The fifth BBC Young Jazz Musician award was given this weekend to Scottish bassist Ewan Hastie. In a varied 14-minute performance the left-handed Hastie had played his own composition Impulse and arrangements of Oscar Pettiford’s Tricotism and Chick Corea’s Humpty Dumpty.
Explaining the jury’s decision, competition judge Claire Martin said: “We were so impressed with the way Ewan picked three contrasting tunes that he played brilliantly. He has fantastic harmonic knowledge, great chops, and we loved his soulful feeling on the bass. We thought he was daring choosing Chick Corea’s Humpty Dumpty on the bass – that’s just brave. We liked his energy, we liked the way he communicated with the other musicians – all in all he had everything for us.”
Hastie’s performance followed a riveting set by fellow finalist Emma Rawicz-Szczerbo. The Devon-born saxophonist, whose debut album Incantation carries powerful reminders of the hard bop and fusion developed in the late 70s by the Brecker brothers’ circle and brought to maturity in the 90s by Chris Potter and others, had played a virtuoso arrangement of Airegin that would surely have impressed its composer, Sonny Rollins.
Other of the five finalists included 23-year-old guitarist Ralph Porrett, making his second attempt at the award. Playing a Gibson thin-line guitar through a Mesa Boogie stack he opened the evening with a long and involved suite whose sounds and harmony often recalled John Scofield.
This fifth final of the biennial award was held at Queen Elizabeth Hall, London on Saturday 19 November and shown on BBC Four TV on 20 November. It remains available on BBC iPlayer for 12 months. It was presented by the DJs and broadcasters Jamz Supernova and Huw Stephens, the latter observing that “British jazz is full of such energy and creativity at the moment.” It’s an idea that’s been uttered with regularity since jazz re-entered British mainstream arts consciousness in the mid-80s, and in recent years, thanks partly perhaps to jazz education, energy – manifest in concert and recording activity – has noticeably increased. The BBC finalists had no lack of it, but it was more difficult to find creativity in the performances, most of which echoed established style with spectacular and often exciting competence. Education seems to have raised technique in British jazz to unprecedented heights but one danger of formal arts education, perhaps evident in jazz, is that as an art is codified, orthodoxy is reinforced.
The judging panel comprised what the BBC describe as “some of the most celebrated British performers on the current international jazz scene”. Along with Claire Martin the jury featured Camilla George, Bill Laurance, Emma-Jean Thackray and Ayanna Witter-Johnson, who came out in turn to comment on the performances.
The other finalists were pianists Luke Bacchus (21) and Nick Manz (21). All the finalists were accompanied by Nikki Yeoh’s Infinitum, a piano trio featuring 80s veterans Michael Mondesir (bass) and Mark Mondesir (drums). Each of the finalists presented a set including their own versions of standards and at least one piece of their own arrangement or composition.
Edinburgh-born Hastie began on bass guitar at 12 and while playing with the Fife Youth Jazz Orchestra took up double bass. He toured with the National Youth Jazz Orchestra of Scotland before enrolling at the Royal Scottish Conservatoire in Glasgow, where he is in his final year.
Previous winners of BBC Young Jazz Musician award are saxophonist Alexander Bone (2014), trumpeter Alexandra Ridout (2016), saxophonist and composer Xhosa Cole (2018) and pianist Deschanel Gordon (2020). There’s more information on the competition on its website.