Being nominated for the Mercury Music Prize certainly carries a wheelbarrow full of kudos, but what’s become dubiously known in the industry as the “token jazz nomination” – Portico Quartet had the plaudits in 2008 – could just as easily be a poison chalice.
Few pundits seem to take the jazz nomination seriously and neither do the bookies; the whole thing has the faint whiff of an socially awkward uncle at a party. People assume that this tokenism means that inferior albums get elevated above their station, so any jazz artist who gains a nomination needs to have something pretty special to win over the cynics. Thankfully, Led Bib’s third album is one of those discs that brims with genius energy and more than holds its own against the La Rouxs and Florences of this world.
Those to whom Jazz means cooler-than-cool late night noodling had better be prepared for a shock. This is low down dirty jazz, an improvisational orgy of chaotic instrumentation more influenced by rock venues than Ronnie Scott’s. It’s a startling, and at times challenging listen that seems to emulate our British summer – clam blue skies interspersed with cacophonous thunderstorms and back again. It’s a sonic collage taking in avant garde influences such as Ornette Coleman and 1970s Miles Davis.
Sensible Shoes has a highly accomplished feel, but what’s surprising is that Led Bib are not a collection of veteran jazz session musicians, but a bunch of twentysomethings from Walthamstow. Their age brings a freshness and vibrancy, and with them a punky aesthetic.
There’s also a sense of humour on show – Led Bib take their name from a dentist’s protective garment and the track listing includes such tantalising titles as Squirrel Carnage, Call Centre Labyrinth and Flat Pack Fantasy. The album is playful, wilfully jumping from one extreme to the next in a difficult to ignore avant-garde mash-up of startling proportions.
Drummer/composer Mark Holub presides over it all as band leader, but everyone gets a fair crack at being centre stage without the band sounding like they’re competing with each other. At times everyone launches into their own thing at the same time, creating a disjointed wall of jazz that shakes you out of any comfortable complacency that might normally set in during a session.
Setting the potential allegations of tokenism aside, Sensible Shoes stands on its own as an impressive achievement. Previous Mercury Prizes have had unpredictable moments, so who’s to say that this volcanic album might be a darker-than-dark horse in this year’s race? In any case, the nomination is richly deserved and it will certainly be a highlight when Led Bib take to the stage at this year’s ceremony, for if they are able to produce this much energy in a studio, then on stage they’ll be certain to win over even the hardest cynics.