FESTIVAL REVIEW: Love Supreme 2017

We just spent the last few days in a jazz trance, courtesy of the amazing Love Supreme festival.

The next time you overhear somebody declaring that a music genre is dead, do me a favour and flick them on the ear. Once any kind of musical approach has been established, it’s here to stay, and a kind of invisible timeline is drawn, a new evolutionary tangent which has nothing to do with popularity. Audiences grow and shrink, but once the blueprints have been drawn, people will keep dusting them off, copying them out, and making adjustments.

Knowing your approach isn’t only important to writing music, but how you offer it to the world. The music festival landscape in the UK is, to put it mildly, vast, and the most common problem it suffers is that the word ‘festival’ is more heavily emphasised than the word ‘music’. Not that I’m saying that promotors don’t book great acts, they do, across the board, but the pursuit of the ideal party vibe sometimes interferes with the synergy of the lineup. When that happens, the identity of the festival gets lost.

Love Supreme has no such problem, the ethos is crystal clear – it is the UK’s only weekend jazz festival, and for this very reason, it’s one of the UK’s most important festivals. The popularity of jazz music has peaked and troughed like a confused spectrometer for decades. It’s been co-opted, contorted, reimagined and declared dead more times than Clark Kent, but the spirit has endured, and now it’s finding an entirely new audience.

When Love Supreme was founded by Neapolitan Music mastermind Ciro Romano in 2013, it felt like a no-brainer. The UK played host to a smattering of urban one-day jazz festivals, but no weekends. Since then, it’s become a beacon for a new movement within the genre, beckoning thousands of music lovers in with blue chip R&B, funk and soul acts, and then packing the remaining line-up with rising and established jazz stars.

Photo courtesy of Love Supreme

This year things were different. Sure, The Jacksons, Gregory Porter, George Benson and Corinne Bailey Rae were all in attendance, but names like Robert Glasper, Kamasi Washington, Christian Scott and, in particular, Herbie Hancock were the real draws for much of the 28,000 strong sellout crowd. The scale wasn’t the only notable thing though, it was the age.

Although there were plenty of families and older groups roving around the beautiful East Sussex site (which, miraculously, remained bathed in sunshine almost all weekend long), a huge portion of the crowd were noticeably young, so much so that you’d have been forgiven for thinking that Stormzy was planning to turn up at some point. In the past few years, jazz has clasped onto a very new, very young audience, and this year Love Supreme encapsulated that.

Musicians like Christian Scott, Yussef Dayes and Shabaka Hutchings don’t play to small, barely engaged, beard stroking crowds in cramped pubs, their music is intense and enthralling, and judging from the outpouring of energy during their sets, nothing is being lost in translation. Hutchings in particular played three sets in a single day, one with his Ancestors, one with Sons of Kemet and a final closing performance with The Comet is Coming (all wildly different in formation and approach).

This is what jazz looks like now, infused with electronic manipulation, drawing from an impossibly diverse range of influences, many of which couldn’t even have existed if it weren’t for people like Miles Davis, John Coltrane or, indeed, George Benson and Herbie Hancock. Let me give you an example: in 1970, the Ahmed Jamal Trio covered Herbie Hancock’s ‘Dolphin Dance’ on their Awakening album. That same album contained a track called ‘I Love Music’, which was sampled by NaS on ‘The World is Yours’. One of the early acts on the Saturday of Love Supreme was the incredible Ashley Henry and The Re:Ensemble. Guess which track they gave the jazz reimagining treatment to during that set.

Photo courtesy of Love Supreme

It was a near perfect blend of old, new and new-by-way of old. With only three full stages, a bandstand and a few smaller, DJ oriented spots, the festival was easily navigable, and balanced such that your chances of missing anything were minimised. The Big Top and Arena split the lion’s share of the jazz acts between them, while almost all of the funk, soul and neo-soul was reserved for the main stage. Even during the late hours nothing was obligatory. The DJ lineup featured showcases from Island Records, Tru Thoughts and sets from Nightmares on Wax and even an Incognito/Brand New Heavies back-to-back.

It was almost as if there was something in the air which prompted every artist on the roster to bring their A-game. Almost all of them took the time to comment on how honoured they were to be playing alongside the other names listed. Paul Janeway, the lead vocalist of St. Paul and the Broken Bones (phenomenal as ever) took a moment to mention that, unlike at other festivals, he was making an effort to see every act that time would allow him to, while the previous day Nao had expressed utter disbelief that she’d even been booked. Unfounded disbelief, mind, she killed it.

All the main stage sets were magical in their own ways. Lee Fields & The Expressions worked the early afternoon crowd like it was happy hour, Corinne Bailey Rae lulled them into an enamoured embrace, the Hot 8 Brass Band did what they do best and The Jacksons broke out the same 50 year celebratory set they’d played at Glastonbury, blowing the goddamn lid off in the process. Spectacles like that can be found at festivals across the country, though. What you don’t often see is a tightly packed enclave of sweaty, sometimes shirtless ravers losing their minds to the impossible drum work of Yussef Dayes, or a staggeringly complex saxophone solo courtesy of Kendrick Lamar collaborator and current Herbie Hancock bandmate Terrace Martin.

Kendrick Lamar was a name which resonated through the entire festival. Terrace Martin, Kamasi Washington, Robert Glasper and BadBadNotGood have all worked with him, and during Glasper’s incredible set, he played a beautiful reworking of one of To Pimp a Butterfly‘s finest tracks – ‘How Much a Dollar Cost’. Despite being a rapper himself, Lamar has become something of a talisman for this new wave of genre bending. In a very short space of time, it’s crossed borders, broken boundaries and, most importantly of all, sounded a much needed cry of resistance.

Photo courtesy of Love Supreme

During Shabaka Hutchings and The Ancestors, vocalist Siyabonga Mthembu (borrowed from landmark South African ensemble The Brother Moves On) delivered a powerful lyrical outpouring that fell somewhere between spoken word and a call to action, viciously rallying against the culture of hate. The following day, Christian Scott punctuated his astonishing set with a story about his grandfather, an Afro-Native American, collecting and distributing food among the neediest people in his neighbourhood. And what better way to bookend such a vital display of unity than a closing main stage performance from a protest soul man like Gregory Porter. There were several moments during the festival which almost moved me to tears, and his extended, elaborated performance of ‘1960 What?’ was certainly one of them.

It’s hard to imagine that anyone could come away from an experience like Love Supreme without feeling like it was important. Festivals are fun, they are an escape and they are a chance to appreciate music in a raw, untempered environment. Love Supreme moved beyond that because it wasn’t a crowd pleaser, it was full of challenging, uncompromising music, and the crowd devoured every ounce of it.

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