2020 has been the year that boundaries came crashing down like the Berlin Wall. It’s as though a collective of artists congregated and decided to stick two fingers up at the likes of Spotify. “Categorise this, assholes.”
At the forefront of this movement are the young exponents of the new wave of British jazz. They are bold and ambitious and seek only to create the best possible music, irrespective of what kind of box it fits into. Artists like Moses Boyd, Shabaka Hutchings, Nubya Garcia and Duval Timothy all have jazz at the core of what they do. But because they all grew up listening to R&B, hip-hop, grime, pop, dub, afro and much more, they have effectively invented their own unique genre, one which is a rich and vibrant fusion of all of those things.
The best example of this is Dark Matter. Every so often an album comes along that utterly knocks you for six. It is simply so, so good that the second you finish listening you cannot wait to stick it on again. It is quite irresistible.
When Louder Than War ran its Mercury Prize feature in September, I was both delighted and honoured to be Dark Matter’s champion. As we know now, it ultimately lost out to Michael Kiwanuka’s outstanding album. But much as I adore Kiwanuka – and I do – Dark Matter should have won the prize. Dark Matter? No matter. I have a long history of backing the wrong horse in the Mercurys. Hell, I imagine everyone does.
Boyd’s phenomenal collection kicks off with Stranger Than Fiction. It is the perfect opener. It builds tension and anticipation over the first ninety seconds with Boyd’s cymbals sounding like waves crashing ashore on top of Joe Armon Jones’s rippling keyboard. Theon Cross’s tuba picks up the baton and drives things forward. By the time we get to Ife Ogunjobi’s electrifying trumpet solo, we are soaring.
BTB is like a jackhammer, piledriving forward driven by a choir of horns. It is pure vintage jazz that evokes the brass onslaught of Coltrane. The icing on this particular cake comes in the shape of Artie Zaitz’s incendiary guitar licks. Shades Of You, featuring the sumptuous vocal of Poppy Ajudha is just pure perfect pop.
The dark and menacing Only You is straight from London’s club scene. Something about it is reminiscent of Burial’s work and the same can be said of 2 Far Gone which, incredibly, is what I imagine a collaboration between Burial and Thelonious Monk to sound like.
Nommo’s Descent is the most magnificent piece of freeform featuring the silky vocals of Nonku Phiri and the otherworldly tenor of Nubya Garcia. The album closes with its longest track, the mellow What Now, featuring Michael Underwood’s sublime flute.
Dark Matter is a collection of absolutely outstanding tunes. But the pinnacle comes with the astonishing Dancing In The Dark. Boyd’s collaborator and co-writer on this track is Nigerian vocalist, Obongjayar, who brings a suite of lyrics that powerfully address the divisions that exist in the country right now. He sings it masterfully, complementing Boyd’s musical composition perfectly.
Dark Matter should have won the Mercury Prize. In any typical year, it would be my album of the year. This year, in 2020, it has to settle for second place, I’m afraid. That’s still some achievement.