Safe to say that life has been good to Ezra Collective recently. While the group aren’t shy about their successes, they’re not ones to rest on their laurels either. Femi, Joe, James, Dylan and TJ know as well as anyone that to make it as a young musician in London, let alone a young jazz musician in London, you have to work hard. “We’ve had gigs where people are coming from three different continents to make an Ezra show,” Femi says matter-of-factly.
Part of that hard work has been a constant fight against the very institutions that helped them earn their credentials. Back at Pizza Express, Femi and Joe pointed out time and time again that the snobby image of the jazz world as isolated and somehow ‘above’ pop music is all too often an accurate one. “A lot of the curriculum said to me it wasn’t ok to like Skepta because there’s no 1-6-2-5-1 turnaround at the end of his verse,” Femi says forlornly. “Jazz education, particularly at conservatoire level, almost uses jazz as a weapon against freedom quite often,” he continues. “That’s where my rebellion came from. It’s not even a rebellion, it’s just an understanding that the reason Charlie Parker is so hip is that he allowed his influences to come through, and it’s the same with Dizzy, Miles and Coltrane. Suddenly, when it comes to educating people, they don’t talk about those influences, they focus on the technical aspect.”
Outside of the jazz world, the group had the opposite problem. While they have their criticisms of conservatoire education and the jazz establishment, the genre is still their first love. ‘You Can’t Steal My Joy’ opens with the group’s second rework of ‘Space is the Place’ and closes with a cover of Fela Kuti’s ‘Shakara’. Their approach is one that seeks to reform the jazz establishment, not reject it. As teenagers growing up listening to Duke Ellington and watching Chris Dave videos on YouTube, their passion could isolate them from their peers at times. TJ is one member of the group that didn’t study music, opting instead to complete a degree in physiotherapy. “I looked at jazz in the same way a lot of people in the audience might,” he tells me. “When people asked you what you were listening to, they didn’t want to hear John Coltrane they wanted to hear Skepta or HeadieOne.”
It wasn’t until they got turned on to artists like Robert Glasper, and then later when Kendrick Lamar’s ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ came out, that the members of Ezra Collective saw anything that resembled a template for what they wanted to do. “Glasper was playing at Ronnie Scott’s but covering J Dilla beats. That was exciting for us,” Femi says. It set the band down the road of combing their influences. “I really like ‘Caravan’, but that doesn’t mean I don’t like ‘No Security’ by Skepta, how do I get the two in the same song? That was the vibe,” he continues. Listening to ‘You Can’t Steal My Joy’ it’s hard to argue that they’ve been anything other than successful in their attempts. Whether it’s the Latin flavour of ‘Sao Paolo’ or the laid-back boom-bap of Loyle Carner collaboration ‘What Am I To Do?’, the record’s diversity is it’s strength.
However, even post-TPAB it wasn’t until the group started playing live regularly that they realised there was a growing audience for their sound. “To be honest, the moment you say that you’re a jazz band and more than eight people show up, that means there are no boundaries…” Femi laughs. The hint of exasperation in his voice suggests he’s only half-joking.
All of this has only served to strengthen the group and, as a result, ensure that their debut album is one of the best records to come out of the new jazz scene. ‘You Can’t Steal My Joy’ was formed over years of playing together, to audiences of all persuasions, all over the world. Its songs were tested in front of audiences as far away as Kazakhstan, its solos perfected in sweaty studios in Croatia, yet there’s no doubt that London is at its core. Take that closing cover of ‘Shakara’, for example; a collaboration with fellow Londoners KOKOROKO. It may have been written decades ago in Nigeria, but played by these two groups together it’s the sound of years spent practising at Tomorrow’s Warriors and evenings dedicated to blowing the roof off Steam Down. The whole idea to record the cover in the first place was born when Ezra Collective performed Fula Kuti’s most loved hits at a Church of Sound show. It’s a result and celebration of everything that makes the London jazz scene so unique right now.
Having seen their peers land radio shows, get nominated for major, non-jazz specific awards, and even land top ten records (Kamaal Williams’ latest album ‘The Return’ debuted at number eight in the album chart last year) Ezra want to see just how far they can go. As the album’s release draws closer the thing that excites them most is that it will allow them to do more. “We’ve got to keep that tunnel vision of looking ahead,” Joe says when I ask if they’re starting to feel like they’ve made it, “that’s what got us here in the first place.”
“I remember thinking the greatest achievement we could have in music was headlining Ronnie Scott’s,” Femi agrees. “When that offer came in, I thought we’d made it, but the moment we put our instruments down we realised there was more.”
“Early on, someone told me you’ve got to be the most ambitious person in the room,” TJ says thoughtfully.
“Was it DJ Khaled?” Joe chimes in sarcastically, prompting another howl of laughter from the band.
It’s a moment that sums up Ezra Collective nicely: at once wildly ambitious but also cautious of avoiding the po-faced seriousness that has blighted jazz music for the last half-century.
Once the album drops, things will get more intense, especially as the scene’s profile rises with them. Femi and Joe both play in saxophonist Nubya Garcia’s band, James plays in several other projects, as does Dylan, and Joe has already sold out Village Underground as a solo artist. As much as they’re ready to take their modern jazz worldwide, Ezra Collective know that the pressure is rising. “As we go forward it’s going to get harder and tougher,” Femi admits. “But if we can continue to cherish the moments we play together – that feeling of joy of being together – that’s what matters.”
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