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REVIEW: Ezra Collective, Tawiah, Emma-Jean Thackray’s Walrus, Yazmin Lacey at WinterJazz 2019 NYC

Ezra Collective at Poisson Rouge
Photo credit: Vanessa Reed
Ezra Collective  Tawiah, Emma-Jean Thackray’s Walrus, Yazmin Lacey – PRSF/BBC Music Introducing Showcase at WinterJazz NYC
(Le Poisson Rouge. 9 January 2019. Review by Dan Bergsagel)

As gigs go, this one wore its agenda right on its sleeve: British musical funding institutions (PRS Foundation and BBC Music Introducing) hosting British Jazz. At face value it is a worryingly commercial prospect, of trying to generate a return on investment. In reality, it was anything but.

Faced by an always likeable Gilles Peterson, for this showcase we had four grassroots acts that have been nurtured, supported, and plugged by establishments with excitement and enthusiasm, and have grown into owning their set. Back home there’s a network of people working on this, but curiously it takes the distance of New York to tie it all together.

2019 is the second year the UK has taken over Le Poisson Rouge as part of the Winter Jazzfest, after it all went well last year with 2018 alumni Oscar Jerome, Yazz Ahmed and Comet is Coming all continuing to be success stories, and Nubya Garcia so in demand that she’s back in NY for more this year with Pharaoh Sanders. The mission is clear: bring UK jazz to a US market. And that’s what we had, although from the number of London accents in the crowd (at least the early birds and the stragglers at the end) there wasn’t quite as much US market in the room as you’d expect.

* * *

“I like to start with a rant so everyone knows where we’re at”. Tawiah cuts a lone figure opening the night, but it doesn’t put her off her stride. With her varied vocal style range, natural scat and vibrant tone, it’s really not a problem for her to hold the fort solo. Decidedly chill with her simple setup, she builds a big sound with triggered beats and a discreet loop – no gimmicks just musical tools – and the part-time help of a temporary musical assistant.

Falling Short shows she has power, but the full set of songs picked out demonstrates a depth in emotions (and in slow jams). Wheeling out a selection of personal vignettes set to music (like the inspiringly titled Don’t Hold your Breath, subtitled “If you wait for me to love you, you will die”) these feel like lived thoughts, presented on stage with natural understated charm so that you forget it must be dangerous as one of Tawiah’s friends, and at constant risk of being immortalized in song.
Nothing is taken too seriously, although there is a hint of earnestness when we get to Mother’s Prayer and samplings of her 103-year-old great gran singing hymns, and the unhappy coincidence that “singing” and “sinning”, in some eyes, are linked by more than their spelling.

* * *

Emma-Jean Thackray’s Walrus are a more introspective outfit. Serious chat came with serious tone, mixing ethereal trumpet reverb with a stomping sousaphone. Swapping from slow and thoughtful floated melodies to searching horn grooves and purposeful drum shuffles, there was a drive that felt like Thackray’s compositions were looking for something more than just the Ley Lines.

Moments felt like a modern modal jazz, with trumpet alternating with vocals – a lot of Walrus’s sound here built on the link between unwavering Ben Kelly on sousaphone and Thackray’s trumpet, but she also formed a fast connection with Dave Drake on the keys – his two hands pitted against each other, a call and response with himself. Red Bush stands out as the go-to track, a testament to a minimal arrangement chosen to not lose anything on the way.

* * *

Yazmin Lacey is a minimal arranger by nature, demanding our quiet attention through a rich voice and clear grand piano accompaniment from Joe Armon-Jones. In Armon-Jones she had more than quiet attention, his eyes glued on her as he played – visibly immersed in the moment. This astonishing focus and easy flourishes are part of the reason he is so in demand in London, and he did well here to make sure it stayed Lacey’s show.

With a sheath of songs to go through, Lacey comfortably settled in for a warming vocal set, happy to just sing, and even riding the growing hubbub (there was no officious shush-ing here). In it we had what felt like sultry classics with 90 Degrees, as well as moments which had surprisingly trip hop inflection, even without that Portishead bass.

The vocals were carefully picked, sparse and intimate, but sometimes it felt maybe that a bass, or light percussion would bring something out. While she was looking for remedies the crowd came in with their version of supportive backing with a slow click on a funky Something my Heart Trusts.

* * *

We had emotions, we had introspection, we had stories. And as all good showcases go, we finished with some energy.

The tenor and trumpet led out on stage, together a call to arms, and the rest of the Ezra Collective bounded on soon after – the crowd ready to bound along, too. It was the start of the evening’s journey, closely curated by the collective on the way, from Kenny Dorham to Sun Ra, via Skepta and Kendrick Lamar.

A blistering Space is the Place is a euphoric marker, with a power sax intro and free-wheeling bass backing. We had dub Red Wine and a necessary afro beat encore, always with time in a set for slower moments with variation in mood – a lone trumpet leading in People in Trouble with a ponderous well-structured solo. But what makes Ezra Collective stand out is the way they play together: when they nail a post-drum-solo drop, or when they all dump their instruments and gather in to crowd and dance around Armon-Jones‘s keys.

There is plenty of old pal love on display and a brotherly bond, but the core of the band is in the understanding between the organ vamp and Femi Koleoso‘s shockingly crisp rhythms. The way Koleoso waves the horns out of his way so he can get a clear view of Armon-Jones feels like it reveals so much. With TJ Koleoso‘s bass involved too there’s a real power groove borne in this axis of stares.

It might be the camaraderie, the feeling of being part of a bigger social music movement, or just the big sound, but it feels like Ezra Collective are now at the front of a young London’s answer to Kamasi Washington’s West Coast Get Down. It’s still eclectic and epic, but this version is fun and honest and real. Less pageantry, and not so bloody serious.

* * *

Understandably there was a lot “What’s up New York!” when in Jazz Mecca. Even if you’re not looking for it you find yourself tripping over jazz history (Le Poisson Rouge was once the Village Gate), but what makes it such a musical pilgrimage is that jazz here is just not unusual: the New Yorker magazine lists up-coming jazz events in it’s ‘Night life’ section rubbing shoulders with Detroit house and techno DJs; at the same time as the 10 venues dedicated to the WinterJazz fest there is the Jazz Congress at the Lincoln Center, a mountain jazz festival up the Hudson, and in parallel every other club in the city is still putting on a normal schedule, often of two-sittings seven days a week. It’s just normal club music here, which is all these four groups want to provide.

Having said that, getting here wasn’t easy, with frequent references to turbulent political times dropped in between the music. Tawiah’s long-distance relationship angst with “crossing borders, crossing waters” pale in comparison with the issues involved in procuring artist visas. For many of the performers this was their first time in the US, their first time playing in NY, and they had to do it with half a band of deps that they’d played with for the first time earlier that day. With artist access to visas in the UK expected to only continue getting progressively harder, what does this brave new world mean when we struggle to even export our Great British Music? Particularly when the attitude and multi-cultural music that these groups are espousing is exactly the image that London wants to continue to proudly project?

The UK has spent many moons flattering itself as the Great World Lecturer (a Magna Carta here, two brutal wars there, many maps coloured pink in between). But with jazz there’s no pretense to try to claim anything from a dominant US. As Gilles Peterson stated with heartfelt gratitude to the crowd, “America. You’ve given us some pretty shitty things, but you’ve also given us jazz”. Here we are, after years of giving a platform to an exciting homegrown scene, our justifiably much-lauded “Jazzy John Peel” feels we’re at a point where not only is the young UK jazz scene vibrant and alive, but that it is new and original and stands up to scrutiny anywhere. Maybe this is the start of him as a transatlantic taste-maker too, forming a musical special relationship.

So in amongst all the doom and gloom, the good news is that after finally receiving their artist visas, for these performers the countdown on 12 months of performance access to the US starts now – so hopefully they’ll be able to give a bit more jazz back in the rest of 2019.

Categories: Live reviews

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