Acid jazz of the counter-culture
Always on the fringes of the acid jazz scene, Izit have been through a lot of changes. Now they're back with a new line-up and an imaginative marketing strategy. Guitarist and MD of Tongue & Groove Records Tony Coleman talks to Magnus Schofield, and reveals how the offbeat collective never miss a trick...
There are some species of Americana which never go out of style. Strip 'em down and repackage them often enough, and their reappearances will be so frequent as to seem continuous. And as with celluloid, when each of those snapshots is subtly different, there will be the impression of forward motion.
Throughout the 60s and early 70s Black America was on the march, and a new breed of self-governing black label was there to harness that pride and passion. With only a handful of pirate radio stations, the circulation of these records in Britain was truly underground.
Radio 1 emerged in 1967 from the BBC 'Light Programme', with a playlist which continued to filter blues and soul through Mersey-tinted spectacles. At the same time white American artists like Little Feat and Steely Dan had absorbed and appropriated funk and soul before the British public had a chance to catch up.
Just as they were about to, spandex boob-tubes and the Bee Gees engulfed the dancefloors. It was a decadent and effete culture which left ghetto youth out in the cold as much as their spotty British cousins, and a generation deserted the club scene.
Britain's answer was punk, an eruption of teen frustration around which a spectrum of marginalised music coalesced. Others rode its coat-tails to success. And so excavations of the R&B goldmine were further postponed, in Britain at least. But punk had spawned tangents, and in its aftermath the collectors' shops of Camden Town proliferated, rekindling the interest of one generation in black music, and whetting the appetites of another.
If Acid jazz has been a slow burner, it's because it has emerged from London's 'rare groove' and jazz-dance dubs by a process of natural evolution. By the mid-80s jazz-funk had become the province of hair salons and wine bars, and the London clubs were looking for something raw. The James Taylor Quartet played the novelty card, with Hammond-driven covers of detective and 'blaxploitation' themes, while Izit's 'Stories' borrowed the Chakachas' anthem of 70's funk to create a quirky, dubby excursion enlivened by Pathe News Gazette-style dance instructions and Catherine Shrubshall's rasping baritone sax. It was a crossover of sufficiently disparate elements to excite widespread club interest. Acid Jazz, the bastard son of 70's funk was born, with its half-dozen exponents the focus of enormous press and record company interest.
Eddie Pillar's fledgling Acid Jazz label poached The Brand New Heavies from Cooltempo, for whom the languid 'Got To Give' had not set the dancefloors alight. But Izit were not so easily wooed, agreeing only a tentative licensing arrangement for 'Stories', and a distribution deal for their own-label follow-up, 'Make Way For The Originals'. Even this minor flirtation with record companies proved bruising for the band, with Optimism Records folding, and the studio where the band were putting the finishing touches to their LP seizing the tapes in lieu of payment. Only recently has German label Yo Mama managed to negotiate the tapes' release, and four years later the album has emerged under the sobriquet of The Main Street People.
Continental Europe continues to prize the band's music as highly as its sense of style. And their high profile in Italy has afforded a further opportunity to cock a snook at record companies and their marketing budgets. At present, Izit are to be seen eight times a day on MTV, in an advertising campaign for Sisley clothing, part of the Benetton empire. It's a unique and imaginative partnership, with a mutual exchange of style and street cred. Sisley give away a promo copy of the new single 'Izit Everywhere' with the matching T-shirt, while the band bestow their kudos on the Autumn/Winter collection, with which they're already handsomely kitted out.
Izit have also donated the services (and teenage diaries) of lead vocalist Nicola Bright-Thomas, who finds herself re-modelled in Sisley style for the Autumn/Winter catalogue. It's more than the usual glossy promotional bumph, Nicola's breathless tones narrating a checklist of chic watering holes and happening clubs. Guitarist Tony Coleman, the band's torchbearer since the early days, explains how he hatched this subversive deal in the surreal surroundings of Benetton headquarters:
"It just kind of happened really. We were on tour in Italy, and Sisley's advertising agency, who are all big Izit fans anyway, had us play at their office party. They were on the lookout for a band anyway, for the '94/'95 campaign. And we were in London, we were underground, and we liked the clothes, otherwise we wouldn't do it. Benetton itself is a fairly bizarre company anyway. I went up to the headquarters, and it's like going onto the set of The Prisoner, it's like you're not on this planet."
Tony continues to resist the blandishments of record companies, including six-figure offers from Japan where the band regularly tour. Since his experiences with Optimism he's returned to own-label recording, assembling an eclectic family of musicians for the Tongue & Groove label, whom he shuffles about for dub and ambient experiments. The rave and jazz scenes are cross-fertilising as never before, with acts like The Sandals, and Izit offshoots The Powdered Rhino Horns upping their BPMs and trading in their Hammonds for sequencers.
While this strand of Tongue & Groove's operations becomes more trancey, the jazz poetry of the One Hell Of A Storm album is altogether more avant-garde and adventurous. Bringing together musicians and producers with London's leading black poets, the album creates a montage of contemporary urban agitprop which recalls The Last Poets or Gil Scott-Heron. Inspired by his work with New York poetess Dana Bryant, Tony and partner Chris Goss trawled London's underground poetry jams, enlisting the services of MC Mell'O' and Lemn Sissay amongst others. It's an auspicious departure for so young a label, mapping out territory neglected by its rivals, and well placed to profit from the U.S. success of 'The Jackal', Dana's collaboration with Ronny Jordan. Once again Tony and Chris were resourceful in their pursuit of finance, with editorial and advertising coverage from Straight No Chaser magazine, and grant funding from the London Arts Board. Due for release shortly is a various artists remix compilation, 'Tongue Sandwich', and there's a new Izit album to look forward to in the New Year. Acid jazz is exploding across Europe and the U.S., where the Brand New Heavies have softened up the R&B charts. And their new U.S. management has Izit tracks shortlisted for Prêt à Porter, the new film by Robert Altman, a director stylish enough to rehabilitate scat-chanteuse Annie Ross for his last film, Short Cuts. Tony & Chris are as discriminating about promotion as they are about product, but it all goes to preserve the Tongue & Groove mystique. If as the song promises, 1995 sees Izit "here, there and everywhere", you can bet your life it'll be on their own terms.
Interview by Magnus Schofield
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