It’s a sweltering hot evening at the Church Of Sound, an East London jazz hub that utilises an actual, proper church. Ezra Collective sold out the show within minutes, a special tribute to Afrobeat pioneer and Nigerian icon Fela Kuti. Drummer Femi Koleoso is on joyous form - his sticks pointed to the air, he gleefully shouts out his family, his parents, his band mates, and his friends. “God,” he declares, “has been good to Ezra Collective!”
If God truly is the source of their powers we wouldn’t be surprised. A righteous blend of post-bop styles, Afrobeat flair, grime swagger, American hip-hop, and bruising dub sessions, their debut album ‘You Can’t Steal My Joy’ is an inspiration, the sound of London in 2019 distilled and put down on record.
“We started to recognise that in one set we’re covering Fela Kuti, we’re covering Herbie Hancock, we’ve got a song fully inspired by Skepta, we’ve got a song fully inspired by Vybz Kartel and Donae’O,” he explains. “When we thought about the mixture of things, we thought: this is such a product of who we are. This is so unique to us. I’ll challenge you to find five musicians that have all the same music references that we do.”
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Emerging from different points of London’s close knit jazz community, Ezra Collective are free to break off and do their own thing, with their return forever rejuvenating the source. So Femi plays drums with Jorja Smith while brother TJ Koleoso plays bass in his local Enfield church on Sundays; Joe Armon-Jones has his own group, while trumpeter Dylan Jones and saxophonist James Mollison are in continual demand.
“It’s very much how I feel like we become Londoners,” the drummer explains. “You take influence from your favourite Chinese restaurant and your best mate in school that was Turkish, your childminder that’s Bengali, and your Rastaman uncle. All of those things come back into the melting pot of who you are. All of those things collide together to form what is Ezra Collective. Any context where you’ve got people fully free to be themselves will always come out in the music.”
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Two exceptional EPs marked the group out as existing on a different plane. Matching dancefloor styles to Sun Ra via an exceptional compositional sense, Ezra Collective look to their peers for inspiration. Sure, it’s friendly competition, but the thing about London’s jazz scene right now is that a victory for Moses Boyd or Nubya Garcia or Yazz Ahmed isn’t just a win for them, it’s a win for everyone.
“I feel like everyone in their life needs someone who’s doing something similar but further ahead,” Femi says. “We’re taking land, every little piece. And there is no limit. I remember when I thought Ronnie Scott’s was Mecca. Once you played a headline show in Ronnie Scott’s on a Saturday night that was jazz completed.”
“But then we sold out KOKO in London. And if you told me 10 years ago you can play your own original songs in KOKO I would have just assumed that must be an indie band or that must mean you’ve written some great trap music. I don’t see why it has to ever end if we keep pushing in the way we are.”
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‘You Can’t Steal My Joy’ pushes as hard as Ezra Collective possibly can. Written in endless jazz sessions whenever they could find time to assemble, it was recorded across two electrifying nights - exactly the same DIY techniques that fuelled their opening EPs, “except this time we had more songs.”
“We all kind of encourage each other to write,” he insists. “And then we bring the song forward to the rest of the boys; that’s when it becomes an Ezra track because we all chisel at it. No one can write a drum beat as well as I can but I can’t write a bassline as well as TJ can write one. No one can play keys like Joe, or horns like Dylan and James.”
It’s this desire for collective action that pushes the group forward, and it helps make London such an exciting city right now. There’s this continual urge towards reinvestment in the music, in the culture that spawns them, something Femi spearheads.
“We’re a product of that,” he says. “A direct product of people donating their time and resources to seeing positivity instilled into young people. And if you’re a product of that you owe it to wherever you’re from to give back into that. That’s really and truly what changes lives, when you’ve got a future and a goal and dreams. It just comes naturally to me.”
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The natural path is the one Ezra Collective are ready to walk, taking on the world one show at a time. It’s the sound of British jazz removing its self-imposed constraints, and looking inwards to locate its own street level spirit of originality. “When we started Ezra Collective we had to think: are we going to be the type of band that replicates something, or are we trying to do our own thing?” he says. “And collectively we decided we wanted to always respect that jazz tradition but try and make it our own story.”
It’s something the drummer has always grasped, this urge towards simply being himself. “I will never ever be able to out-do Max Roach. I can’t be Coltrane. I can’t be Elvin Jones. I can’t even be Courtney Pine. But what I can be is the best Femi Koleoso I possibly can!”
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Words: Robin Murray
Photography: Paul Phung
Creative Direction: Rob Meyers
Ezra Collective's debut album 'You Can't Steal My Joy' is out now. Catch the band at the following shows:
20 Nottingham Rescue Rooms
21 Leeds Stylus
22 Glasgow Oran Mor
23 Manchester Gorilla
27 Brighton Concorde 2
29 Bristol Trinity
30 London Roundhouse
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