Live review

PRS Foundation and BBC Music Introducing Showcase at Winter JazzFest, NYC

PRS Foundation and BBC Music Introducing at Winter JazzFest
(Le Poisson Rouge, NYC. 9 January 2020. Review by Dan Bergsagel)

A London accent isn’t particularly remarkable in New York, but it’s more unusual for it to be the norm. But for the third year in a row Gilles Peterson heads a BBC/PRS cultural showcase of young vibrant talent at the Winter JazzFest at Le Poisson Rouge in the Village.

The format is simple – four UK-based acts get their first step into the NY jazz scene. And this year Peterson has drawn from the same excellent current music pool as previously: teeth cut with Tomorrow’s Warriors, STEEZ or Jazz:refreshed, followed by some nurturing from Brownswood and BBC Radio 6 Music, appearances at Love Supreme and beyond. This NYC night is like the foreign exchange programme of the young London scene, a safe space in a different world, an American finishing school.

The 2020 edition pre-advertised line-up looks particularly big partly because this time it feels like all the acts are already, well, finished. Sarathy Korwar has toured with the likes of Kamasi Washington, Poppy Ajudha has been collaborating and recording with many folk including Moses Boyd, who himself is already sitting on a MOBO award and has a new album out in a month. And Kokoroko are an immensely exciting boisterous next big thing. Half of the line-up have been on the major-press radar for nearly two years, along with alumni acts from previous BBC/PRS nights here including Shabaka Hutchings, Ezra Collective, Yazz Ahmed, Yazmin Lacey and Ashley Henry (more on him later).

Sarathy Korwar. Publicity photo

But first up is Sarathy Korwar, marshalling a percussive opening from a position standing behind his drums, pounding out a resonant deep beat. It’s straight into Gil Scott-Heron territory, serious sardonic spoken word about racism and nativism from Zia Ahmed, meted out with casually familiar slang and effective postcode references.

Korwar and co. are dressed in matching faux-football kit (reminiscent of the 1991-1993 bruised banana chevron Arsenal shirt, with ‘fly immigrants’ as the sponsor) and at times it’s a little like rolling substitutions in a bizarre 6-aside weekend time, the numbers on stage fluctuating through every configuration between two and six, with only Korwar as goalie behind the drums staying put throughout. They’re at full-strength with two strikers singers up front, Ahmed partnered by the Aditya Prakash on Bol, swinging from low grumbling to spiritual classical raised melodies. Hit on a regular beat, but richly instrumentalised, the combination of hard-hitting lyrics (“I’m an England shirt made in Bangladesh”) and soaring passionate vocals a real power piece.

Although she starts with some serious spoken word too, it’s the introduction for the very different sound of the bright and poppy Poppy Ajudha. Structured around cleverly crafted hooks and a sort of magical self-propelling dynamism, Ajudha and her scratch band run through the bulk of her 2018 release When you Watch Me. Rolling through She Is The Sum and Tepid Soul with octopus-like synth and sounds from Joy Morales, it’s the snap and rumble of the drums and a syncopated bass on White Water which capture the crowd at the drop. The music speaks for itself, but – like fellow SOAS graduate Korwar – each song is also presented with a serious message to be chewed over, whether immigration and refugees, or toxic masculinity. The decade starts defiantly, and they’re ready to tell people about it.

Now, Ashley Henry is never unwelcome on stage, but today he is at least unexpected. While there is no real comparison between the plight of refugees and that of musician’s struggling to get visas, Kokoroko have had to pull out due to US visa complications, and Henry has been pulled in as a last-minute superhero to fill a gap. Another scene South Londoner, a lonesome keys player with a surprise band might seem an unusual swap for an 8-piece afrobeat ensemble, but with a network of musician pals in NYC he’s the perfect fit.

Henry is only serious about music, and as he welcomes vocal guests and tells stories of vinyl hunting through Kitty Bey into Milton Suggs (I think unrelated to his album Beautiful Vinyl Hunter) he charts a path of fluid changes, and light touch keys. For such short notice the rapport with drummer Jermaine Parrish is a treat, a drummer who can restrict and acoustically separate his kit excellently, and provide a pacey groove.

And then we’re with Moses Boyd, the crossover drummer bringing jazz to dance beats, or vice versa. Behind the kit he seems to draw in, and build intensity in an inexorable, inevitable way. And the soloists gathered around him – the slick Londoner Artie Zaitz on guitar and the slow-reveal but mesmerising alto from New Yorker Braxton Cook – are not ornaments, but coaxed into the songs and given space to play.

Following up a record like 2018’s Displaced Diaspora isn’t easy, but Boyd knows how to sell the variations. New album Dark Matter is endearingly out this Valentine’s Day, and ballad What Now? is presented as an anecdote to these dark times, as well as a love song salve to heal us. However perhaps the best balm is the energetic BTB, calling to Boyd’s connections to Dominica and Jamaica with a double hit bass drum push, a wailing alto and a strong groove from Deschanel Gordon on the keys; a tireless dancer to finish the room off.

Refused entry into the US: Kokoroko. Publicity photo

Last year’s headliners Ezra Collective used this showcase – and it’s accompanying visas – as a springboard, coming back regularly throughout the year and playing bigger and bigger venues (from Rough Trade up to Williamsburg Music Hall), and I had hoped to leave with the prospect of another vital London afrobeat ensemble following suit and returning throughout the year to setup a fanbase out here. And while I’m heartbroken that Kokoroko were denied entry (my genuine shock is recorded for posterity in a terrible soundbite for the BBC on the way into the venue, when they broke the no-show news to me and I more or less thought they were pulling my leg) the fact that the night was still such a success is testament to the depth and diversity of this current crop of the London scene. The question is, who’s left undiscovered in London to be brought over for next year?

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