DISCOVER OUR ON THE ROAD SERIES FEATURING SOME OF OUR FAVORITE UP-AND-COMING BANDS, WHO BRING US BACKSTAGE FOR AN EXCLUSIVE INSIGHT INTO THE TOURING LIFE. SO, MEET EZRA COLLECTIVE – A LONDON-BASED FIVE-PIECE BAND THAT ARE PIONEERING A NEW-WAVE OF UK JAZZ MUSIC. HITCH A RIDE AND FOLLOW THEIR JOURNEY THROUGH PHOTOS, VIDEOS AND INTERVIEWS.
"You walk down any street and people are playing jazz everywhere," Ezra Collective’s drummer Femi Koleoso enthuses down a crackly line from New Orleans, one of the most musical cities in America. It’s the last destination at the end of “a wicked year” for the group he founded with his brother, bassist TJ, keyboard player Joe Armon Jones, trumpeter Dylan Jones, and saxophonist James Mollison. On top of their acclaimed release, Juan Pablo: The Philosopher, which was awarded album of the year by Gilles Peterson, they’ve released the smooth ‘Reason In Disguise’ with Jorja Smith and played international festivals including the New York Jazz Festival and South by South West.
It’s hardly surprising that international audiences have shown Ezra Collective so much love. Femi and his bandmates have an infectious enthusiasm for what they do, and that’s being reflected in the reception they’re getting, away from the usual places you might find jazz artists having success. "I think that there's a hunger for honesty and good vibes and that's what UK jazz is bringing forward,” Femi says of the seemingly rejuvenated UK jazz scene. “The more people get exposed to it the more they love it, and the more we can break down these barriers." Dylan agrees that Ezra Collective are part of the changing perception of jazz as a genre. “The effect that live jazz has on an audience with its spontaneity and musicianship is unreal. Add that to the fact that we are playing music that stylistically represents our generation and you have something that really connects with a young audience.”
This desire to see just how far they can take jazz comes from the pivotal night in 2012 when Femi and TJ saw Jay-Z and Kanye West play their Watch the Throne project live. “I thought 'why can't I do this with jazz music? I wonder if there's a way I can get this feeling out of an instrumental track, because I'm not a rapper, my heart is in music - how can I get this energy and power into the music that I do',” Femi remembers.
By channelling the energy of more mainstream sounds into Ezra Collective’s free-flowing music, the band are, Femi believes, opening doors and challenging perceptions of what jazz is and can be: "People are starting to realise that jazz doesn't have to be packaged in this upper class, elitist box, and that it can be relatable because it's being played by a boy in a tracksuit from North London, and you relate because you've got the same one,” he says; “I don't have to be a grime rapper, there are other ways of expressing yourself as a young black Londoner. I love anything that breaks barriers and makes you forget who you are.”
WHAT’S BEEN THE BEST BIT ABOUT THIS YEAR'S TOURING?
TJ: I think the feeling of taking your music to new people is always special. It’s always a good time with the boys too. There’s been too many jokes to mention.
YOU RECENTLY PLAYED A HOMECOMING SHOW AT LONDON’S KOKO. HOW WAS IT?
Dylan: It was really special, realising that 1,400 people came to hear us when a few years ago, we were playing pubs to about 10 people. We have really worked hard over the years, so it’s a great feeling that it’s all paying off.
Femi: It felt like a brilliant way to end a brilliant journey so far. It was a nice moment to say 'well played 2018, we did well this year’, to end it in North London was soulful man, it was a highlight of my whole life.
LONDON MEANS A LOT TO YOU THEN?
TJ: London is home. A city where multiculturalism thrives will always inspire you. There are enough people and enough cultures crossing to ensure originality and creativity never die.
Femi: People tell me they've never met someone who loves London as much as I do, because I think London is the best city in the whole world. I could do a Ted Talk on why. London is going to be the place that eradicates racism for good, it's so inspiring. I went to a normal state school in North London and the mix of cultures - I grew up with people from Bangladesh, Poland, Somalia, Algeria, India, English people, everything at my doorstep. The mix of culture you get without any effort - all you have to do to travel the whole world is walk down Tottenham High Street, you don't even have to leave the country! I am writing my music for everyone, there's no demographic of people I'm writing it for, and London is a good template. You don't get that multiculturalism anywhere else. I write music for joy and happiness, and joy and happiness doesn't have a colour or an age or a gender, it's just how we feel.
HOW ARE YOU MODERNISING JAZZ, THROUGH PUTTING YOUR OWN SPIN ON THE GENRE?
Dylan: We have all learnt and played traditional jazz, so what remains in our band holistically from jazz is the heavy use of improvisation, spontaneity and musicianship. While keeping these elements of jazz, we have modernised it by making music that is stylistically more similar to afrobeat, grime and hip hop.
WHAT ADVANTAGES AND DISADVANTAGES ARE THERE TO HAVING TWO BROTHERS IN A BAND?
Dylan: They are ridiculously telepathic musically, their connection and music hook-ups are unreal and drive the band forward. Their years of playing together in church definitely add a unique strength to the band.
Femi: Being in a band with TJ is cool. From zero to 18 we were listening to the same songs at the same time. I taught him the bass, and we played in church together as kids. It's convenient too, because I know what he's doing - I can tell you now he can't play on the 18th January because it's mum's birthday. He gets me on a musical and human level more than anyone else in the world.
WHAT’S BEEN ON REWIND IN THE TOUR BUS?
TJ: We were quite good at switching it up and jumping genres - Afrobeats, gospel, dub, jazz, grime and hip hop all got large chunks of the playtime.
Femi: I met Snoop Dogg the other day, it was the best night ever. He came to the show in LA and came backstage. We were chilling for two hours, he was telling us stories. I've been revisiting every single one of his albums, just reminding myself that I met an absolute legend.
WHAT'S THE BEST PIECE OF TOURING ADVICE YOU'VE EVER RECEIVED?
Dylan: Try and sleep whenever you can…
TJ: Pick your battles.
HOW DO YOU STAY HEALTHY ON THE ROAD?
Femi: On the Ezra European tour we were exercising every day, the whole squad... but on the UK tour I don't think a single running shoe came out. Mental health is more important than physical health on tour, you lose your mind. Your mental health is so fragile because you're so far away from everything that's normal. It's not normal to be given everything - you don't even have to work, you're chilling all the time. It's very easy to slip into the bad habit of partying every single night. I make a real effort to be wise with the decisions - Facetime mum and dad as much as possible, don't surround myself with people who are going to say ‘yes’ to everything you say. The moment your manager starts treating you like you're a celebrity you're finished.
WHAT'S THE KINDEST THING ANYONE HAS SAID ABOUT ONE OF YOUR GIGS?
TJ: Someone came up to me in tears saying that she’d had a terrible week, but for one hour she was able to forget all about it. That’s the purpose of all of this.
Dylan: The most moving thing someone has said to me was from a guy at our gig in Nottingham who suffered from chronic anxiety. He told Femi and I that for the first time in ages he felt anxiety-free when we were performing, that was very moving and reminds me about the power of music.
AUTHOR LUKE TURNER PHOTOGRAPHER LIBBY BURKE WILDE