Portrait by Benjamin Amure
London-based saxophonist and composer CAMILLA GEORGE, leading her own quartet with Sarah Tandy on piano, Daniel Casimir on bass and Femi Koleoso on drums, is releasing her debut album as leader, “Isang” (Ubuntu Records). She spoke to Leah Williams about the inspirations for the album, the burgeoning London jazz scene and the importance of music that makes you want to dance:
LondonJazz News: How did your love affair with the saxophone begin?
Camilla George: My grandfather was a jazz sax player in Grenada, where my dad was from, so I guess it was in my blood already but I actually had my first go on a sax when I was around eight at a neighbour’s house. All it took was being able to get that first raspy sound out for me to completely fall in love. I pestered my parents for years and, when I got to secondary school, I finally got the chance to start learning properly. I actually won a music competition that meant I got some free lessons and that’s what kicked it all off.
LJN: Sounds like you had the right stubbornness needed to really make a go of it as a musician!
CG: Yes, for sure. I knew it was something I wanted to do and it was just meant to be, I guess, but it wasn’t a direct route. With my granddad having been a professional musician, my dad had seen how tough it could be and he wasn’t keen for me to go straight into it at a young age so I actually went to Uni in Birmingham to study History. Music and the sax were always there for me though – I even managed to sit in on classes at the Birmingham Conservatoire during my time there and that’s where I met Soweto Kinch as well.
LJN: You found your way to full-time music eventually though.
CG: After I graduated, I knew it was time for me to really dedicate myself to music and so I went to study a post-grad at Trinity in London. That was where I started to really progress and come into my own, I think. I’d been involved in Tomorrow’s Warriors since a young age and I continue to do things with them today. Gary Crosby has been such a great support and influence and in 2009, whilst I was studying, I started playing with Jazz Jamaica as well and this was my first real important step into the professional music world.
LJN: You’ve also played with Nu Civilisation Orchestra and Venus Warriors – do you find that being involved in such a number of collaborations helps to inform your own music?
CG: I think so. It’s great to get different viewpoints on how to run a band and to pick up extra ideas and inspiration from a wealth of musicians. You’re always learning and I’ve learnt so much in the 18 months since the Quartet got together. When I started, I definitely didn’t know so much about running a band but having had the experience of seeing other people do it really helped me. The amount of organisation involved can easily take away from the time you have to practice and really dedicate yourself to the actual music side of things, so having the mentoring as it were from these other collaborations helped me to make sure I could find the right balance.
LJN: What was the catalyst for making that jump from playing within bands to launching your own project with the Camilla George Quartet?
CG: It was actually playing with Courtney Pine’s Venus Warriors. He was really hot on us all bringing in our own stuff to play and, at the time, I didn’t feel so confident in my own writing. He really helped me with my compositional process and opened my eyes to the importance of exploring your own work. It gave me the drive I needed to start my own project.
LJN: You wrote most of the songs on the album, the Kenny Garrett classic “Ms Baja” and the standard “The Night has a Thousand Eyes” being the only exceptions. What are your inspirations?
CG: Lots of things really. Mainly it’s a mix between my musical influences and then the other players who form the quartet. My piano player Sarah Tandy was someone I always wanted to work with; she’s such an exciting player and we share a love for Kenny Kirkland and nineties jazz. I always knew I wanted to have an African influence in there too. I grew up in Nigeria listening to a mix of Jackie McLean and Fela Kuti, which kind of sums up the broad range of styles that continue to influence me! Having the chance to work with such a great percussion section, with Femi and Daniel, meant that I had the scope to really explore African rhythms with a nod towards the calypso beats I so love playing with Jazz Jamaica and even some hints of hip hop in there as well.
LJN: You’ve dedicated one of the songs “Song for Reds” to your father. Was he a big influence in your musical journey?
CG: He was, certainly. He was the one who really got me into jazz, taking me to my first ever jazz gig. We went to see Sonny Rollins and I just loved it. Sadly, my father passed away in 2011 and it was something I definitely needed to do, have a song that really expressed my love and gratitude for everything he’d done for me and I’m really proud of that tune, it just sums him up perfectly.
LJN: Does the title “Isang” have special meaning to you?
CG: Yes, the word means “journey” in the language of the village where I grew up and it just seemed a really fitting word for the album. It captures both my own musical journey as well as that of the album, through Africa to the Caribbean and into modern jazz. I really love the track Isang on the album too – it’s a highlife tune, really fun to play and it’s the only one that we played as a trio so has a different sound to the rest.
LJN: Vocalist Zara McFarlane guests on the album on the track “Ms. Baja” – how did this come about?
CG: Zara and I have known each other a long time, both being a part of Tomorrow’s Warriors and Jazz Jamaica, and we’ve become really good friends. I actually featured on her first album, Until Tomorrow, and I’m so glad she was able to be on mine too. In my opinion, she’s simply one of the most talented singers around and I love this track with her on it. We considered adding lyrics but, in the end, the simple beauty of her voice and the melody alone was so effective that it just wasn’t needed.
LJN: Are there any other contemporaries out there that you’re enjoying at the moment?
CG: So many. There are just so many great bands on the London scene nowadays. I’m really loving Sons of Kemet, Binker & Moses, and the Ezra Collective (my drummer Femi’s band), amongst many others.
LJN: What do you think of the idea that the future of jazz is in trouble?
CG: I just don’t think it’s true. Jazz is not dead! I think the opposite in fact; there are so many young people embracing jazz and moving it forwards through fusion and innovation. Most importantly, I think, is that people are making music that you want to dance to. Not everyone will want to sit in a hall and listen to a jazz set. If jazz is to move forwards and thrive then it has to cater for the generation that wants something to get up and dance to as well and I think this new movement of jazz is providing that (pp).
|L-R: Femi Koleoso, Sarah Tandy, Camilla George, Daniel Casimir|
Isang will be released on 13 January 2017 on Ubuntu Records and available at all main retailers.
The album launch is on 11th January 2017 at Pizza Express Jazz Club, followed by a nationwide tour.