Acid jazz is a sub-genre of jazz that draws primarily on elements of jazz, funk, soul and disco. The term was first coined by Gilles Peterson, who went on to form Acid Jazz Records. The genre enjoyed its heyday in London in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
By using funk and disco rhythms, acid jazz is generally danceable and club-friendly (it’s also known as club jazz). It typically features horns, percussion layers, and characteristically ‘squelchy’ synths (think Herbie Hancock).
Although some bands in 2022 incorporate elements of acid jazz, the term is somewhat out of vogue. Aside from one or two artists, it largely refers to a corpus of artists that represent a particular moment in music history. That said, this group of artists have, without a doubt, made their mark, and many of them continue to release records and tour today.
Let’s check out some of the heavy hitting acid jazz artists who helped define the genre.
The iconic Jamiroquai epitomise the sound of acid jazz. Combining disco and funk grooves with jazz harmony and instrumentation and those unmistakable squelchy synths, the 6-piece outfit that started in London in 1992 are still active today.
Fronted by the eccentric Jay Kay, Jamiroquai are best known for their 1996 album Travelling Without Moving and the big single from that record, ‘Virtual Insanity’ – which still hits hard today.
The Brand New Heavies
One of the founding 90s London acid jazz bands, The Brand New Heavies are one of the genre’s most important and critically acclaimed artists.
Leaning towards R&B and soul at times, the band featured N’Dea Davenport as the lead vocalist on their early hits, and collaborated with the likes of rappers Guru and A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip. Check out their epic 2000 album Trunk Funk – The Best of The Brand New Heavies.
Like many of their contemporaries, The Brand New Heavies emerged from London in the early 90s. The band’s relatively short-lived career saw them release the contagious ‘Apparently Nothin” in 1991, which featured on their only album, Road to Freedom.
Singer Carleen Anderson was later to join The Brand New Heavies who re-released the iconic track.
One of the earliest pioneers of the genre, Incognito were founded in 1979, with their debut album Jazz Funk released in 1981. The band has counted nearly 70 different musicians amongst its members over its long career, with the band now in its sixth decade of existence.
Since its inception, the ensemble has been led by Mauritian-born singer and guitarist Jean-Paul Maunick. Drawing heavily on house and soul, Incognito are one of the genre’s essential artists. Check out their 1993 album Positivity.
Instrumental trio Red Snapper are another of the bands to emerge from the early 90s London acid jazz scene.
Ultimately signing to Warp Records, the band’s fusion of genres, which touches on trip-hop and breakbeat, always finds its way back to its acid jazz core. Their 2000 album, Our Aim is to Satisfy stands as their enduring legacy.
James Taylor Quartet
Led by hammond organist James Taylor, this prolific four-piece jazz funk band found their way to acid jazz in the early 90s.
Collaborating with soul singers Rose Windross (Soul II Soul), Alison Limerick, Noel McKoy, and Omar, their biggest single ‘Love the Life’ came from their 1993 Supernatural Feeling album. Their 1995 album In the Hand of the Inevitable is their most popular album.
Dig deeper into the sound of acid jazz with Italian DJ, producer, and band leader Nicola Conte. His distinctive brand of acid jazz draws heavily on bossa nova and latin jazz, to create an unmistakable, highly danceable club jazz.
His 2000 debut album Jet Sounds remains one of his most seminal works, but his latest records are certainly worth hearing. Check out his 2021 album People Need People.
If anyone could be said to be progressing the cause of acid jazz in the twenty-first century, it’s Thundercat. The esteemed, virtuoso bass guitarist Stephen Bruner – better known by his stage name, naturally – breathed new life into acid jazz with his wild 2011 album The Golden Age of Apocalypse.
Bringing hints of the acid jazz palette into his work on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, Thundercat has done a sterling job of flying the acid jazz flag high. If you’re not already familiar, make sure to check out his big groovy, squelchy 2015 hit ‘Them Changes.’