Emma-Jean Thackray: Everything will flow
For the horn player, breath is everything. From the plaintive, drawn out notes of Miles Davis’ trumpet, to Don Cherry’s ecstatic squeals and Armstrong’s scat, it is the vital force behind their improvised sound. But for trumpeter and producer Emma-Jean Thackray, the past year has been spent fighting to regain hers.
“I breathe for a living, so I thought I knew everything I could about it, until I got Covid,” she says. Speaking softly with a hint of her native Yorkshire in her accent, we are meeting on the hottest day of the year so far, in the garden of a favourite local south London café. As the sun bounces off her orange coat and tortoiseshell glasses, Thackray explains how she contracted coronavirus as the UK went into lockdown in March 2020, leaving her with breath control issues for eight months. “It was really worrying – I remember doing a session for the band Squid where they wanted me to hold a single note for three minutes and it felt like my lungs were on fire,” she says. “My album is also a vocal one, so we had to really pace ourselves with the takes to get it all done.”
After months of delays, her debut album, Yellow, is now due for release. A fixture of the diverse jazz scene that has sprung up in London over the past five years, Thackray has carved out a unique space for herself. Channelling the West Coast beat-making of J Dilla and spacious jazz of Pharoah Sanders with her four EPs to date, Thackray’s is an open-minded musical philosophy that has seen collaborations with the likes of the London Symphony Orchestra, MC Pinty, post-punk group Squid and jazz drummer Makaya McCraven.
With the consequences of Covid adding extra pressure to an already anticipated debut, Thackray might have crumbled, but her grounding in the spiritual ideology of Taoism has given her a humble perspective on the past year’s chaotic events. “I’ve always been guided by the fact that where there’s shade, there’s light, which is the duality of Taoism,” she explains. “Those dark times where I found it really difficult to sing or play, I realise now were what I had to go through to find a new way of doing what I was doing to be better than before.”
The result is a remarkable 14 tracks, transmitting the 70s jazz-funk of George Duke and Parliament Funkadelic, tied together with a thematic lyrical concept of trusting in the common purpose of humanity and the Vedic universe theory that harks back to Sanders’ seminal 1969 release Karma. Throughout, Thackray’s core group of collaborators – Lyle Barton on Rhodes, Ben Kelly on sousaphone and Dougal Taylor on drums, her “extended London jazz weirdo family” – provide a luscious, open sound that cascades from the driving dancefloor groove of Say Something to the clattering Afrobeat of Venus and the eerie orchestrations of Spectre.
“All the music I make comes from a shared ethos of wanting to move the body, mind and soul,” Thackray explains. “For the body: a groove, something visceral and tangible; for the mind: something cerebral through interesting musical aspects; for the soul: writing about subjects that are nourishing. It’s music that tries to put forth an idea.”
Such is the mantra behind Thackray’s own label Movementt, which she founded as an imprint of Warp in 2020, and on which Yellow is released. It also taps directly into the foundational concepts of spiritual jazz – a Black American improvisational music that is inspired by the philosophies and musical traditions of south and Southeast Asia. For someone raised in a small town near Leeds with a grounding in brass band music, how does Thackray see herself within this lineage?
“All the music I make comes from a shared ethos of wanting to move the body, mind and soul”
“It’s tricky because this is Black American music and on paper you might think, ‘Does some Yorkshire white girl have permission to play it?’” she explains. “But I think people who really care about the music know that it needs to be shared, instead of gatekeeping it. Jazz is a shared language, not a genre, so it evolves. And I’m always coming from love and celebration, not appropriation.”
The open-ended, mutating potential of jazz is certainly an ethos that speaks to Thackray’s releases to date: meandering from the Chicago house of Movementt to the sprawling cacophony of 2020’s Um Yang EP and the soulful vocals of Brand New. “As my friend [the composer] Angel Bat Dawid said to me, ‘Fuck just doing one thing – your genre is you,’” she smiles.
It is perhaps because of Thackray’s more unusual route into the London jazz scene that her output to date has been so unique. Starting out playing the cornet at her primary school, Thackray was principal trumpeter of her local brass band by her early teens. While researching a concerto she had to perform, she stumbled upon a Miles Davis version online and soon her ears were opened to jazz. “I had this really organic process of finding the music I liked,” she says, “I would spend all my pocket money in the bargain section of HMV and by the time I was 16, I only used to come home to sleep – otherwise I was playing in a brass band and orchestra, writing my own scores and transcribing crazy stuff like [prog metal band] Dream Theater.”
“Jazz is a shared language not a genre, so it evolves. I’m always coming from love and celebration, not appropriation”
After first studying jazz in Cardiff, Thackray then moved to London to study at Trinity Laban where she met fellow alumni Moses Boyd, Nubya García and Elliot Galvin. “I didn’t do [grassroots jazz workshop] Tomorrow’s Warriors like a lot of my peers,” she says, “I came to London because I wanted to write for jazz orchestras. But I kept producing my own music and making beats in secret, as it wasn’t really approved of by conservatoire teachers, and soon that was my focus.” Enticed by the diasporic musical mix of London, Thackray has remained in the capital ever since. “It feels natural for us London players to be collaborating, since we all know each other, but in music industry terms it’s miraculous,” she says. “What’s going on in London feels like a more concentrated version of the rest of the UK; applying the music people grew up listening to and their cultural heritages to their own interests now.”
Over the past year of intermittent lockdowns, though, the once-vibrant live music scene has been replaced with sporadic livestreams and Zoom sessions. “It was really tough as I had exciting gigs planned in places like the US and Istanbul and they had to be cancelled,” Thackray says. “It made me worry about my career trajectory, and the few livestreams we did put together, I found really tough as without the crowd it feels like you’ve lost a key band member.”
Yet, she has come away with key lessons. “Before, I was always running on empty as touring is so exhausting,” she explains. “[The producer] Ras G had told me a few years ago that touring is not good for you and I initially brushed it off, but when he died in 2019, that was a real eye-opener that you can run yourself into the ground. I realised that all this time, I was working as hard as I could without dying.”
Now, Thackray is focusing on saying no to lesser commitments to preserve her energy. “I’m just grateful that I’m still here to make my art and I’m trying to enjoy it as much as I can,” she says. “I want people to hear Yellow and feel like they have the space to be moved.”With its title inspired by Thackray’s colour association for the soul, it feels apt that Yellow has ended up being released as summer finally arrives and gigs tentatively return. “People are searching for the light after being inside for so long,” she says. “We all want togetherness, a space to hope and to breathe easy, and I hope now we can deliver.”
Yellow is out 2 July via Movementt