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13 September 2023

Britain is scared of jazz

Ezra Collective is the first ever jazz band to win the Mercury Prize – lifting a curse on a genre widely misunderstood as farty and snooty.

By Kate Mossman

Even though a jazz band, Ezra Collective, just won the Mercury Prize for the first time in its history, this country still thinks jazz smells funny. This is obvious in the praise of any band that breaks through. They’re not about bombarding you with complex solos, we’re told: they’re more about the groove; they owe more to rap and soul than to the purist, rarefied world of… Well, what, exactly? I sometimes wonder what people think jazz is – a farty, obfuscating, snooty, polyphonic music: where it is played, and who listens to it. I also wonder why people feel so excluded, listening to musicians do something that they can’t necessarily do themselves.

Ezra Collective are a fantastic live band who can project to huge crowds – a sheer bravura of stage presence that a lot of jazz musicians lack. Musically, though, none of what they’re doing is new or different – they’re essentially a Latin and Afrobeat dance band with funky horn and piano solos, and some cool spoken word. They’re really good musicians – the trumpeter Ife Ogunjobi studied at the Royal Academy; the keyboard player Joe Armon-Jones combines thrilling runs with the Cuban chord patterns of Eddie Palmieri. They met at a jazz programme called Tomorrow’s Warriors at the Southbank Centre that also helped the careers of Soweto Kinch, Eska, and many others now considered part of a growing New Jazz scene in London.

When I was a Mercury judge, jazz haunted the shortlist but you knew it would never win. The Comet Is Coming and Sons of Kemet were two powerful jazz bands nominated in recent years, but they never fully embraced the idea of being popular. Ezra Collective are brilliant at being popular. On their winning album, Where I’m Meant to Be, there is a snippet of bassist TJ Koleoso talking about a woman who, in tears, told him his music let her forget her unhappy life for an hour. I hope it doesn’t become normal for bands to include spoken-word interludes in which they praise their own music. But you can’t blame them when they’re working in a genre as misunderstood as jazz.

Where I’m Meant to Be
Ezra Collective

[See also: How I finally learned to love jazz music]

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This article appears in the 13 Sep 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Revenge of the Trussites

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