- Words Liam Cattermole
The British jazz quintet and Mercury Prize winners talk their endless list of accolades, conversations with Steve McQueen and more.
The lights go down and the crowd waits. A second passes, then two before a ruffling of an envelope begins to fill the room with anticipation. Before a heart can beat again, BBC 6 Music presenter Jamz Supernova composes herself, reaching for a piece of paper that will decide the fate of 12 British music acts. “And the winner of the 2023 Mercury Prize is”, she pauses for a moment, looking out to the tables of industry somebodies eagerly waiting to hear the name perched on her lips… “Ezra Collective, for their album Where I’m Meant To Be”.
Screams cry out from those who stand in ovation: Loyle Carner, Raye and Shygirl clap fervently from their seats while five men collapse in a heap on Eventim Apollo’s hallowed floor. Brothers Femi (drums) and TJ Koleoso (bass), Joe Armon-Jones (keys), James Mollison (Saxophone) and Ife Ogunjobi (trumpet) walk triumphantly through blasts of confetti and launch into their acceptance speech, 11 years of emotion flooding their systems.
“If a jazz band winning the Mercury Prize doesn’t make you believe in God, I don’t know what will”, announces Femi with their trophy in hand. The genre’s had numerous attempts over Mercury’s 31-year existence but albums from the likes of Moses Boyd, Nubya Garcia and Sons of Kemet have failed to convince a panel of judges to unanimously vote for them. Nevertheless, Britain’s nascent jazz scene, and its prolific nature, created the building blocks for Ezra Collective’s sophomore record, Where I’m Meant To Be, to prevail.
Sitting in a north London studio donning vintage office attire, Ezra Collective are reflecting on their victory 46 days after that pivotal evening. Joe is the first to speak up: “They’d never given the award to jazz, so we thought it would be weird if they just suddenly started doing that”. Femi agrees, explaining that beforehand, the band were just excited to be given the opportunity to play on national television: “I thought, at the end of all of this, the country is gonna see us perform. Someone else will win it and a lot of people will be like, ‘This person won, but Ezra Collective are hard’”.
Having accumulated accolades at a rapid pace in 2023, why should it have been beyond the realms of possibility? Sets at Glastonbury’s West Holts Stage and sold-out dates on a critically acclaimed world tour put Ezra Collective firmly on the map, foreshadowing the more physical honours that followed this year. “For me, it’s hard to ignore 31 years with no jazz winner. Although we were the first, Where I’m Meant To Be was not the first jazz album that deserved to win the Mercury Prize”, declares Femi, in homage to the scene that’s made them.
The victory was a milestone for jazz: a historic moment for a genre often disregarded as a token nomination. Regardless, the quintet never sat down and plotted to win the Mercury Prize. They collectively agree that their recent tour date in Nigeria, playing Felebration – the iconic music festival that celebrates the life and legacy of Fela Kuti – was of greater significance. Met with resistance from promoters and booking agents, the band says that this was no easy task. “When you take the music somewhere else, you have to leave your ego at the door and just enjoy the moment”, TJ explains, adding: “It seemed like an impossible task to get out there, especially when COVID hit. Personally, I questioned if it would ever happen”.
In fact, Fela Kuti was one of the first artists that the London five-piece mutually bonded over. Being Nigerian, for Ife, experiencing his impact firsthand was a moment he’ll never forget. “His work is so powerful, both musically and politically. Musically, I think it speaks to us all because there’s improvisation. Three out of five of us in the band are Nigerian, so his music was a big part in our upbringing”, he clarifies, before admitting to being taken aback by just how good the local musicians sharing their stage were.
Travelling to Nigeria wasn’t Ezra Collective’s only mission marred by the pandemic: writing Where I’m Meant To Be in lockdown, they finished the album in 2020 but had to wait two years to release it. Record supply issues and factory closures caused major production delays and prevented the album’s physical incarnation. Femi admits that there were times he was close to leaking the project, and having signed a record deal they struggled to get used to not being able to control the release.
James caveats that this gave them more time to learn and navigate the recording process. The debut album You Can’t Steal My Joy was written and produced in just a few days and so he thinks the more recent 14-track opus sounds more sonically intentional. “After we did the sessions, we had a nice amount of time to go in and shape the music, which was really cool. We didn’t used to do that, but I think it contributed to the music”.
Inspired by conversations Femi had with award-winning filmmaker Steve McQueen, Where I’m Meant To Be embodies the very notion that if you’re authentically yourself, nobody will be able to stop your vision. An Ezra Collective fan, the British director invited them to play at London’s world-famous jazz club Ronnie Scott’s and then took the Koleoso brothers to breakfast sometime afterwards.
“We got to the door of the restaurant, walked in and looked at the waitress. She looked at us, as if to say, ‘Do you know why you’re here?’. TJ and I were like, ‘Ah, forget it’. And we left straight away, assuming we were at the wrong place”, Femi recalls, before explaining: “Then we looked again and realised it couldn’t be anywhere else. We went back in and told them that we were here to see Steve”.
Little did they know that this meeting would spark the narrative for their second studio album.
As Femi remembers: “Before we even sat down, [Steve McQueen] turned to TJ and I and said, ‘You guys represent Black British excellence. Do you understand the lineage of excellence that you guys come from? So, when you walk around Soho, you walk around like you own the place. This Soho, that is so great, is great because of people like you’”. Leaving their imposter syndrome at the door, the exchange ignited further intellectual conversation about art and music, which carries onto the album through skits of phone call exchanges.
A real discussion was to be had between the band during the early stages, but Femi was adamant that the record must take listeners on a journey. Built upon a bedrock of grooves from all around the world, its 70-minute runtime does just this. Putting all their personalities into a single lineage, Where I’m Meant To Be starts vivaciously. The fittingly titled ‘Victory Dance’ revels in pedantic polyrhythms and Afro Cuban-inspired ensemble, but by the time ‘Love In Outer Space’ plays out the record, we find ourselves in a more contemplative place, embracing fusions of R&B and spiritual jazz.
When I ask if the array of genres reflects their longing to break free and tour again, Ezra Collective partly agree: “I feel like in lockdown, one of the skills people developed – especially creative people – was figuring out how to transport yourself to different places without moving”, ponders Femi. For Ezra Collective, this came when immersing themselves in Boiler Room raves from around the world; Amapiano parties in South Africa, thanks to their free-spirited nature and transient sounds, became particularly influential.
This year, Where I’m Meant To Be has taken the five-piece on a worldwide tour, playing in four continents, where they plan to visit a fifth, South America, soon. After 11 years of relentless work, the gates are opening, and people are flooding in their masses. Venue sizes have upgraded, festival slots are becoming more prominent and undoubtedly their stocks are rising too. By the time this interview is published, they will have played arguably London’s most iconic venue: Royal Albert Hall. Ezra Collective insist that such a high-profile performance will be business as usual; they’ll bask in the venue’s glory for a few minutes and then launch into a quintessential Ezra Collective party.
This summer, they took to Glastonbury’s West Holts Stage for what’s now remembered as one of the weekend’s most definitive moments. Blasting their universal rhythms in the blazing sun, they made every second of that 60-minute set count: playing all the classics, improvising UK funky hits like ‘In The Morning (Let Your Love Come In)’, teaching the audience how to garage skank and occasionally pausing for rousing speeches about the importance of joy in a time when the news is so often sullen.
“Sometimes, when there’s less words and music, people can take their own meaning from it. They’re free to feel it in whatever way they want. The music can speak to people more personally when you don’t have words”, explains James when reflecting on the crowd’s reaction. Collectively, they believe that when the barrier is removed and all your worries leave your body, that personifies the Ezra Collective experience. “It’s a privilege to be able to lead people into that place”, adds Femi.
Cultural commentators will tell you that we’re in a golden age for UK jazz music, and there’s a lot of evidence to prove so. With collaboration and community at its core, the scene has been pushed to new heights through its exposure to subgenres born out of African and Caribbean heritage. From the dancefloor-evoking ‘Dark Matter’ by Moses Boyd to the supernova sounds of Shabaka Hutchings: the list of artists elevating the game is completely endless. Ife argues this is because “The realness comes across. No one is trying to be someone else. We’re doing what we’re doing unapologetically”. He also, leaning back in his chair, makes the point that they don’t really see the UK jazz scene blowing up in the way everyone else does.
Joe rightfully interjects and clarifies that we need to be careful when using the term ‘golden age’, as it discredits the wealth of talent that came before them. “We are sitting on the shoulders of a generation of musicians, Gary Crosby included, where if they didn’t do what they did, then we wouldn’t have been able to do the next thing”.
Some of you may be asking, “Who’s Gary Crosby?” For the five men sitting before me, and countless other top musicians in London, he’s the godfather of this UK jazz renaissance. The double bassist set up Tomorrow’s Warriors alongside his partner Janine Irons OBE, an organisation that develops and nurtures musical talent in young people, prioritising those in less fortunate circumstances than others. “Gary was great at finding the one thing that you were good at”, reminisces TJ, “I couldn’t really play bass when I went. He was like, ‘Man, your timing is really good, play that one note the whole time’. I was like, ‘Sick, I can handle that’”. What could be perceived as an intimidating environment for someone to walk into was always quickly eradicated through the family-like spirit that spurred its members on to be the best artists they could possibly be.