»Music is not about nationality or the flag of any single country – it’s about how a track communicates and what it is saying«

Debra Richards - a London-based DJ, radio host and journalist - is the final curator for our New Jazz DK playlist, made in collaboration with Jazz Danmark. Freia Buus Bille of Strøm caught up with her to talk genres and trends within jazz, music as a tool to achieve substantial, structural change, as well as lots of other interesting topics

af | 17. sep 2020

Debra Richards is a journalist, broadcaster and music head. The gift of a record player when she was seven years old was the start of her vinyl collection, and by the time she was 12 she was trying to get her records played at the school disco.

It was DJ Gilles Peterson and his mixing up of jazz, soul and dance music in the ’90s who set Debra on her journey to being a DJ. Alongside DJing she wrote a music column for Blues & Soul magazine, and got involved with radio, including a job at the BBC. She says, “Still today, I love discovering new artists by listening to radio DJs. They are part of the life force of music.”

Since 2015, Debra has worked with Match&Fuse – a festival that takes place in European cities, bringing together progressive jazz musicians. Her radio show on Worldwide FM is also called Match&Fuse, and she presents ‘Jazz X’ on the Basel-based station, Radio X. On top of that, Debra is a journalist for the magazines Jazzwise, and Straight No Chaser.

We sat down with her to talk about the New Jazz DK-playlist she has curated, as well as a host of different topics.

There is a wave of (young) musicians mashing up music genres and attitudes, digital and analogue, beats and jazz. How do you experience this wave?

I love this question because it is what I am all about. I respect the tradition and history of American jazz and I believe that jazz should live in the present moment. Now!

Whatever technology and culture a musician is experiencing, whatever their emotions and beliefs, whether they live in Aarhus or Glasgow – these are the things they should reflect in their sound. If we look at Miles Davis, he did exactly that, he pushed jazz by reacting to his changing world.

I listen to all types of jazz; maybe it mixes in Afro-beat or techno, singer-songwriter or punk, contemporary classical music or white noise! I love it all. The point is that these jazz mash-ups take me, the listener, on a deep journey. It is music that is full of surprises but is always a truthful expression of the musician.

I work with a festival network called Match&Fuse and we love artists that have a 100% belief in their sound, whatever their style of jazz. My playlist for New Jazz DK focuses on Danish artists I think are pushing themselves and music, but are staying genuine to who they are. Honest music.

What is it with jazz that makes it a timeless genre, which means that new jazz trends like this are constantly appearing?

Improvisation. You can only improvise in the present moment and that means expressing who you are right now. For me, the best improvisers are technically hot, but most importantly they have something to say. “Talkin’ loud and sayin’ something” is an expression that sums up jazz – even when it is the most quiet instrumental, it is always communicating with power. Jazz has courage. And that means it will always be relevant to audiences.

I worry that the average person’s idea of jazz is narrow and based on the past. Jazz is huge and breathes in the air of today, we just need to let audiences know that.

You’ve been London-based for years. What does London-jazz look like, and how does it sound, from a London point of view?

I think of it as an urban thing, not just London (as some musicians are from other cities), but yes, I was born and have spent most of my life in London. My heart will always belong to the many forms of black music I heard around me: from soul and reggae, to drum & bass and hip hop. UK bands like Ezra Collective, Sons of Kemet and Kokoroko reflect the rhythms and energy of Africa and the Caribbean as well as current music like Grime/UK rap.

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New audiences are coming to jazz because this music works in all types of clubs and festivals, not just jazz events. The sound is energetic, fresh and physical. It’s about dancing, losing yourself in music, it’s fun, but it also has political messages within that.

The respect these UK musicians are starting to get internationally is inspiring. Audiences want to hear this music and are moved by it. I must mention UK organisations like Tomorrow’s Warriors, who help young people from different backgrounds to learn to play jazz. The London scene would not have happened without this help to nurture talent. All countries should be assisting youngsters to access jazz training – otherwise it stays an ‘elite’ music that only some can afford to learn.

I grew up where music is a part of daily life, it helps us understand the world we live in, escape our personal difficulties and gives us energy. UK jazz does that today.

Some say that London-jazz takes a stand and somehow protests against the system. Do you experience London-jazz as being political? And how do you see musicians’ abilities to change aspects of our society in general?

I believe music changes us. It taps into the key human factors of communication and connection. Can you imagine lockdown during the pandemic without music? It can soothe us, change our mood, lift us; it’s not just ‘entertainment’, it is one of the most powerful forces on the planet.

For me, jazz has always been political – whether it is an obvious statement like Billie Holiday singing ‘Strange Fruit’ (one of the most haunting recordings of the 20th Century) or Shabaka Hutchings blowing hard into his saxophone; jazz tells stories of peoples’ lives and feelings. In the UK and across the world the issue of inequality for black people is horrific – and musicians are channelling their frustration and anger in a creative way that engages everyone in what they are experiencing and seeing.

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Society is slow to change for lots of reasons, but we can’t have a truly healthy future for our children if our leaders offer a single, narrow viewpoint. Diversity is vital. Apart from connecting us, musicians also change society because they stand in front of us and say, ‘This is who I am.’ Whatever their race, gender, sexual orientation, how they look physically, or feel mentally; they show the diversity of our world – they are not scared of it.

I also want to mention rights for women. There has been an explosion of female jazz musicians doing their thing in the UK: Shirley Tetteh (guitar & vocals), Ruth Goller (bass & vocals) and Camilla George (sax) are just a few names. Seeing women take centre stage in music inspires new generations to understand equality.

What good happens when the classical influence of jazz mixes with other styles? Is this what you reflect in your radio shows on Worldwide FM and Radio X?

My radio shows and the work I do representing music from across Europe is all about these new mixes of styles because the music is so good. Of course I play ‘London jazz’, but my role at Worldwide FM is to shine a light on all the other exciting mash-ups of sound that are coming through from other countries.

I think that a lot of exquisite music is getting lost because not enough radio stations play it and festivals don’t book it because it doesn’t ‘fit’ into any category. To be honest, I don’t give a damn about genres, I just know what touches me – I played ‘Et Lite Øyeblikk Bare’ by Svaneborg Kardyb so many times on my radio shows because of that. On this playlist I could mention ‘Losing’ by Qarin Wikeström, ‘Udspring’ by Randi Pontoppidan and Christian Rønn, Anders Fjelsted’s ‘Enebacken’ and ‘#32’ by Yngel – all completely different styles, but each one speaks to me.

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Beyond Denmark, there are musicians such as Lucia Cadotsch whose projects Speak Low with Otis Sandsjö and Petter Eldh, and LIUN + the Science Fiction Band with Wanja Slavin are both so good. I’m also really into Trio Heinz Herbert, Hilde Marie Holsen, Joanna Duda and tracks like ‘A Robot Must’ by next.ape and ‘Final Eclipse’ by Comet is Coming (it’s impossible not to leap around to this track). The list of thrilling music that mixes jazz with other genres is endless.

What are your thoughts on the track choices for this New Jazz DK playlist?

The range of styles and quality of musicianship is mind-blowing. I love listening to this playlist – not because I put it together but because the music is so fresh.

I have mentioned a few names, but I could talk about every single track because each of them won me over. I had no bias or care about whether someone is a big name, I just listened to every album I could, and my ears and soul made the choices.

What makes this new jazz so exciting is the quality of the musicians playing it. Many of them have gone through years of music study, their passion for exploring and expressing is what makes jazz such an extraordinary music. Schools like the RMC (Denmark) and Trinity Laban (UK) are an important part of this story.

I have to thank Eva Frost at Jazz Danmark for inviting me to be a judge on the DMA for Jazz in 2019 because that got me into wanting to hear more Danish artists, and my playlist choices have been influenced by the DMA for Jazz.

I play Danish jazz on my radio shows, but music is not about nationality or the flag of any single country, it’s about how a track communicates and what it is saying. The point of this playlist from me, and all the guest programmers, is to celebrate and inspire, and I really hope that’s what it will do.

You can listen to the New Jazz DK playlist here:

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New Jazz DK is a playlist project created in collaboration with JazzDanmark, supported by Gangsted Fonden, Nordeafonden and Dansk Musiker Forbund.

Photo: Sue Monkcom