High in the second-to-last level of the Albert Hall, two heralds illuminated by spotlights play a fanfare on a trumpet and tenor saxophone. They are met with a low dub bassline on stage. A pianist with wild hair stretches his fingers over a keyboard while drummer and Ezra Collective band leader Femi Koleoso – entering the stage like a boxer to the ring – raises his arms, acknowledging the loud cheers from the crowd, even before hitting a snare.
Ezra Collective has a lot of strengths. On one hand, they have a strong musical background from conservatory training. On the other hand, they have a natural understanding of breaking down genre barriers. Their jazz music combines elements of grime, carnival, and J Dilla, and is influenced by Afro-Cuban rhythms. However, one of the key factors that has contributed to their success as a fusion band in north London is their dedication to putting on a dynamic performance.
Koleoso enthusiastically shares with the audience his goal of spreading happiness throughout the building. The 2022 album “Where I’m Meant to Be” by Mercury win for EC was the first jazz act in 31 years to win the prize.
Koleoso, who is also the drummer for Gorillaz, recalls the time in 2013 when Ezra Collective briefly performed at the Albert Hall after winning a youth jazz award. “It’s absolutely crazy, my friend,” he remarks. Koleoso and his brother TJ, who plays bass, were raised in the church. While they may have once felt called to the pulpit, they now use their talents to uplift and minister to those in need through energetic and cathartic performances of salsa-inflected Afrobeat. Koleoso even makes a point to have everyone, including photographers and security, introduce themselves to a stranger.
Fela Kuti’s music is just as influential as jazz in shaping the foundation of EC’s offerings. In the lively opening section of this magnificent performance, there is a remix of Kuti’s 1972 song Lady. Percussionist Koleoso and keyboardist Joe Armon-Jones motivate each other to reach greater levels of intensity, while saxophonist James Mollison and trumpeter Ife Ogunjobi (who is also a member of acclaimed African musicians Burna Boy and Wizkid) take a moment to rest. Armon-Jones, who is also a solo artist and frequently collaborates with others, seems to have an additional joint on each finger, showcasing his remarkable dexterity.
Throughout the night, melodies are handed around this all-for-one band, ramping up or changing emphasis on a sixpence. The crowd can easily shout the horn lines back to the players – especially when it’s a sample from EC’s track Togetherness (one that paraphrases Damian Marley’s Welcome to Jamrock, itself quoting Ini Kamoze’s World-a-Music).
This impressive exhibition in the midst of luxurious opulence may appear to be the pinnacle of Ezra Collective’s current success. The three most dynamic band members – TJ Koleoso, Mollison, and Ogunjobi – even have time for a wardrobe change reminiscent of a pop star, and the show concludes with the grandeur of confetti cannons commonly seen at arena concerts.
However, saying that would not give this widely-known group the recognition they deserve and would only perpetuate an antiquated notion of “elite” culture. In April of this year, Ezra Collective completely filled six shows over the span of three nights at New York’s Blue Note Café, solidifying their place in the jazz world. Playing at Quincy Jones’s star-studded birthday celebration may have been even more intimidating.
Similar to Kano’s impressive performance at this venue in 2019 and Digga D’s recent show two weeks ago, there is something incredibly meaningful about the sound of young, diverse, and decolonized London resonating throughout the Royal Albert Hall’s dome. This is a notable event, and EC has brought along multiple special guests who have previously appeared on Ezra Collective’s two albums and two EPs.
The most captivating show is delivered by fellow jazz artist Zara McFarlane, whose expressive wordless singing in I Have a God, from the 2016 Chapter 7 EP, provides the emotional climax 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 at this venue – receiving the loudest applause from the audience. However, the more outspoken Kojey Radical, who impressively performs “No Confusion” on stage, and experienced grime artist JME (with his song “Quest for Coin II”) bring a sharper focus to the show.
The path followed is consistently upward, and these experienced performers continue to express themselves tirelessly, incorporating Latin elements here and stripping a song down to its essentials there. One moment stands out in particular – Armon-Jones showcasing his skills on the piano, with rapid notes flowing beautifully through a captivated audience, playing something unique and transcending traditional genres.
Following the success of You Can’t Steal My Joy, Koleoso impressively separates the crowd as Moses did with the Red Sea. He then moves to a B-kit near the sound booth, accompanied by Mollison and Ogunjobi, and performs the appropriately titled Victory Dance in the midst of the audience.
It appears to be a difficult act to follow – until Ezra Collective brings together around 40 young horn players and a dozen dancers from the carnival-inspired performance group, Kinetika Bloco, for the final numbers on stage.
Koleoso does not have to provide an explanation: his band, along with many other players in the London jazz scene, were established through the influential youth jazz organization, Tomorrow’s Warriors. Fostering the development of the next generation appears to be a natural progression for a band that values community. In a decade, these young musicians may look back and reminisce on the first time they performed alongside Koleoso’s band.