Photo credit: Dave Stapleton/Editon Records
In a week’s time Dinosaur will not only be sharing the glitz and glamour of the Mercury Prize award night at the Eventim Apollo in Hammersmith with fellow shortlisters like Stormzy, alt-j and Ed Sheeran – they will be performing on the night. Leander Hobbs went to talk to bandleader Laura Jurd:
The inclusion of the album Together, As One (Edition Records) in the Hyundai Mercury Prize nominations for 2017 is heartening news, suggesting that instrumental jazz is once again finding a foothold on the same stage as the more populist music which has always made up most of the Mercury’s lists.
No one was more excited by the news than the musical boundary-bending genius behind the album, trumpeter and composer Laura Jurd, together with her group of trusted band mates Elliot Galvin (keyboards), Conor Chaplin (bass guitar) and Corrie Dick (drums), aka Dinosaur.
So, a week away from the big night, what it’s like to make a noise beyond the genre?
Laura: “Being one of 12 shortlisted albums for the Mercury Awards was an amazing surprise for the band. Our peers have been hugely supportive and it is great chance for the band to reach a whole host of new listeners. The fantastic thing about the Mercury Prize is that it’s non-genre specific, therefore you get grime artists alongside indie bands and then the likes of us – a trumpet-led instrumental band. It’s a superb opportunity for us to be heard on more mainstream platforms, outside the more niche yet wonderful world of European contemporary jazz.”
It’s unsurprising that Laura is so buoyed by the nomination and the effect it could have on the reach and impact of the album. The Mercury Prize official music partner BBC Music and digital partner Apple Music can reach global audiences of millions, something unheard of for a contemporary jazz musician. And, despite previous nominations for jazz albums, including two for Polar Bear, jazz has been given only the most cursory of nods in recent years. This, however, is a criticism Laura doesn’t believe should be wholly shouldered by the awards.
Laura: “I do think the mainstream media could work harder and dig deeper to discover the current game-changers in the world of jazz and improv. music, but I also think it works both ways. I think we as musicians should think about how we can successfully engage with our audience – and think about the whole process as an artistic endeavour, not just the music. How a band looks on stage – the set, the lighting, the album artwork, videos etc, – can all hugely contribute to the process of building an audience. Saying that, these things can only reach their full potential if the music, the artistry and the sounds, have been crafted with upmost heart, skill and dedication. When these are done right then you’ve done your best.”
Still it is undoubtedly more difficult for a young jazz musician to make their mark on the mainstream zeitgeist and yet Laura, with Dinosaur, appears to be doing just that.
Laura: “With the likes of the Internet and new technologies, there’s an almost over-whelming number of ways to communicate your art with people all over the world. In some ways, this makes it possible and affordable for anyone to make waves as a musician, although perhaps it’s sometimes hard to know where to begin with so many options. I think the younger generations are more at home with these new things so I’d say it is easier for us to make a mark today. I sometimes see a cynicism in some of the older generations of jazz musicians that I think can hold certain artists back. And sadly, even lose interest in making new things. It’s such a shame because some of my absolute favourite musicians are of a generation that struggles to find the spotlight a lot of the time. Maybe it’s harder to ask for help when you are older? Or perhaps it’s tempting to lose your drive a little bit?
“Saying that, I can also think of examples from that generation that do embrace new ways of communicating their music to the best of their abilities, which I have a lot of respect for, so I’m speaking more generally. I certainly don’t think Miles Davis would have stopped making art in the face of all the changes to the music industry. He was a giver! Of course, I think we should all speak-out about things we don’t agree with, engage politically, be the change we want to see – but I don’t think anything should stop us making art if we have something to give. It often gets caught up in the capitalist systems we’re all inevitably a part of, but I strive to never let that influence my artistic decisions. I personally feel so lucky to take part in something which is bigger, more human and holds far more value that all of that stuff.”
Photo credit: Dave Stapleton/Edition Records
As she mentioned him it’s hard not to draw parallels between Davis and Laura’s work, which has been described by some, including the Guardian as being of a distinctly Miles Davis inspired sound. How far is that true?
Laura: “Wow that’s a crazy question! Let’s just say that if Miles was a point on the map and I was a moving point on the same map, then I’d have absolutely no idea where I was travelling and I wouldn’t want to know either. I don’t think you can ever know what life is going to hold, or feel like in the future. The same goes with music-making. I know that Miles is a big influence and someone I’ll always channel sub-consciously as trumpet player. The same goes for British trumpeter Chris Batchelor, plus a few others. What that means in terms of the result I honestly don’t know! If this a point in the interview to celebrate Miles Davis then let’s do that – he was amazing. What a sound. A master of artistic trust in others and self-belief. An icon of the 20th Century.”
I first caught up with Laura in 2015 as she was embarking on a two-year BBC New Generation Artist scheme. She was performing at the Berlin Jazz Festival and was introduced on stage by LJN editor, Sebastian Scotney. As one of her first live gigs outside of the UK, how important was this festival to making her mark on the jazz scene?
Laura: “Yes, it was one of our first gigs outside of the UK and our first performance in Germany – so for that reason it was great. However, it just so happened to also be one of those special gigs. I think the four of us put absolutely everything into every performance no matter what the gig is, but that night we managed to access a space which goes very deep. To steal a phrase often used by saxophonist/composer Mark Lockheart, the band ‘had a visit’! We’ve had a few since then too, but that night will remain a memorable gig for us. The audience was amazing and extremely attentive and the energy in the room was electric. It’s a two-way thing, between audience and performer. When it’s right magical things can happen.”
Two years on, has the BBC NGA scheme left its mark on Laura’s performance?
Laura: “The BBC NGA scheme was a wonderful opportunity for me to carry out projects that I’d perhaps not have been able to do otherwise. The most notable being the chance to write for an orchestra when commissioned to write a new piece for Dinosaur plus the BBC Concert Orchestra as part of last year’s London Jazz Festival. That was a great experience that I learnt a lot from – both musically and professionally. Over the past couple of years, I’ve also been fortunate to record a few sessions for broadcast on BBC Radio 3 with musicians that I hugely admire; the likes of Seb Rochford, John Edwards, Tom Herbert and Lauren Kinsella – some of whom I’d worked with previously, but some for the very first time.
“Over the two-year process I learnt a lot about my own working-style and approach to artistic projects. Whenever one carries out any kind of project there’s always something to learn from it. That’s what keeps things developing and makes all of this so exciting. There is no ceiling. Having had the chance to do quite a few different things as part of the NGA scheme, I feel like I’ve learnt a lot and been able to self-reflect in a positive and constructive way.”
There’s just a week to go until the Mercury Prize awards but what else have Laura and Dinosaur got in store for their growing legion of fans?
Laura: “At the end of October we are recording our second album, which will be released early summer 2018. As a composer, this next album is the result of bottling the moments that really resonated with me from our live performances over the last year and my own listening, and pouring those things into some new music which I hope will sound refreshing, inviting and full of pleasant surprises. I’m very keen to not be bullied and restricted by the word jazz (for the record, I adore jazz music), but to continue our journey as four humans trying to communicate the sounds we love to the rest of the world – via trumpet, keyboard, bass and drums!”