The state of the band now on the UK scene - anywhere - is really more about named leaders with a band shaped around their leader's pulling power. And ain't that a shame? Think about it Sons of Kemet, Neil Cowley Trio, Polar Bear, Get the Blessing, Acoustic Ladyland, Phronesis, all great names from the recent past now no more even when many of the artists involved are still active as leaders themselves.
Bands that the broader music business think matter who gig a lot and may even occasionally chart either in the specialist UK charts or even the dog eat dog pop charts are few in number and at the moment include only Kokoroko, Ezra Collective, Fergus McCreadie trio and precious few others count.
The reality is that name artists and whoever happens to be in their band is more the order of the day so think Courtney Pine, Ian Shaw, Django Bates, Gary Crosby, Soweto Kinch, Clare Teal, Tony Kofi, Xhosa Cole, Claire Martin, Shabaka Hutchings, Binker and Moses, Liane Carroll, Jo Harrop, Tim Garland, Alex Hawkins, Andy Sheppard, Seb Rochford, Kit Downes, Tommy Smith, Alan Barnes.
Promoters in most big English cities would have confidence in getting at least a 50 per cent of capacity crowd for any of these in a small jazz club or even medium sized venue on a good night without too much trouble. When it comes to singers it's even more the case that the individual rather than the band ethic holds forth.
But there's something we need in a band that we can't get in leader-never-mind-the-band thinking. Think of the impact Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers had on jazz for decades or the Second Great Miles Davis Quartet. These bands combined strong leader personality but crucially the solidity of a longstanding band around them. When the side players for whatever reason left, the band ended even if the leader still traded on their own star power with whoever they recruited in. Think of e.s.t. in recent years sadly cut short in their prime when Esbjörn Svensson died or back in the 70s the Keith Jarrett Belonging band. They made history too and so many bands still copy them.
With the best will in the world bands have a short lifespan - touring and recording demands are too tough and Darwinian for acts to stay together longer than a certain very brief time. But we need a certain solidity built OK around a leader but with the side players to have an identity too as one. Hearing a named leader with a pick-up band is not as good an experience. For example as much as I enjoy sax icon Greg Abate and I think he is an amazing player hearing him with a less convincing drummer as I did at the Spice of Life or Ed Bentley at the Bohemia with a very average sax player in his band means it's pot luck. Some leaders never have their own regular band and yes you go for the instrumentalism and put up with whoever it is trying hard around them.
So many big name artists now have to play with different local line-ups, often far more average players because it is what it is: who's available - competition in other places, the sheer feasibility of getting the same bunch of players in the same room time after time is fairly impossible for extended periods of years. Anyway the music moves on - leaders become stale too.
Turning up and finding even when the band is largely intact but say the drummer has been depped out is one of the most disappointing experiences. Even when Ravi Coltrane's gig at the Barbican last year was our gig of the year I had actually gone because I thought Dezron Douglas was in the band as advertised only to find he had been replaced. To wrap the band is ridiculously important as a unit, a collective, an entity. Cherish everyone in it, not just the leader. It's never a case of sax player + band and anon others or trumpeter + band of strangers. Stars can't make the same magic on their own no matter how big their egos pretend. Also, think about it ''a studio band'' on a record is not a real band, it's a recording project.
Whatever happened to the likely lads? They're still out there in our imaginations even when the jazz business never loved them enough as people when they needed it most to carry on. SG
The band's the thing, history makers all - the Jarrett Belonging Band l-r Jan Garbarek, Jon Christensen, Palle Danielsson, Keith Jarrett. Photo: ECM