A musical acid jazz test: is it time for a revival?


Acid jazz is ripe for a revisit from a music industry that is always looking for the brand new (old) thing

It’s amazing what a simple prefix can do for perceptions. Back in the late 1980s, acid house was booming out of Chicago studios and changing clubland forever with a barmy barrage of 303 synths. At the time, Eddie Piller and Gilles Peterson were a pair of DJs playing soul, jazz and funk in various clubs and on pirate radio stations around London. However, they were pulling far smaller crowds than their acid-house peers.

Witnessing what was going on in the main rooms as clubbers fell in love with house music’s energy and excitement, Peterson coined the term acid jazz to sum up the music he and others were playing and trying to promote. It was playful and pointed, a name that was probably not intended to be taken all that seriously. It was simply a tag which sounded interesting.

But the term worked in ways Peterson or Piller never saw coming. Aside from providing the pair with a name for their nascent record label, acid jazz became a handy description for a certain sound and style that was then enjoying a moment in London. What began at Sunday-afternoon hops in places such as Dingwalls in Camden, where fashionable dancers went wild to old rare grooves and heavyweight cuts from jazz labels’ back catalogues, soon spread to other urban centres.

In Dublin in the early 1990s, you’d have found acid-jazz tracks on the playlist at clubs such as Rí-Rá and the Waterfront, while many of the genre’s big acts turned up to play at the Tivoli.

Lucky Cork clubbers could hear one of the scene originators, Paul Murphy, playing in clubs such as Sir Henry’s. Before moving to Cork to run a clothing business, Murphy had run London’s Paladin record shop and DJed at the Electric Ballroom and The Wag, where his knowledge of rare dancefloor jazz cuts was a huge influence on the likes of Peterson.

By the mid-1990s, acid jazz was a prolific, hugely popular scene, thanks largely to a bunch of successful acts such as the Brand New Heavies, Jamiroquai and Galliano, who started releasing records influenced by old jazz and soul sounds.

It’s 25 years since the Acid Jazz label was set up and co-founder Eddie Piller is marking the occasion with special releases, a film, a book and a tour, which calls at Dublin’s Sugar Club on Friday.

As with any planned outbreak of nostalgia, it’s all about looking back and remembering the good old days. While the label still operates today – one of their best acts are an exciting bunch of Manchester roughnecks called the Janice Graham Band – most people associate Acid Jazz with its heyday and its former stars.

Like any musical movement, acid jazz had its good and bad moments. For instance, the series of Totally Wired compilations that Peterson and Piller put together in the early days contained plenty of diamonds. Aside from providing an opportunity for the young guns on the make at the time, the albums also reintroduced cult acts such as the late, great Terry Callier and Aaron Neville to new audiences. Indeed, Callier was able to leave his job as a computer programmer at the University of Chicago, sign to Peterson’s Talkin’ Loud label and enjoy a bit of a revival with albums such as TimePeace.

However, it’s interesting to note when you go back to these compilations that it’s the music of the veterans rather the newer acts that has best survived the test of time.Both Jamiroquai and the Brand New Heavies are still making music today, although neither are as prolific as they once were. Jamiroquai is still a big live draw internationally, but it’s quite some time since he last had a crossover hit of any description.

Perhaps the death knell for acid jazz came when it was appropriated by various marketing departments as a way of shifting hastily thrown-together compilations and back-catalogue releases. Acts and releases with very little connection to the original spirit clung on to the tag for dear life in the hope of benefiting from a commercial bump.

Pop, though, tends to operate in cycles and it might well be time for acid jazz to have some time in the limelight again. All it will take are a bunch of new bands taking their cues from the same records that Piller and Peterson championed and played to death 25 years ago. And, of course, an audience to take them to their hearts.

Three acid-jazz classics

Terry Callier, I Don’t Want To See Myself (Without You)

The song that revived the Chicago singers career thanks to the Acid Jazz label.

Jamiroquai, When You Gonna Learn

The cat in the hat was actually quite decent before he become a monumental pain in the hoop.

United Future Organisation, Loud Minority

Proof of acid jazz's worldwide reach in the shape of this collaboration from Japanese-born musician Tadashi Yabe and Frenchman Raphael Sebbag.

Eddie Piller DJs at the Acid Jazz 25th anniversary night at Dublin’s Sugar Club on Friday

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