On paper, it shouldn't be happening.
London is a city where spaces are being closed down, where communities are being broken up; rents are soaring, and venues - if you can even find them - are coming under threat like never before.
But East London's Church Of Sound is up-ending these expectations. Working with St. James the Great church in Clapton, the team have built an incredible platform for London's jazz scene, at a vital point in the music's evolution.
Put simply: the vibe is incredible, the music is outstanding, and the food is both affordable and damn tasty. Money from the ticket sales go towards good causes, too, meaning that Church Of Sound is making the world a better place in every sense.
Tonight (October 13th) finds Emma-Jean Thackray gathering an exceptional band of cutting edge musicians to perform the Ethio Jazz Songbook, spotlighting Ethiopia's vivid, wholly distinct jazz scene.
Clash caught up with Lexus Blondin and Spence Martin to find out what gives the Church Of Sound such a special atmosphere.
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What in your opinion makes Ethiopian jazz so distinct? Who would you recommend for those new to the genre / style?
S: That’s a question with many answers innit, so my thoughts on it definitely aren’t factual. Just the way I feel about it. For me the modality really sticks out, there’s a really distinctive set of modes available. Another one is the extensive use of Hammond organ, often with a drone-like texture.
Recommendations wise, you gotta check Getatchew Mekurya. His style of horn playing is super individual. Must listen. Even check his collab with The Ex - too hard! Furthermore any of the Ethiopiques series (obviously), Mulatu Astatke & The Heliocentrics. One of my favourite albums of all time is Alemu Aga’s ‘The Harp Of King David’. Deep.
Was the collective formed specially for this show?
S: Yes, although we can take no credit for it! All down to Emma-Jean Thackray. We managed to scoop Krar Collective on the support and, excitingly, Andu Cafe on the catering! For those who don’t know this place, it’s a wicked Ethiopian restaurant just south of Dalston Junction on Kingsland Road. Wicked grub, tunes always bang, cheap. Can’t say fairer. The injera is RARE!
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The choice of St. James the Great as a venue is inspired – how did this come about? How open were the church team to secular events?
S: Ha, thank you. Honestly, it was more blind luck than serious spot hunting. I’m a Church Organist in Haggerston. Lex and I tried for ages to convince my Church to agree to a gig but it never worked out. Negotiations went on for almost a year, and by the end they still genuinely thought we were trying to stick on a ‘rock concert’ haha!
RE: secularity - yeah, for sure, although every Church isn’t the same. St James the Great is a wonderful place, they put community and humanity before Christianity. Shocking as it may be, this attitude is by no means all pervasive in the Church.
St. James the Great feed the homeless twice a week, they run debt prevention classes. Seriously thoughtful, respectful and community minded people. Without a doubt their attitude to inclusion has influenced us massively.
The venue immediately conjures a feeling of spirituality / peace – is there an aspect of this in the music, too?
S: Sometimes yes, sometimes no. For me a Church should be treated with respect - as should all places opened by their proprietors to the public - but not exclusively as religious. The bare bones of a Church are the four walls you know. For me, at its core, any Church should be a space in which the community can share and benefit from.
The songbook format has been done elsewhere, but yours feels a little different. How did you go about reinvigorating / putting your own spin on that format?
L: The Songbook exercise is totally based on our love of music. For the Yussef Kamaal / Idris Muhammad Songbook for example, having heard Yussef play in various outfits I could really hear the sound and touch of Idris Muhammad in his playing. It turned out later that Yussef had listened to Idris a lot through his dad’s record collection, so when we started chatting, it struck a chord and the gig was on.
Another thing we put extra care in is the musical selections. We don’t limit ourselves to an album, but rather try and look through a full discography, to pick the tunes we feel are the best and most appropriate for the band. It starts by doing a lot of digging in the crates and research, followed by finalizing the selections by chatting with the artists.
We’ve also started broadening our themes to have even more tunes to choose from and discover things beyond our usual crates: having digged into the French jazz and Polish Jazz Songbook, more countries’ musical output are under close scrutiny at the moment for upcoming shows. Diggin through new catalogues or diving back into our crates is one of the best parts of the job... Each act plays two sets, contrasting classic jazz material with new music.
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What do you feel this contrast brings to the night?
S: I think we’re aiming for a certain alignment rather than a contrast. We try not to deify the people whose music is played in the first set, but act with due respect towards the material.
The real idea is to give the musical lineage throughout the decades some clarity. Being able to hear a new act play music both new and old in one night allows you to draw connections and appreciate detail in a way that can be difficult otherwise. It also allows the listener to treat both sets of music presented on an equal level, rather than creating a huge gap between the musicians behind the Songbook and the musicians in the room.
The opening set of covers also has the wonderful effect of engendering trust within the audience, a very hard thing to achieve if they haven’t heard the band before. By the time they step back up for the set of originals, the crowd is already fully warmed up!
Church Of Sound opened with Yussef Dayes and Kamaal Williams All-Stars – were you nervous on that first night?
L: Nervous is an understatement. We just about made all the mistakes we could have done in the run up to the night! A lot of decisions were made in the days running up to the event that laid down what Church Of Sound still is to this day though. All this running around and stressing about everything made the gig even more incredible to us, the moment the storm calmed down and the music started, boooy!!! That’ll stay with me forever…
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The Moses Boyd performance is frequently cited as a real landmark for jazz in London – did you feel something in the air during that performance?
L: This was only our second Church Of Sound session. It really felt like we’d struck a chord with a wide range of people. The crowd was super receptive and beautifully mixed, and the gig ended up on ‘Rye Lane Shuffle’ which had everyone jump up for a boogie! It really felt like the whole scene came together to celebrate the genius of Moses and his crew.
Also, seeing people in the audience like Paul Bradshaw or Gilles Peterson who were so pivotal in developing the acid jazz scene in the late 80s/early 90s roll through the gig and sitting within our audience meant a lot to us. Getting props from people you’ve always looked up to is always a nice feeling!
The Orphy Robinson set won a Jazz FM award – what does recognition like that mean for you as a team?
L: It’s always nice to have our work validated by big institutions such as Jazz FM, but it’s even nicer to know that these institutions are on the ball with what’s been cooking in the underground for so long, that we as Church Of Sound and the whole community behind it, is now on their radar. If anything, it’s a positive thing for all the people we’re trying to promote, it’s a foot in the door for them to get to the next step in the best case!
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There’s an incredible energy around jazz in London right now, and you’ve played a big role in providing a platform for that. Where has this energy come from, do you feel?
L: The energy comes from the young generation that has brought a new energy into the scene, and more importantly, a new attitude. Cats like Binker & Moses, Joe Armon-Jones, Comet Is Coming, Nubya Garcia, Maisha… they envision what ‘Jazz’ is in a totally new way.
From the different music they incorporate within it to where they play the gigs. It’s Jazz in the sense there’s a lot of self expression and improv happening on recordings and in live performances but what informs the music can range from modal jazz to grime. This new context in which the music evolves is radical and that’s inspiring for the young generation.
You’ve had an astonishing 18 months… where next? What personal highlights have you had, and where do you want to take Church Of Sound?
L: We’re now looking at taking some of the shows we’ve curated to other parts of the country and abroad, a Church Of Sound tour kinda thing. We’ve got links in Paris already and we’re currently exploring the possibilities of doing things in Berlin, New York and Los Angeles.
S: Keiko shout us about Japan!
L: A few festivals have approached us to curate stages as well for next summer which we’re very excited about. We’re also sitting on a big bunch of magical recordings from all the gigs we’ve been doing which we’re looking to release in one way or another if the artists are into it.
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Emma-Jean Thackray performs the Ethio Jazz Songbook at Church Of Sound tonight (October 13th).
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