The following MBW blog comes from Federico Bolza (pictured), Director of New Soil, a new London-based label division under Marathon Music Group that specializes in UK jazz. Here, Bolza, who is also a former Sony VP of Strategy, discusses the evolution and resurgence of jazz in the UK, how he came to be connected with the contemporary British jazz scene, and the beginnings of the New Soil label, which he describes as a “hybrid business spanning strategy, management and label skills”.
New (adj): of a kind never before existing
Soil (noun): any place or thing encouraging growth or development
The Collins English Dictionary (2nd Edition)
Every so often in the musical cycle there is talk about the “return” of a genre presumed dead or, at least, trapped in a limbo of irrelevance relative to the current cultural moment. The journalistic sense of excitement that greets the re-emergence of this genre into a wider consciousness usually come as a surprise to both its practitioners and fans who have been carrying on doing their thing oblivious to the fact that it had ever gone away in the first place.
Whilst out of the spotlight, the genre continues to evolve and regenerate as contemporary influences moved within it to develop a new expression. On its re-emergence, it again finds a way to re-contextualize itself for a contemporary setting, connecting with new audiences and stating the case for its relevance anew.
In recent years, one of the genres undergoing this return across the globe has been jazz. In the UK, this has taken on a peculiarly British form merging with the diasporic music brought by years of inward Afro-Caribbean migration that has woven its way into the fabric of our society to create a sound that could only have been birthed here.
This particular evolution has seen jazz inter-mingle with elements of dub, sound-system culture, hip hop, grime, soca, afro-beat, jungle and electronic music. The result is an excitingly “genre-fluid” sound that is as rooted in dance as it is in the tradition of complex interaction and improvisation the form trades in. With its exploration of tradition and innovation as well as its musicians’ quest to locate and soundtrack the stories of their individual and collective identities within our society, it feels like precisely the music we need in this moment.
I came into contact with this world in 2016 when, as a trustee of the Abram Wilson Foundation, I was introduced to a number of the young musicians coming up the ranks. As I met and discovered the music of Binker & Moses, Nubya Garcia, Ezra Collective, Kokoroko, and Theon Cross it rapidly became apparent that there was something unique going on. Despite a number of lazy attempts to package them as a “new jazz scene”, this generation have a much bigger view. More than a scene defined by a set of stylistic signifiers, they are a music community rooted in shared values and the desire to collaborate to create a reality that reflects the world we live in as well as their beliefs of how it should be.
“This particular evolution has seen jazz inter-mingle with elements of dub, sound-system culture, hip hop, grime, soca, afro-beat, jungle and electronic music. The result is an excitingly “genre-fluid” sound that is as rooted in dance as it is in the tradition of complex interaction and improvisation the form trades in.”
That doesn’t just mean how they make and play music but also the way they release and perform it. In many ways this generation have taken the DIY ethos that has infused insurgent genres from punk to grime, combined it with the digital savvy that is their birthright and added the social consciousness of grassroots community organisers.
This last dimension is also the by-product of having grown up in community led organisations like Tomorrow’s Warriors and Kinetika Bloko as well as the ongoing support of a unique label/promoter like Jazz Re:Freshed all of which honed much more than musical chops creating inter-linkages between musicians, bridging the space between elders and youth and preaching the power of self-reliance and belief.
Using these skills against the backdrop of an industry that perhaps didn’t fully understand the music (at least not initially) and a lack of public spaces and places for music to be rehearsed and played, they created their own. Whether that was the industrial factory space of Total Refreshment Centre, the concentric pews of Church of Sound or the sweaty dancefloor of Steamdown, the importance of having a place to congregate and play but also to take seriously the role of these places in giving something back to the community they live in.
And it is in these places that an audience for this music really started to grow. In a similar way to the musicians, an audience interested in an organic musical experience not necessarily mediated by screens began to emerge. The desire to be in a room and to experience a set of musicians really communicating with each other as well as everyone else. But this was not an audience of chin stroking, head nodding musos of the cliched jazz club but much more akin to a club where an eclectic group of people seek to meet to be transported to another place and dance away the tensions of a world on edge.
In that sense the recorded output, at least initially, was just as much the memento of a memorable night as it was the reason for attending in the first place. People came to the music via an experience in the real world and, from there, engaged with it through whatever other medium suited them. What struck me, attending these gigs for the first time, was the energy and positivity that suffused the environment – a sense not just of being part of something but a sense of hope for the future and a desire to play a real role in building it.
When I left Sony Music in 2018 it was this energy that I kept coming back to. I spent the first few months thinking about all the things that I had learned over the previous decade about making meaningful connections between artist and audience but also how this experience might be useful to this community specifically. In part this was informed by mentoring some of the musicians themselves through the Abram Wilson Foundation Career Development Programme.
But I also decided to spend some time doing work experience in various non-music sectors including social enterprises, investment and advertising to get some fresh perspective. My realization after this period of listening and reflection was that having successfully created a community in the real world rather than having to manufacture “authenticity”, there was still a need to help these musicians grow and develop those audiences over time to create an ongoing relationship that would provide, in turn, the basis for a long-term sustainable career.
This meant bringing strategy, marketing, audience development and funding tailored to serve the creative vision and values of this community as whole but also striking bespoke deals with each individual to reflect their specific needs. It also meant not just working with artists but also the very spaces and places in which the sound was birthed to help organize and disseminate the rich history they hold in their archives – a task made even more urgent with the ongoing impact of the global pandemic on this space.
So New Soil was born – a hybrid business spanning strategy, management and label skills – the name itself trying to echo the conditions required for growth through that layer of material that sits beneath, holding and nurturing what was there before with what is to come (it is also a killer jazz album by Jackie McLean if you are interested in that sort of thing).
New Soil exists thanks to the investment, vision and support of Marathon Music Group and Tileyard who collectively understood the cultural capital this music represents as well as its long-term value. It is my honour to work with Theon Cross, Ill Considered and Church of Sound as founding family members as we collectively plant and tend to our first seeds.Music Business Worldwide