Ezra Collective – ‘You Can’t Steal My Joy’ review

A celebration of jazz, without being overtly reverential towards older conventions, this is a collection that draws on – and adds to – the genre's new wave

Jazz often gets a bad rap. There’s a common perception that it’s a touch stuffy; a genre crammed with chin-strokers and affluent old blokes skodoodadadabbing along to the double bass. It’s certainly a perception that Ezra Collective’s drummer and ringleader Femi Koleoso also held in the past, too. “I saw jazz music as an elite art form that I didn’t have access to,” he told the New York Times “like playing the violin or riding a horse.”

Jazz was rebellious and experimental at the beginning; passionate musical expression that soundtracked boozing at speakeasies in the midst of prohibition. In recent years various artists – from Kendrick Lamar and Thundercat to saxophone supremo Kamasi Washington – have been busily tapping into the jazz’s freewheeling origins, drawing threads between the spontaneous flow of jazz, hip-hop and dance music. And across the Atlantic there’s a similar revival taking place in the UK capital, led by musicians like Shabaka Hutchings of the Mercury-nominated group Sons of Kemet and beat-heavy duo Binker & Moses.

Regulars at much-loved nightclub Fabric and staples of a steadily emerging south London jazz scene, Ezra Collective form part of this same new wave.  The group make regular appearances at Deptford’s packed-to-the-rafters improvisational jazz night Steam Down (a favourite of Kamasi Washington when he’s passing through town), and when this five-piece play live it’s a raucous cacophony, musicians winding their way through the crowds with zero separation from their audience. Their debut album ‘You Can’t Steal My Joy’ is just as lacking in pretension, wearing its title like a big wide grin.

A largely instrumental release, Ezra Collective’s debut is a celebration without being overtly reverential towards older conventions. Instead, it draws on music from around London – and by extension, the whole world. ‘Quest For Coin’’s parping horns and syncopated rhythms recall UK grime, garage, and salsa in equal measures, while the title track is a ferocious burst of brass-flecked energy

The only place where ‘You Can’t Steal My Joy’ jars is in the middle; shoehorned into two prominent feature spots, Jorja Smith and Loyle Carner end up adding very little on their respective guests spots. Strangely, Ezra Collective sound more like a sedate backing band on ‘What Am I To Do?’ and Carner overly dominates the track with broad, meaningless lines: In a boat, no joke I don’t smoke/ Give a toke, I don’t do that”. And though there’s a smart lyrical collaborative nod from Carner towards fellow guest Jorja Smith, her own contribution on ‘Reason in Disguise’ passes by.

But when ‘Chris and Jane’ kicks back in, Ezra Collective are back to what they do best, and their album closer – which features the London Afrobeat band KOKOROKO – goes out on a communal, kinetic high.  An urgent, free-wheeling bundle of fun, ‘You Can’t Steal My Joy’ is a debut that adds joy to new wave. 

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