It’s not a question you would expect to stump a band that is the jazz nominee at next Thursday’s Mercury Prize: “Who would you recommend catching at next month’s London Jazz Festival?” at which they are also performing.
“Um… I don’t listen to that much jazz,” admits Roller Trio’s dreadlocked guitarist Luke Wynter, who grew up copying pop songs off the radio, then Jimi Hendrix’s guitar solos, before discovering prog rock and metal.
To be fair, he hasn’t had much time to acquire an encyclopaedic knowledge of his field. Still just 22, he graduated with a degree in jazz from Leeds College of Music only this summer.
The trio he formed in March 2011 with his fellow students, tenor saxophonist James Mainwaring and drummer Luke Reddin-Williams (both 23) has rapidly become the hottest new name in jazz, helped by the fact that in a world of suits and supper clubs, they look startlingly young and augment their heavy, occasionally funky sound with electronics.
If your music collection hosts the obligatory Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday collections but you don’t know where to start with the current scene, their dramatic, post-rock-style guitar and powerful, sweaty live shows could be an ideal entry point. “We’re not the kind of jazz band you’d listen to having a glass of wine in a trendy bar. We try and grab people,” says Wynter. “We get a lot of people at gigs saying, ‘I didn’t think I liked jazz but I liked that’.”
Also shortlisted for Best Jazz Act at the MOBOs (the winner will be revealed on November 3) and Best UK Newcomer at next year’s inaugural Jazz FM Awards, the Mercury nomination has proved they can sit more comfortably among the rock and dance acts than some previous entries derided as the “token jazz” groups.
At first glance you might mistake them for the similarly fresh-faced and scruffy Alt-J. “One of our first gigs was supporting a singer-songwiter. We didn’t really care who we played to,” says Mainwaring.
At a recent London gig with a fellow nominee, singer-songwriter Ben Howard, they say they got a great reaction from a crowd almost entirely comprised of his significantly more numerous fans. And they’re not worried about the annual problem of the audience talking through the jazz bit at the ceremony at the Roundhouse next Thursday. If anything, they seem more peeved at an official request that they shorten one of their songs for the TV broadcast.
The world of prizegivings and formal dinners is not one they were expecting to inhabit. You don’t get into making this kind of music for the fame and fortune. They are horrified at how much it would cost them to have a table at the MOBOs in Liverpool a week on Saturday. “We can only afford to go to the MOBOs if we win the Mercury,” says Reddin-Williams, who is also self-employed as a French translator. That’s a long shot — the jazz nominee has never won in the Mercury’s 20-year history.
They also keep getting asked when they’re moving to London to capitalise on their success, but rents in the capital are another thing that don’t impress them. I’ve travelled to Leeds to meet them on home turf, where, thanks to the music college, the city has a healthy experimental scene. Alumni include former Young Jazz Musician of the Year Matthew Bourne, Pete Wareham of Acoustic Ladyland and jazz’s current greatest headache-inducers, Trio VD. “You couldn’t find a better place to meet musicians,” says Wynter.
Mainwaring runs a monthly jazz club night called Fusebox in a pub. “Every night you can see something good here,” he says. “Leeds definitely has its own sound, everyone plays a lot more aggressively. In London even the heaviest bands seem to play quietly.”
The saxophonist, whose mother is a piano and flute teacher who started him on the piano at three, says that he wanted to play sax ever since he was fascinated by the pictures of penguins playing different musical instruments on his childhood duvet cover. He credits some of the more out-there moments on Roller Trio’s self-titled debut album to his circular breathing (“You blow out at the same time as breathing in through your nose, so I could hold a note for, like, an hour”) and multiphonics (“You use a certain fingering so that the air within the sax gets confused about which hole to go out of”). Connoisseurs of bizarre sounds should seek out the final minute of Roller Trio’s stuttering funk song Howdy Saudi, where the almighty screech he produces sounds like a car accident.
There are mellow moments too, as on ROR’s gentle meanderings and the slow-building drama of A Dark Place to Think. The album was recorded in just two days, although the songs had developed through a year of improvisations at gigs and rehearsals.
They say fans of traditional jazz aren’t too enamoured with them because of the rock element and the way that they “organise improvisations”, which sounds like an oxymoron to me. “We have an unconventional line-up, with no piano, and the songs are unconventionally structured,” says Reddin-Williams. “It is difficult music to play but because it’s improvised it feels fresh and there’s a danger there. Anything could happen.”
After our interview they take me through the city centre to a favourite independent music store, Jumbo Records, where they’re visibly delighted to spot their album on a prominent shelf. Wynter buys a Stax compilation to augment his non-jazz collection. Finding themselves with some spare time, Reddin-Williams suggests a quick rehearsal. It’s obvious they’re in music for the love of it, and after their busy awards season is over, they’ll still be rolling on.