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Move over guitar rock – Ezra Collective’s propulsive jazz is the true sound of modern Britain

Their Mercury Prize win has finally punted the ‘token jazz album’ era of the Mercury Prize into the past, says John Lewis

Friday 08 September 2023 13:55 BST
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<p>Where They’re Meant To Be: Ezra Collective accept their award </p>

Where They’re Meant To Be: Ezra Collective accept their award

The token jazz album has always been something of an anomaly in the history of the Mercury Music Prize. It’s the giant watermelon that gets presented for a “Best Marrow” competition at a village fete; it’s the well-coiffed Siamese that somehow finds itself at Crufts.

Only now the token jazz album has only gone and bloody won it. Ezra Collective’s album Where I’m Meant to Be, released last year on the Anglo-American independent label Partisan, was the rank outsider according to the bookies but has somehow managed to pip favourites Arctic Monkeys, Loyle Carner and Fred Again to the gong. The band’s leader, drummer Femi Koleoso, a devout Christian, started his speech by thanking God. “If a jazz band winning the Mercury Prize doesn’t make you believe in God, nothing will.”

Ezra Collective, formed in London seven years ago, are a perfect example of the incredibly inventive, diverse and dancefloor-friendly jazz music that has been developing across the capital over the past decade and a half. The likes of Shabaka Hutchings, Moses Boyd, Nubya Garcia, Binker & Moses, Cassie Kinoshi, Emma Jean Thackray and Theon Cross have been ploughing this furrow for a while, but Where I’m Meant to Be, a fizzing, pulsating piece of dancefloor-friendly music, is possibly the most accessible album released by a young British jazz band in years.

This is a London-accented music that, quite literally, moves to a very different beat. There are no “swing” rhythms throughout the album, nor are there even the funk or bossa rhythms that have been the traditional vehicles for jazz fusion in the past. Instead, Femi Koleoso, along with his bassist brother TJ Koleoso, mash up beats from around the Commonwealth – from the Nigerian afrobeat of “No Confusion” to the Jamaican dancehall of “Ego Killah”; from the Zambian zed beats of “Life Goes On” to the furious salsa of “Victory Dance” (the tune that earned them a standing ovation when they performed it at last night’s ceremony).

There are nods to the American jazz that the entire band grew up playing – a spacey, astral R&B version of Sun Ra’s “Love in Outer Space”, featuring east London singer Nao, and a wonky, broken beats version of Charlie Chaplin’s old ballad “Smile”, showcasing the band’s tenor saxophonist James Mollison and trumpeter Ife Ogunjobi – but this is not a music that would be recognised as “jazz” by the purist gatekeepers of the genre like Wynton Marsalis.

“Everybody thinks I’m going to play jazz like the Americans,” says the late Nigerian drummer Tony Allen, sampled at the start of Ezra Collective’s “No Confusion”. “No. I’m going to play jazz my way.” Before his death in 2020, the man who was Fela Kuti’s sidekick throughout the Sixties and Seventies became something of a mentor for a new range of London jazz drummers – including Femi Koleoso, Moses Boyd, Seb Rochford, Tom Skinner, Patrick Boyle and Eddie Hick. (Femi Koleoso actually replaced Allen as the touring drummer with Damon Albarn’s Gorillaz.) And Allen’s philosophy has become something of a mantra: this is defiantly non-American music. It sometimes takes its cues from Africa or the Caribbean, but it’s very much a London thing.

The Mercury used to include contemporary classical albums when it started – the likes of Michael Nyman, Gavin Bryars and John Tavener were all shortlisted in the 1990s – and, for the first decade of the 2000s, would often include a “token folkie” (as the twice-nominated Eliza Carthy called herself at the 2003 ceremony). But, where both the folk and classical entries have dropped out of the conversation (Lankum’s album this year being a very welcome but unlikely return for the token folkie), jazz has never left the Mercury shortlist. This used to annoy many rock fans, who saw the jazz acts as hogging places that could have gone to the latest darling of the NME. But, as guitar-based rock becomes a more and more marginal element of the contemporary music scene, and as jazz enjoys its place in the sun (and even its place on the BBC 6Music playlist), the “token jazz” albums are starting to make a lot more sense.

There have been many other jazz albums that might have made equally worthy winners over the 31-year history of the Mercury. Courtney Pine’s Modern Day Jazz Stories, an early example of jazz’s love affair with hip-hop, apparently came very close in 1996, and others have also nearly gone all the way – Nitin Sawhney’s Indo-jazz masterpiece Beyond Skin in 2000, Joanna MacGregor’s solo piano album Play in 2002, Zoe Rahman’s Melting Pot in 2006, Sons of Kemet’s Your Queen Is a Reptile in 2018 and Floating Point’s collaboration with Pharoah Sanders in 2021 all charmed much of the panel.

The group celebrate on stage after winning the 2023 Mercury Prize award

Having been a Mercury Music Prize judge myself for many years in the dim and distant past, I saw first hand how many of the judges – even the indie DJs, the rock singers and the classical composers – are often closet jazz fans, or certainly enjoy being exposed to music outside of their comfort zone.

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But, what Ezra Collective’s victory represents goes far beyond jazz. Their third full-length LP looks and sounds like modern London, with guest vocalists including Kojey Radical, Sampa the Great, Emeli Sande and even the filmmaker Steve McQueen. The fact that a white old Etonian – the pianist Joe Armon Jones – fits into this set-up makes it an even more curious cross-section of today’s Britain.

Ezra Collective came to into being through the ever-growing London jazz scene

Particularly moving was Femi Koleoso’s acceptance speech, which paid tribute to the organisations that nurtured the band, including Gary Crosby’s Tomorrow’s Warriors, the seedbed for so much British jazz over the past three decades. “There are five of us represented here tonight but we represent an entire family,” said Koleoso, almost in tears. “We met in a youth club, and this moment we’re celebrating is testimony to good, special people who put in the time and effort for young people playing music… this award is dedicated to every single organisation across the country ploughing their efforts into helping young people play music. Big up Tomorrow’s Warriors, big up the Kinetika Bloco, big up the BRIT School, big up ELAM [East London Arts and Music], big up Jubilee Youth, big up AudioActive… We’ve got something special with young musicians in the UK.”

The Mercury, which has been administered by the British Phonographic Industry for the last few years, has often been accused of merely serving as a big-label adjunct to the Brits, another award ceremony run by the BPI. But, if anything, Mercury winners in recent years have become more diverse and more representative of the range of music being made in Britain and Ireland. In anointing Ezra Collective, the Mercury pays tribute to a very grassroots phenomenon – one that embodies a utopian future for modern London’s music scene.

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