We must begin by giving thanks. ‘Inside the Acorn’ offers a sonic veneration to the music’s progenitors. Atmospheric and expansive, the track is both the inner mystic of a burgeoning seed, and the grand oak symbolising endurance, growth and celestial wisdom.
We Out Here is the flourishing of a close knit scenius of collaboration and community – one stretching back past the formation of Tomorrow’s Warriors under Gary Crosby and Janine Irons. The late Abram Wilson and the late Mat Fox, of Kinetika, both of whom more or less every artist has name checked as crucial to their creative development.
This record is a celebration of survival and innovation. Of jazz as ritual, as collective improvisation and DIY ingenuity.
The musical dialogue and friendships between the artists featured has been, in some cases, at least 14 years in the making. In London, where roommates and buildings are here today, and gone tomorrow, that’s a remarkably long period of time. Alongside Warriors and Kinetika, high praise is due to Jazz re:freshed who have championed these acts and many others with a gig a week for only a fiver for over a decade, and released the debut works of London’s freshest new acts. To this day, if you head to West London’s Mau Mau on a Thursday and feel the need to talk over a performance, be fully prepared for Adam “Rockers” Moss to lovingly request that you retire to the back of the crowd. The support is real, out here.
Perhaps the freewheeling, playful militancy of ‘Pure Shade’ takes aim at the inaccessibility and elitism that many have come to associate not only with jazz, but the closed network of Britain’s arts establishment – a divide that deepens as austerity’s axe continues to hack away at arts provision, and creativity becomes another bartering tool of neoliberalism. Mixtape like, the track is a composite history of jazz’s evolution in multicultural London and a showcase of the Ezra Collective’s eclectic dexterity. Big band swing meets echoes of the Black President kicking zombies into attention, whilst gospel reverberates with the same exultant crescendos as on any given Sunday in the cacophony of churches along the Old Kent Road.
Every scene needs a spot. Head north from Old Kent Road and you’ll find the Total Refreshment Centre. Lexus Blondin, its founder, was inspired by the sophisticated squatting communities he met when he first moved to London. It’s now grown into a venue, DIY community space and record label that has been pivotal to the growth of the scene. Together with Spencer Martin, he also launched the award-winning Church of Sound night, where many of the artists on this record have played.
Head down Old Kent Road the other way, and you’ll land in another epicentre of the scene: South East London. Theon Cross – the brass wielding engine room of both jazz and grime – offers ‘Brockley’, a tribute to his home turf, and the perfect summation of the energy of a scene centred on live performance. It’s hype body music, designed to leave crowds anticipating the next cataclysmic drop. A product of coming into their own playing standards live for their peers, hopefully the days of expressionless spectatorship are long gone.
In tiny back rooms, basements, pubs and clubs across the area, you’ll encounter the verve of jams and poetry slams. There’s Feed the Fishes at The Duke and Wayne Francis’ new Steam Down night at Buster Mantis, both in Deptford. A little further up in New Cross, Born::Free at the DIY Space and Tom Sankey’s Good Evening nights at The Royal Albert are both necessary Sunday tonic and constitution. Steez, with its marathon jams and impressive roll call of artists (Parshmaune, Brother Portrait, And Is Phi, Poppy Ajudha and Vels Trio) is now something of an urban myth, and still going strong.
Here, poets, dreamers and prophets come to exorcise demons, and the rage they feel against the ceaseless machine. It’s a space to remedy loneliness and craft improvised lullabies from thin air about love, not making that month’s rent, the pursuit of happiness and trying to stay human in the capital. Sanctuary.
It’s an uncompromisingly honest, generative exchange – the openness of the audience invites authenticity from first timers and old hacks alike, whilst the sincerity on stage invites audiences to think about how they might harness their own blues, duende, and creative spirit. As Nubya Garcia (who features on all but four of the tracks) shared with me in conversation, it’s not about egos, it’s about presence, and respect. It’s an idea typified in the crisp, clean notes of ‘Once’, which speaks to precious transience of live performances (no phones, please), and the art of intimate listening.
Slice open the sum total of new record shops, the anorak, encyclopedic knowledge of every beat ever made, ever; combine the marriage of musicians and DJ/producers, club nights and collectives-cum-labels, and you’ll have beat-head champions Triforce’s ‘Walls’, as well as the psychedelic tripping of Joe Armon-Jones on ‘Go See’. Made for the stage, and seemingly spacious by design, there is no predicting where performances will head, except for up and out as far as everyone can go.
It’s an interesting juxtaposition to the insular and individualist times we’re living in. But, Babylon’s rhythms of injustice are ever evolving. Moses Boyd’s ‘The Balance’ step in, carrying a warning against complacency.
The new gen master drummer’s beat honours the Blakeys and the Roaches, but also the electronic rhythms of the IG Cultures and Brian Enos. Close your eyes and the track pumps with strobe lights ashing on sweaty bodies, maybe at a BBZ, Touching Bass, Room 4 Movement or Rhythm Section night. And yet, the wailing of Garcia’s unexpected horn awakens us from the hypnotic reverie of the track’s groove – those lights give way to klaxon alarms warning of another venue closure, or the death of another black life at the hands of the state.
On ‘Black Skin, Black Masks’, amidst rumbling keys, a murky tectonic groove churns as though from the earth’s inner crust. Time collides with myth and high priest Hutchings’ pacing horn patiently extracts new/old codes of consciousness. Stripped back Caribbean inflections fuse with Western classical compositions, and the result is a grime-tinged challenge to simplistic orthodoxy and short sighted symbolism: we need enough imagination left to build anew.
But, in keeping with the scene’s values – even imagining requires some deep listening.
‘Abusey Junction’, is in Gambia, and closes the record. Acts from the scene spent time in a family compound listening at the feet of players from one of the celebrated Susso griot families. The sweet palm wine soundscape that opens the track is one that London has an interesting relationship with. It was, in part, the accidental audio product of sailors working on British trade ships towards the official end of the Empire from across the coastlines of West Africa. Men from different cultures making merry by docks during stopovers would swap sounds. One of these men was Lagos born, ex World War II serviceman Ambrose Campbell, who led notorious jams in Soho – the late ‘40s new wave. He taught Fela Kuti the sound he’d christen as Afrobeat, the music that Kokoroko champion with their high powered performances.
Here in Britain, where we are exceptionally adept at cultural amnesia, this matters – music reminds us of Britain’s global past, and that London has never not known migration. With the hideous proposition of the Brexit campaign, the racism and open anti-immigrant sentiment once again garnering national populism, the ongoing migrant crisis and nearly 100 years of racist immigration laws, We Out Here is timely code for we’ve been here, we are here, because you, dearest Blighty, were there. And we’re not bloody leaving.
TEJ ADELEYE, 2017