The Force is strong with this London jazz crew
London isn’t a city one immediately thinks of when the notion of great jazz locales comes up. Yet the English capital currently hosts one of the most exciting and fertile scenes on Earth for improvised music.
Thanks to a combination of several organizations dedicated to encouraging British youth to explore jazz, not to mention the city’s long and rich tradition of dynamic, original music scenes, London currently overflows with talent, from saxophone demi-god Shabaka Hutchings (Sons of Kemet, The Comet is Coming, Shabaka & the Ancestors) and fellow hornblowers Nubya Garcia and Soweto Kinch to drummer Moses Boyd, pianists Ashley Henry and Sarah Tandy and gangs Nerija and United Vibrations.
One of the most electrifying groups to grow out of this colorful garden is Ezra Collective. Drummer Femi Koleoso, his bassist brother TJ, keyboardist Joe Armon-Jones, trumpeter Dylan Jones and saxophonist James Mollison assembled thanks to Tomorrow’s Warriors, a pioneering organization that encourages young Britons to study jazz while bringing their own influences into it. As enamored of Afrobeat, hip-hop and reggae as bebop, swing and fusion, Ezra Collective brings both enviable improvisational chops and fierce rhyth shaking to their explosive live performances. Tours of the U.K. and Europe, a pair of sell-out shows at legendary London jazz venue Ronnie Scott’s and its award-winning second EP Juan Pablo: The Philosopher put the quintet on the world’s map, including U.S. dates and back-to-back years at the South By Southwest Music Festival. As Ezra Collective promote the recent release of its first full-length LP You Can’t Steal My Joy, we spoke to bandleader Femi Koleoso by e-mail about the group’s musical philosophies, the energy of London and the friends that helped it along the way.
RNRG: First of all, congratulations on You Can’t Steal My Joy. It’s start-to-finish strong.
Thank you so much, means the most. We worked really hard on the project. We’re all so proud of it!
Ezra Collective makes music not only for the mind but for the feet. How difficult is it to balance improvisation and groove?
I think they’re the same thing, really. My improvisation is finding different ways to express my need to move and joy when doing so. It comes really naturally to us. The groove will never be inferior to the improvisation, and the improvising will never shake the groove – the two are one for us.
Is there an overall vision for the band, or does the sound come from this particular combination of musicians and composers?
I think the overall vision is made up of us as people, and our sound is a result of that. We’re all here to bring as much joy and good vibrations to as many people as possible, whilst being totally true to ourselves and representative of all that we individually stand for – both musically and otherwise.
Jazz is, obviously, a genre with a long history and its own traditions. There are a lot of musicians who try hard to hew to those traditions, as if fighting against letting the music evolve. I wouldn’t say that most of them are trying to make jazz a nostalgia music – the nature of improvisation means that the music is constant changing, even if the parameters stay the same. But it’s still unusual to find a band like yours, not to mention the especially creative and vibrant London scene from which you come, that’s pushing the music into its next phase. Are you conscious of this, or just doing what you do and letting it play out as it will?
Great question, I enjoyed thinking about this. I guess for us, all of us apart from our bass player, TJ Koleoso, studied at music universities which very much had that ethos and attitude towards jazz. With that said, I think we’re just trying to get the magic and beauty from that way of thinking, without letting it kill our soulfulness. But then just doing our thing and unashamedly being ourselves, and let that take priority.
One of the most interesting things about EC is that you’re pushing jazz forward not by going further into the avant-garde, but by re-connecting it to the mainstream. Jazz was popular music in the early twentieth century, and dance music during the Swing era, and your songs embrace danceability (as evidenced by all the dancers at the SXSW gigs I’ve seen) and accessibility without compromising the music’s improvisational and compositional essence. Is this, again, a conscious decision, or just the way it’s come out of this combo of musicians?
I think it’s a mixture of both. I think feeling alienated by a lot of contexts in which jazz music was played in London as I was growing up gave me a real urge to make it accessible to everyone. Including people that I saw myself in, people who are more likely to listen to an urban radio station than a dedicated jazz one, and people more likely to go to a £5.00 entry club than a bougie jazz club. But by way of this being achieved, it’s just a case of five people coming together and being themselves and people are attracted to that – all people.
What is it about London right now that’s creating this especially fertile, creative and cool explosion of jazz artists (Moses Boyd, Nubya Garcia, etc.)?
I think it’s a combination of many incredible things. Organisations such as Tomorrow’s Warriors, Jazz Re:Freshed, Jazz New Blood, Steez and many others all championing and pushing us to achieve everything. Then incredible role models that I’m constantly surrounded by, like Shabaka Hutchings. Then of course just the nature of being in such a great city to be inspired and to play.
How does London itself inspire you? It’s a very cosmopolitan city, and you pull in Afrobeat, reggae, Latin music, R&B and hip-hop into your music without it coming across as self-conscious
Yeah, it’s just that. The mixtures of cultures – Caribbean restaurant next to a Vietnamese, Nigerian party at the same time as an England rugby match. These things contribute to getting such a wide range of ways to be influenced. It’s so natural when you’re consistently in this environment for all of these sounds and vibrations to come out in our music.
How has working with Jazz re:freshed helped you?
Jazz re:freshed is really something quite special to me. They were some of the first people to let Ezra Collective play. There was no pressure to make money, sell tickets or sound a certain way. They just liked what we were doing and gave us a platform to do it. Forever grateful. They continue to be a massive source of inspiration – I can call at anytime to get advice. They’re pushing jazz everywhere. They’re really heroes to me. All of them: Adam, Yvette, Justin – the whole squad.
Please elaborate on the youth program Tomorrow’s Warriors, how you got involved, and how the band formed out of that experience.
So it’s basically a youth club for kids that want to learn jazz music. Based in London. Free and accessible. It’s very special. Naturally I found it, just from expressing a love for music. This is where I met the others, aside from TJ, who’s my brother, so that was a forced friendship. But yeah, meeting people my age who played different instruments, it was natural to gravitate into different projects and bands – Ezra Collective being one of many. A few competitions and tiny performance opportunities later, we decided to take it seriously and we’ve been here ever since.
After Juan Pablo: The Philosopher put you on the map, what was the goal with You Can’t Steal My Joy? How did you take it to the next level?
Always. Spread this special thing we have going on to as many people as possible. Keep enjoying the process, and just see what happens. Trying to get away from really special goals – I mean, “four Grammys, three top tens, two Rolling Stone covers and a Mercury prize” isn’t always that helpful a way of thinking. I’m really team: if my mum and dad like it, and people smile when they hear it, we’re good. Everything else just a soulful bonus. With that said, four Grammys would be great.
What songs are you most proud of on the new record?
They’re all bangersI I think there’s a special place in my heart for the Fela Kuti cover “Shakara,” just as it means a lot to be able to pay homage to my absolute hero, and have his estate directly tell me it’s a special track and he would have loved it.
Which songs were the most challenging to create?
I think the creation process was really natural and easy. Even with the features, it was all based on good vibes. None of them were any more than three takes. All really bless, equally.