At the top of the second to last level in the Albert Hall, two musicians in the spotlight play a trumpet and tenor sax to announce the start of the performance. They are joined by a deep bassline played on stage. The pianist, with wild hair, prepares his fingers on the keyboard while the drummer and leader of Ezra Collective, Femi Koleoso, enters the stage like a boxer entering the ring. He raises his arms in response to the audience’s cheers even before hitting a snare.
Ezra Collective have many things going for them: conservatoire musical chops on the one hand, and an instinctive understanding of how genre barriers are there to be dismantled on the other. Their jazz throws its arms around grime, carnival and J Dilla; it’s built for Afro-Cuban links. But one of the strengths that has served this north London fusion party band particularly well in their decade of progress to their recent Mercury music prize win has been their commitment to putting on a show.
Koleoso enthusiastically states in one of his chats to the audience that our goal is to bring happiness to this establishment. The 2022 album, Where I’m Meant to Be, by EC won the Mercury award, making it the first time in 31 years that a jazz musician has won the prestigious prize.
Koleoso, who also plays as the drummer for Gorillaz, shares a story about how in 2013, when Ezra Collective won a youth jazz award, they briefly performed at the Albert Hall. “It’s unbelievable,” he mentions. Koleoso and his brother TJ, who plays bass, were raised in the church and their calling to the pulpit is now expressed through ministering to those who need uplifting through a cathartic shakeout to Afrobeat with salsa influences. He encourages everyone, including photographers and security, to introduce themselves to someone they don’t know.
Along with jazz, Fela Kuti’s music is a fundamental aspect of EC’s performances. In the lively beginning of this exhilarating concert, there is a reimagining of Kuti’s 1972 song “Lady,” with percussionist Koleoso and keyboardist Joe Armon-Jones spurring each other on to even greater intensity. Meanwhile, saxophonist James Mollison and trumpeter Ife Ogunjobi (who also plays with African legends Burna Boy and Wizkid) take a brief pause. Armon-Jones (who is also a solo artist and collaborates extensively) seems to have an additional joint on each finger, as his hands are incredibly nimble.
During the evening, the band shares melodies among themselves, quickly adjusting or shifting focus. The audience is able to sing along to the horn sections, particularly when they are taken from EC’s song “Togetherness,” which is a tribute to Damian Marley’s “Welcome to Jamrock” and Ini Kamoze’s “World-a-Music.”
It may be alluring to label this lavish performance, set amidst opulent displays of power, as the crowning achievement of Ezra Collective thus far. The trio of Koleoso, Mollison, and Ogunjobi even have time for a quick costume change, akin to that of a pop star, and the finale is complete with confetti cannons reminiscent of a large arena concert.
However, it would be unjust to label this widely known group as merely upholding a traditional notion of “high” culture. In April of this year, Ezra Collective sold out six shows in three consecutive nights at New York’s Blue Note Café, marking a significant achievement in the jazz community. Another noteworthy event was their performance at Quincy Jones’s star-studded birthday celebration, which may have induced even greater pressure.
Similar to Kano’s impressive performance in 2019 and Digga D’s recent show, there is something incredibly symbolic about the sound of young, diverse, and decolonized London reverberating through the Royal Albert Hall’s dome. This special event features multiple guest appearances from EC, who have previously been featured on Ezra Collective’s two albums and two EPs.
The most captivating performance is delivered by fellow jazz artist Zara McFarlane, whose expressive vocals during “I Have a God” from the 2016 EP “Chapter 7” provides the emotional highlight of a segment featuring female vocalists (including Emeli Sandé and Nao).
Three rap artists dominate the second half of the performance, with Loyle Carner, who recently headlined here, receiving the loudest applause from the audience. However, Kojey Radical, who passionately performs “No Confusion”, and experienced grime artist JME, with his intense song “Quest for Coin II”, bring a sharper and more impactful energy to the stage.
The path taken is consistently upward, and these experienced musicians continue to impress with their eloquence, incorporating Latin styles at times and stripping a track down to its essentials at others. One specific moment stands out – Armon-Jones’ solo piano performance, with a flurry of notes flowing gracefully through the captivated audience, showcasing a sound that transcends genre.
Following the success of “You Can’t Steal My Joy,” Koleoso captivates the audience, reminiscent of Moses parting the Red Sea. He makes his way to a B-kit positioned near the sound booth, with Mollison and Ogunjobi joining him to play the appropriately titled song “Victory Dance” from the heart of the crowd.
It appears challenging to surpass, until Ezra Collective brings together around 40 young horn players and a group of about 12 dancers from the carnival-inspired Kinetika Bloco performance group for the final songs.
Koleoso does not have to provide an explanation. His band, along with many other members of the London jazz revival, was established through a influential youth jazz group, Tomorrow’s Warriors. Fostering the growth of the next generation seems like a fitting culmination for a band that values community. These young musicians may one day look back on their first encounter with mushrooms as they continue their musical journey.