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February 2021

Ezra Collective are mixing things up, jazz style

Yes. Dork does jazz now. Jazz is cool, as Femi Koleoso, band-leader and drummer for North London sensations Ezra Collective is more than happy to explain.
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Published: 3:23 pm, June 03, 2019Words: Jamie MacMillan.
Ezra Collective are mixing things up, jazz style

"I can't stop listening to Billie Eilish; I'm a super-fan!" Femi Koleoso, band-leader and drummer for North London jazz sensations Ezra Collective is giggling. "I don't really understand why I'm in so deep, but I can't stop!" Cast your preconceptions aside: jazz is back, and it's booming.

No longer restrained to dusty shelves in forgotten record stores, there is a new generation of supremely talented musicians that is taking jazz in an exciting, wholly new direction. At the forefront of this resurgence is Ezra Collective - comprised of Femi, his brother TJ, Dylan Jones, James Mollison and Joe Armon Jones. Anybody lucky enough to have taken in one of their live shows will know just what follows whenever they take to the stage as the end results are always the same - hot, sweaty, rooms filled with unadulterated joy and wild dancing. More importantly, one word more than any other defines an Ezra gig - inclusivity.

"Anything in music that I've felt excluded from, I've always ended up running away from it. I went to Channel One Sound System last night, and I'm dancing next to Jorja Smith's drum tech - he's a white guy from Reading, and also this woman that was probably older than my mum. You've got a Spanish guy with dreadlocks, and then an actual rastaman with dreads, and they're all having the same experience. That's what I'm trying to do with my music, y'know?" Warming to his theme, that love of music resonates throughout - even down to the unceasing tip-tap of Femi playing with a drumstick as we chat. "The moment that music is too demographic-specific, you've lost someone. I've been a victim of that too many times, it's too painful, and I don't want to lose anyone."

It's clear from the rapid acceleration in Femi's words that the audience reaction is uppermost in his thoughts and closest to his heart. "I'm a massive Drake fan; I watched him the other day. It felt like it was hard to work out who in the venue was ‘performing', and who was attending - everyone was putting on their own show, do you know what I mean? I'm more into music performances that strip away [audience] insecurities. I want people to wear whatever they want, dance if they want or just watch and not move. But at the same time, it's a real blessing when who you are on stage is what people want to see."

“Jazz has always mixed things up”
Femi Koleoso

Formed nearly a decade ago, the band met at the famed ‘Tomorrow's Warriors' - an organisation that is committed to increasing diversity in the jazz world through education and artist development. "Yeah, we met when I was 15, 16. It was a youth club that felt massively inclusive, maybe the only jazz education that I've had that truly felt that way. When you're in an environment that makes everyone feel welcome; that's when you get the best out of people."

Initially just friends, the quintet (luckily for them, and us, all adept at different instruments) soon progressed to playing together. Winning a competition to play at the prestigious Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club, ("Mad cool!" Femi laughs), the burgeoning band relationship soon became something altogether more serious.

Two EPs helped to cement the live experience, but it is the impending full-length debut proper ‘You Can't Steal My Joy' that promises to elevate Ezra Collective into the mainstream. With guest features from Jorja Smith and Loyle Carner, it is a pure delight of a record that takes in a huge variety of genres and influences - anyone expecting a straight-up jazz album will be surprised. But for Femi, that chameleonic approach is the most natural thing in the world. "Throughout its history, jazz has always mixed things up. In the 50s, Dizzy Gillespie mixed Afro-Cuban music in. You've got Miles Davis bringing in a MOBO influence. West African, classical, it's all been thrown in over the years. For me, to keep it relevant, I've got to mix it with the things that I'm listening to and the things that I take inspiration from."

For Femi, an early love of grime fed into what comes next. "If you listen to an Ezra track and can't hear any references to Skepta or J Hus, then that would be dishonest because it's what I'm listening to quite often. If you can't hear Kamasi Washington, or that I love J Dilla and Billie Eilish then I would be lying. So we're putting it all in, and we're super unashamed about it." So is Billie the dream next guest for Ezra? "I've heard from a few people that she's a big Jorja fan, so I'm thinking that could be the way in, you know?" he laughs. Citing Noname and Burner Boy as other big influences going into the studio, along with the likes of John Coltrane, a rapid recording session produced an album with unquestionable crossover appeal - different shades and elements creeping in across thirteen tracks of huge quality.

After drumming in Jorja's band, it was a natural progression for her to feature here - though it was unplanned initially. "I was pretty much like; we don't need no features on this record. And then as time grew on, Jorja came to our shows and loved it. We started playing her tracks live, and then we were bringing each other out at each other's shows. It was natural, and you can hear it in the song - it's not forced."

Ezra Collective are mixing things up, jazz style
"We've never really changed, but the exposure's grown so much"
Femi Koleoso

A big believer that guest spots only work when they come out of closeness, ("Family" is how he describes it), "You can always hear it quick like when it's not natural, like that bloody Kendrick song with Katy Perry. Come on boys; we can all see what's happened here. Both parties obviously needed to pay some bills" he laughs.

Loyle's spot happened organically too. "The whole album was done in two days; we record super fast. So he came in, we chilled, talked about football, and then that was it. He started freestyling over my drum beat, and then we had a 45-minute song! We had to edit it down to three minutes so that we could bless the radio, nobody out there's trying to spin a whole symphony," he laughs.

Not all of the music was formed in the studio, however, with much of it being formed literally on the live stage. "Someone will come in with an idea, we'll write the song together, but after that, it is really a live experience. Some artists, their challenge is really bringing the studio sound alive on stage, but for us, it's about condensing it into a record." Tired of watching bands repeat the same setlist and banter every night? Ezra Collective do things differently. "When you watch us play, you are watching us write those songs as we perform them and improvise them each night. We'll play the same beat every night for weeks, and then you switch it up slightly, and that then changes the whole song up for good. It's like a conversation, where someone says something outlandish, and I have to respond to it in a different way."

The explosion of interest in the genre has led to many strange and wonderful opportunities for Femi and the band, helped in part by the Oscar-winning movie Whiplash. "That film was hilarious man, but I got so much work because of that film. Every company in the world wanted to do an advert with some sort of Whiplash edge to it; it saw me through uni!"

Most recently, Femi appears in this season's Champions League football marketing campaigns. "A dream come true, man!" shouts the fervent Arsenal fan. "I was centre of the pitch in Madrid, filming all night. I wasn't allowed to stand on the grass, but as soon as we wrapped, I went for it. I got the ball and started running with it, all these guys were screaming at me in Spanish. Best day ever!" he laughs wildly, "I scored, I was celebrating, screaming!"

With Arsenal's arch-rivals Tottenham in the semi-finals as we speak, a more serious note comes in. "They wanted me to do all the drum solos wearing the other teams' kits. I said I can't; I'd be lifted! I'd love to watch them in the final, just to be there if they lost." (Someone is going to be a happy camper today, then - Football Banter Ed) He breaks down laughing again, before talk turns to their upcoming tour in the autumn which culminates in a huge show at London's Roundhouse.

The rooms may have gotten a lot bigger very quickly, but some things haven't been affected. "We've never really changed, but the exposure's grown so much. It's the same excitement for me, the same buzz as we always had. We play Rough Trade soon for an album promo; the capacity is 200. But Roundhouse is 3,000. It's just really exciting to play this music for people. It's going to be carnage; I can't wait!" One thing is for sure. This collective is about to gain a whole new host of followers.

Taken from the June edition of Dork, out now. Order a copy below. Ezra Collective's debut album 'You Can’t Steal My Joy' is out now.

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