describe the nominees in a nutshell/is it a safe year, or an exciting list of choices?, etc etc. Also, music journos LOVE talking about the impact of winning/being nominated for a Mercury – they do it every year. (And be warned: we'll be hearing it more than ever this year, after last year's winner Speech Debelle notoriously flopped :(.)

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  6. I wish I could say I was surprised. Not only is Neil McCormack ill-informed about 'niche' genres, let us not forget that he has made some laughable comments in the past about bands he really ought to know something about. I distinctly remember him dismissing Radiohead circa 1995 as 'derivative'.

    “Maybe they should just give it to the Kit Downes Trio, then nobody will notice if it proves a career killer again.”

    I think Andrea has just about hit the nail on the head re. some critics' formulaic repsonses to the Mercury shortlist. It is quite simply lazy, lazy journalism. If NM had even the tiniest awareness of this lad's remarkable talent, he would know that there is only one way his career can go, and that will have little to do with what happens in the Mercury prize.

    That said, while I think Golden is an outstanding album, I was even more struck by Kit's other trio (Troyka). Perhaps this would have been a more likely contender?

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  7. Its a strange meeting of two very different worlds this award! But it can only be a good thing that Jazz is represented and still emphasized in front of the the public eye – as an important and relevant art-form. I wish there could be more jazz as to represent the diversity of the UK jazz scene. I think its great that people are listening to the music and perhaps trying it out for the first time.

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