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Ezra Collective: Young Masters

© Cian Oba-Smith

Words by:

“Maybe a jazz band doesn’t have to look like five guys in suits playing in an elite club. Maybe it can look like a bunch of black and white guys in tracksuits, jumping around in KOKO. It’s all about those contrasts.” Femi Koleoso, drummer and bandleader of Ezra Collective, sits across from me dressed all in black, sipping on a fruit-flavoured cider as he muses on his genre’s evolution.

It’s late afternoon on Valentine’s Day and he hunches down to text on his phone as I ask each question, bursting back to life and gesturing animatedly with each response. For perhaps the most exciting band to come out of the nascent London jazz scene in recent years, I’m sure there are other, more exciting places Femi could be right now.

One place could be with Quincy Jones. Femi and his bandmates played the iconic producer’s birthday party in Montreux last year, at the behest of the man himself. Sharing a line-up with US heavyweights like Mos Def, Talib Kweli and Robert Glasper, Femi was unfazed. “That party was a madness,” he says in his north London drawl, laughing mischievously. “But this is happening more and more. There’s a feeling of being really honoured to be somewhere but at the same time knowing that we deserve to be there, that we weren’t intruding.”

© Cian Oba-Smith

At only 24 years old, Femi speaks with squared shoulders and the confidence that an old master like Jones would respect. Ezra Collective’s fans would agree. After self-releasing their debut Chapter 7 EP in 2016, followed by the Juan Pablo the Philosopher EP the following year, the band sold out KOKO in 2018 – no mean feat for an unsigned group playing a genre largely deemed unfashionable for young audiences as recently as a few years ago – and are now set to release their debut album, You Can’t Steal My Joy.

Femi’s younger brother TJ plays bass in Ezra Collective, and the Koleosos met the other members through the grassroots jazz workshop Tomorrow’s Warriors as young teens. Each member is becoming increasingly renowned in their own right. While Femi is Jorja Smith’s longtime drummer (“she’s like my little sister – everything she does inspires me”), both trumpeter Dylan Jones and saxophonist James Mollison regularly play for keys player Joe Armon-Jones’ solo project, while Mollison also occasionally plays in Puma Blue’s band.

Surely these knotty schedules can create friction in the group? “We’re brothers,” Femi says – not just referring to him and TJ . “When we’re on stage as a family, that magical energy that we have between each other, that’s something you can’t steal away from us. No matter how many other projects we have going on, we’ll always find time for each other, to roll into a space and to make music.” Armon-Jones adds that “having both Ezra Collective and my solo project to write music for means I never feel like I’m being constrained creatively; I never feel like there is a clash musically – the two sounds draw from different influences.”

“Whether we're referencing Afrobeat or garage, the underpinning principle is music that has been birthed out of the great black American artform, jazz”
– Femi Koleoso

And this varying music is a beguiling blend of Soulquarian-era Erykah Badu grooves, George Duke funk-work, and the spiritual jazz freneticism of Sun Ra and Kamasi Washington. “Whether we’re referencing Afrobeat or garage,” Femi says, “the underpinning principle is music that has been birthed out of the great black American artform, jazz.”

In keeping with the politicised history of the jazz tradition, You Can’t Steal My Joy isn’t just an exercise in energetic and dextrous playing, it’s a statement on our times. As TJ says, “it got to me last year when I was on Twitter and I realised that we’re constantly being taught to be negative, no one seemed to have any hope. So, we decided to write an album purely about joy, to go against the grain and focus on the positives that might bring us together. We even made a song about being broke – how many people do that?”

This single Quest for Coin encapsulates the Ezra Collective sound: an infectious shuffling rhythm from the Koleosos, an urgent, plosive horn arrangement channelling the likes of Fela Kuti, all underpinned by Armon-Jones’ chiming keys. Femi pauses when I ask him what it is that steals their optimism and he continues, earnestly leaning forward. “As a young person, Brexit felt like a stealing of our joy. I want to go around Europe and play this music, and then immigration processes in America make it so difficult for us to play too. You have tuition fees that are £9000 per year which makes it so much harder for us to study, rising rent prices make it so hard to survive in London. It feels like they’ve stolen our ability to live in comfort and peace but they can’t steal our ability to create joy.” Armon-Jones agrees: “we each make the best music when we’re joyful and even more so when we’re joyful and together.”

The record is a joyous listening experience, from the easy-rolling rapping of Loyle Carner on What Am I to Do? to the club-focused cover of Fela Kuti’s Shakara featuring London Afrobeat collective and fellow Tomorrow’s Warriors members KOKOROKO, and Jorja Smith’s unmistakable, tender delivery on Reason In Disguise. “We don’t pay for a feature,” Femi says proudly. “These people are our family, they show us love and that’s why they kill it on the record.”

“We're constantly being taught to be negative. So we decided to write an album purely about joy, to go against the grain and focus on the positives that might bring us together”
– TJ Koleoso

Ezra Collective’s success – as well the range of musicians in their network – reflects the diverse stories being told in the UK’s contemporary music scene, and they’re not shy to credit their humble jazz workshop beginnings. “Arts Council-funded youth clubs have birthed some of the greatest albums and songs ever to come out of the UK,” Femi says, almost knocking over his cider as he gestures out of his seat. “It’s something that needs to be championed. I’m so sick and tired of the youth culture in the UK being solely about grime because that’s not everyone’s reality. Not all of us have to articulate our struggles through rapping or singing, you can do it in other ways.”

With open-spirited jazz music as their chosen medium, Ezra Collective’s message is reaching a bigger audience, and there’s an international touring schedule built around the promotion of You Can’t Steal My Joy. So where will they go from there? Mostly silent throughout the interview, patiently listening, saxophonist James Mollison speaks up. “All the future holds is that we will stay together as a band and stay together as best friends. All the positive vibrations will follow.”

Photography: Cian Oba-Smith

You Can’t Steal My Joy is due 26 April via Enter the Jungle

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