Here's what happens when your first record is Miles Davis
Laura Jurd is one of jazz's fastest rising stars but her band Dinosaur has a sound that's pure early 1970s electric funk
Laura Jurd with her band Dinosaur
The first record in your collection is not generally something you feel inclined to advertise. It was probably some long-forgotten adolescent pop, the shameful purchase of a callow youth, now safely buried behind the cooler choices that followed. Mine was Paul McCartney’s Mull of Kintyre, which doesn’t get played a whole lot these days, by anyone.
But when I ask Laura Jurd for her first record, a broad smile spreads across her face. “I started playing the trumpet in primary school, and I was playing in a local youth jazz orchestra,” she says brightly. “Somebody mentioned Miles Davis to me, and I thought, ‘Okay, I’ll check this guy out.’ And obviously the most commonly found Miles record in the local HMV was Kind of Blue. So I bought it, listened to it, and thought it was, yeah, pretty amazing.”
The 27-year-old trumpeter, one of the rising stars of the UK jazz scene, punctuates her sentences with frequent “yeahs” – not with the rising inflection of someone seeking agreement, but with an emphatic tone, as if she is deciding in the moment, “Yeah, this is what I really think.”
Dinosaur, her group of seven years, have been getting serious critical attention for their new album, Together, As One and, with its insistent funk grooves and use of vintage keyboard sounds, the comparisons with Miles Davis’ electric period in the early 1970s have been coming thick and fast. Jazz musicians can often be irked by such references, as if a direct comparison suggest a lack of originality, but Jurd is not bothered.
“I actually don’t mind it at all, because even beyond improvising and jazz, I think Miles is a hero. I’m completely obsessed with the guy. I just admire his attitude as a person, how he changed [his music] over the decades and, yeah, how true he stays to himself all the time, despite everything.”
Started as a toddler
Growing up in rural Hampshire, daughter of a builder father and a hairdresser mother, Jurd can’t remember not wanting to be a musician and was banging on the family piano as soon as she could reach the keys.
“I used to love to improvise and make things up. My parents recognised that and I started having piano lessons when I was about four or five. My earliest musical memories are just sitting there at the piano, improvising, exploring.”
Jurd was just 21, and a student at Trinity Laban in London, when she released her debut album, Landing Ground, a remarkable jazz-meets-contemporary-classical collaboration with the Ligeti String Quartet. Since then, she has been on a steadily upward trajectory, gaining a reputation as a composer of fresh, genre-busting music, and winning awards including the 2015 Parliamentary Jazz Award for Instrumentalist of the Year.
Trinity Laban is also where she met the other musicians who make up Dinosaur: bassist Conor Chaplin, drummer Corrie Dick and keyboardist Elliot Galvin. Until just last year, the group was known as the Laura Jurd Quartet but, while Jurd still does all the composing, the other three are strong musical personalities, and the new name is a way of recognising that.
“I felt like it wasn’t helping us having that name. It feels like a real band, very much the sum of four parts. I always had in my mind, this fantasy, dream band called Dinosaur, which was a kind of electric, more rocky, edgier band, and I suddenly realised that, yeah, my own quartet was turning into that sound.”
As well as Miles Davis, Jurd namechecks English composers Benjamin Britten and Michael Tippet, along with Igor Stravinsky, Olivier Messiaen, Steve Reich and Damon Albarn’s Gorillaz as formative influences. But it was only after making Together, As One that Jurd began to re-examine electric Davis albums such as Bitches Brew and On the Corner. “After people talking about the electric Miles thing, I kind of got more into that world. I mean, I loved them already but I’ve actually gone into them deeper since making the record.”
The other commentary that tends to follow Jurd around is gender. Women are still criminally under-represented in jazz, particularly as instrumentalists, and being a band leader and a trumpeter in such a male-dominated genre is still unusual. But it would be understandable if she didn’t want to be seen as a spokesperson for her entire gender.
“I don’t really like to make a thing of it,” she says, “but it’s obviously nice, like, the other day I was playing a gig and a lady came up afterwards and said ‘It’s so cool to see a woman leading a band’. ”
In fact, Jurd’s rise can be seen as evidence that the gender gap in jazz might finally be narrowing, particularly in Europe. “I actually feel like jazz musicians and the world that I am part of, is full of some of the most progressive and liberal minds, so I feel very lucky to have never found it an issue. I think a lot of people blame specific things, like they might blame the ‘jazz industry’ – if those are two words that go together – for what are societal level issues. It’s only natural that there’s going to be less female jazz musicians if it’s only recently that women have started coming to the fore in all kinds of different spaces and jobs.
“I’ve definitely never been one for, you know, the whole ‘let’s start an all-female jazz band’ thing, because I’m not sure that’s going to fix the problem. But I think any women doing something where they are being pro-active and taking some kind of leadership artistically, if it has a positive impact on other women who want to be creative, then, yeah, that’s a wonderful thing.”
Dinosaur begin a Music Network Irish tour at the Sugar Club, Dublin on February 21, then tour to Sligo (22), Mayo (23), Letterkenny (24) and then further dates nationally. See musicnetwork.ie