Feature: ‘Our Music Isn’t Jazz’: Zeitgeist, The Unwitting Face of Leeds’ Burgeoning Young Jazz Scene

By September 16, 2015

Music. Leeds.

Aleks Podraza sips haltingly from the Sgt. Pepper mug I’ve handed him, filled to brim with scalding tea. We’re sharing a pot over my vaguely-scuzzy kitchen table, the surrounding worktops all cluttered high with the instruments of preparing to move out. The spirit of change wafts throughout the house, in spite of which Podraza sits with a certain animate comfort; his hands drum out imaginary rhythms on imaginary air-bound surfaces, and his face twitches with friendly enthusiasm as we manoeuvre the fineries of our recent weeks.

Podraza is one third of Zeitgeist, the Leeds-based three-piece that have seen action all around the country, sold-out shows at Wharf Chambers and a spot on Jamie Cullum’s BBC Radio show. Their hard work and nationally-evidenced prevalence is enough to burn out even the hardiest of up-and-coming musicians, though in talking about it Podraza doesn’t seem to be breaking a sweat.

‘Well yeah, we’ve been pretty relentless with it really, playing gigs and such. Really, we’ve just been trying to preach the message of Zeitgeist, which is not the message of the film Zeitgeist, mind – it was just a word we thought sounded cool!’ he laughs, having no doubt been aligned with the controversial 2007 film one too many times. ‘The name has no political connotations really; I mean, the literal translation from German is “ghost of time”, to which we thought, “yeah, rad as fuck man!”’

The band have just as much fun on stage it seems, their latest show at the Brudenell Social Club having shown the three at their most enthused: Aleks’ head shaking aggressively with each distorted polyrhythmic stab at the bass notes of his keyboard; Sam’s body rocking attentively with every other thump between Tom’s fevered exercise around the drumkit. I wonder where a three-piece with such an affinity for the undoubtedly left-field leanings of their sound might grow so organically. Aleks duly answers:

‘Well Sam Quintana, Tom Higham and I met at the very beginning of first year at Leeds College of Music. The three of us basically started playing regular jazz, standards and all that, together. I started putting in some of my original tunes, and from there it was a very simple development really. The three of us love to play together, and Sam and Tom can put on any hat, be it metal or rock or jazz.’

I ask him if he’d describe Zeitgeist as ‘jazz’, the rhetoric around their music and gigs naming them such, yet likening their music more to other progressive bands from different genres.

‘Well, I suppose we all like jazz and we all play a lot of jazz, but the music we play, I wouldn’t personally call it jazz. Everyone has their own definition of jazz: some people view it as anything with improvisation; some people are much more conservative, and view it as just jazz standards, and so on. I think it’s somewhere between them all, really. It’s a number of things that define jazz, including tradition, including standards, and including improvisation – I think it’s a balance of all three. Given that, I don’t think I’d describe Zeitgeist as a jazz band; our music isn’t jazz. Although we do have some improvisation, we don’t really follow the tradition. Even then, to be honest most of Zeitgeist’s repertoire isn’t improvised, even orchestrated right down to what drum Tom plays at what time. Our music has much more in common with rock and metal than it does jazz. Saying that, it is very hard to get away from the jazz influence when you are a jazz musician, nominally.’

Aleks’ concession touches on a very important chord for the Leeds scene in which he and his band-fellows are integral. The three are nominally jazz musicians, having studied jazz at LCM and having performed separately in the widest variety of bands, projects, trios and improv groups. Their creative influences and busy hands stretch far, from standards in local studios to avante-garde soundscapes for spoken word artists to perform live over; they are stitched into the fabric of Leeds’ culture, alongside a whole seam of other jazz denizens best represented by the LS6 Jazz Jam. A weekly event curated by jazz musician Ben Powling, the Jazz Jam pulls in impressive crowds week on week as collectives, trios and groups play an opening set before the floor opens to a cornucopia of West Yorkshire’s best. The constituent members of Zeitgeist can be found here often, encircling a wide repertoire of classics with friends and musical family. This, then, might explain the oft-encountered faux-pas of promoters naming them ‘The Zeitgeist Trio’.

So it comes to pass that Zeitgeist place themselves unwittingly, perhaps even undesiredly, towards the centre of a burgeoning scene with an honestly bizarre reach into all corners of Leeds’ collective creative endeavour. Not doing themselves any favours in this regard, they play tonight’s (Wednesday 16th September) Jazz Jam as Zeitgeist. Unconventional as their sound and their relative contemporaries may be, Zeitgeist are doing brilliant things for themselves and for the Leeds jazz scene.

James Grimshaw