RAM Final Recitals
(11th June at the Vortex. Report by Matthew Wright)
One of the most notable and encouraging features of the British jazz scene in the last decade has been the emergence of implausibly accomplished all-round jazz musicians, who can perform in a wide range of styles; compose, and arrange, to a professional standard, in their twenties. The products of the jazz courses started relatively recently by our foremost musical academies, musicians like Laura Jurd, Trish Clowes, Kit Downes, Gwilym Simcock and Sam Leak, appear to emerge from college almost fully-formed, leading their own bands and composing highly original work from the outset.
The Vortex was one of four venues that recently hosted the Royal Academy’s Jazz Final Recitals, the assessed performance that concludes the course. The singers’ recital I attended on Tuesday was unusual even by these standards: two of the three performers, Lauren Kinsella and Emma Smith, have already created their own bands and released an album, while Kwabena Adjepong (known colloquially as Kwabs) has appeared on BBC2 as part of Goldie’s Band in 2011, and is on the brink of much wider fame.
Even by the high standards of jazz education, ‘these three are particularly exceptional in that they have already begun their recording careers,’ says Nick Smart, head of Jazz Programmes at The Royal Academy of Music. While it’s ‘almost always the case that students have established performing careers by the time they are graduating, the releasing of their own albums to such critical acclaim is not so common,’ Smart observes. Laura Jurd, who released her album ‘Landing Ground’ while at Trinity College of Music last year, at the age of only 21, shows the same extraordinary precociousness.
For Emma Smith, the diversity of musical skills jazz education teaches makes it such invaluable professional training. ‘There’s nothing we can’t do,’ she says. ‘I arrived at the Academy a singer, and they have turned me into a composer. The jazz course enables you to do anything you want.’ For Smart, these broadly-based musical skills are essential to today’s jazz education. ‘I don’t know if this is something that makes jazz education distinctive everywhere,’ says Smart, ‘but certainly, at the Academy that kind of professional application and versatility is embedded into everything we do,‘ he says.
This approach attempts to re-create the versatility of successful jazz musicians in the eras before jazz education. ‘I think of people like Kenny Wheeler or Mike Gibbs, or for that matter Coleman Hawkins or Dizzy Gillespie; they were complete artists/composers/pioneers in their own right – but every bit as capable as sitting in the section of a big band or a studio and bringing their artistry to a specific setting for someone else.’
What has changed, though, is the prominence singers have in jazz education. Until very recently the standard training for a jazz singer was to go out and sing. Accomplished, still-young performers like Claire Martin or Georgia Mancio never studied singing in a formal, academic context; they went out and learned on the job.
Smith and Adjepong were the first two singers to undertake the RAM undergraduate course for a long time, following in the footsteps of previous vocalists Kathleen Willison and Olivia Chaney (Lauren Kinsella is a postgraduate). ‘They were tailoring the course for us specially,’ Smith says. ‘It was definitely character-building, being the first. I remember crying in the toilets after improv.’
Ian Shaw, who attended the recital, was sorry to have missed the opportunity of this kind of education himself: ‘I’m constantly moved and encouraged by how jazz education has got so inspiring, contemporary-sounding and all-embracing, unlike when I started. Emma Smith truly represents the future of this exciting and accessible music.’
For Lauren Kinsella, the opportunity to learn from generous experts amongst respectful, stimulating company is the greatest strength of the course. ‘All the guys in postgrad year one and two were very supportive. Their level of musicianship is so high – this really helps up your game when you are working with challenging material,’ she says. But greatest acclaim is reserved for tutors Pete Churchill (’a great man… I have never heard someone explain harmony and theory like that before’) and Dave Douglas:
‘The Dave Douglas week was a great experience for me. We spent a week where we met every day, played music… We wrote, rehearsed and improvised on topics with a final performance in the on the last evening. It was special playing his music with him on stage. I was singing material from his recent recording ‘Be Still’. I liked the songs for their simplicity – I thought a lot about the importance and the beauty of a song and how to deliver this to an audience. There is so much in carrying a melody and words. You consider the phrasing, the stresses in the language, the meaning of the song musically and linguistically in a different way. It’s fascinating.’
Of the three London colleges offering jazz courses, the Royal Academy is the only one to hold its final recitals externally, in a jazz club. The choice of venue is intended to give students a more authentic experience of jazz performance. Being full of students celebrating the end of their course, the atmosphere at the Vortex was even more alive than usual, though for seasoned performers like these three, it was not completely new.
Oliver Weindling, director of the Vortex and owner of Babel Label, who has worked with many of these distinguished young performers, believes the experience is worthwhile. ‘My main feeling is that it’s important that the musicians play a real gig,’ he says. Even when the students are already experienced performers, he believes it’s valuable:
‘There have been a few whom we had already become aware of, before their recitals, such as Kit Downes or Josh Blackmore. However it was still exciting to hear them pull out all the stops. And the party atmosphere. It’s great to allow the new generation the chance to step on the Vortex stage.’
Though Tuesday’s performers seemed to be dealing with the pressures of career-building with remarkable equanimity, it’s important to remember that their opportunities are available to only a handful of students a year.
The size of the intake, Smart explains, ‘varies from year to year and is governed by many factors: government funding, available teaching space, and of course the suitability of applicants.’ But RAM will only take enough students to make up a jazz ensemble; and that needn’t be many: ‘Generally speaking, it is an ensemble per year at UG and PG, but the size and line-up can vary,’ Smart says.
Of those, only a handful will go on to establish sustainable performing careers. Emma Smith is under no illusions about the challenges of establishing a career, however good her training. ‘You have to generate your own opportunities; you have to go out and gig,’ she says. ‘I’ve had to learn how to be a business musician. I released my album [‘The Huntress’] in my third year. That’s stood me in good stead.’
It’s important to remember that successful jazz education in the conservatoires also depends on inspiring jazz teaching at all ages. Whenever I interview one of these successful young phenomena, it’s almost always the case that they have had a dedicated – if unsung – teacher in their teens with the passion and expertise to foster and direct their talent.
The open enthusiasm of American performers for the badge of jazz educator sets a great example. Wynton Marsalis has no duty or material need to teach; but his Jazz at Lincoln Center programme offers superb opportunities for young musicians to discover a love of jazz. Without ever having the public support that’s now ebbing away in UK, it’s recognised that however healthy the music seems to be at the moment, it would only take a generation of neglect for the tradition and shared performance experience to die.
But for now, after six exhilarating nights of this kind held at the Vortex, the 606, the Forge and the Spice of Life, let’s welcome these three brave and talented performers andtheir peers into the precarious, but infinitely wonderful world of jazz performance.