Ezra Collective & Kokoroko

Islington Assembly Hall; November 19th 2017

So to the last day of the 25th London Jazz Festival. And it is in Islington at the Assembly Halls that we were sat patiently minding our own business when Kokoroko stormed the stage with an energy that one would otherwise expect either on the first day of the festival or at the top of a weekend. This outfit were never going to let this year’s fest out with a whimper. Sheila Maurice-Grey’s collective hit us with a set so high on life it could have coined the Ghanaian genre.They opened with a rhythm so progressive and rolling that we knew from the off that this was going to be a stormer.

The front three of Maurice-Grey (trumpet), Cassie Kinoshi (Sax) and Richie Seivwright (Trombone), when they were not stringing together harmonies on instrument or vocals, were bouncing and shuffling on stage and enjoying every second of the sun-soaked vibe that they brought into this dark and spacious north London venue. The high-life was epitomised with the cover of Pat Thomas’ Gyae Su and by the third song they were already corralling every last spectator on the floor in front of them to bounce, shuffle and bend too.

Kokoroko means ‘be strong’ or ‘tight’ in Urhobo Nigerian and the group were ‘kokoroko’ manifest. Ayo Salawu, deputising on drums for Eddie Hicks on the night, was nothing short of outstanding — on point with every carefully placed accent and splash, I’m pretty sure you could have set an atomic clock by him. Mutale Chashi on bass was relentless, tirelessly setting and driving the groove throughout the whole set. Oscar Jerome, who has just put out his latest issue, Subdued, was anything but. Tonight he was very much outputting compact and upbeat West African riffs rather than his more introspective and bluesy solo output.

We did get a breather, but not until the penultimate tune, Tide, which had this writer whisked away to a beach hammock with mojito in hand, such was the bright and breeziness of the band’s sound kissing us like the seas edge drifting in.

And then, so soon, it was the end of this energetic show. Final track, Uman, underscored this appearance, with an almost steel drum sound from Jerome’s guitar and awesome drum and percussion solos from Salawu and Onome Ighamre to finish, and we were left with the name of this band resonating through our heads certain that, if we can’t make Dublin on the 25th Nov, we will absolutely be making a date for these guys on their next headline tour. I can honestly say, I cannot wait!! You want some sunlight during these winter months? Get some Kokoroko on your player! EP soon come…

Now, if anyone in the venue were under any illusion that there were no more levels to raise to after Kokoroko’s lively set, they were very swiftly corrected. Entering the stage to chants of his name, bandleader and drummer Femi Koleoso commenced Ezra Collective’s one hour operation to tear the roof off of Islington’s Assembly Hall. Let me tell you, this set had everything. Energy, skill, love, groove, genres, guests, vibes, audience participation… and we lapped every last bit of it up. In fact, I’m sure that Ezra’s set could have gone on for a whole 24 hours and we would still have thought it too short such was our voracity to consume more and more of this stunning group.

This was a real homecoming gig and it must have felt to the uninitiated that it was a bit like gate-crashing a wedding party but one where everyone was welcomed, loved and appreciated. And after James Mollison treated us to his first uplifting sax solo of the night, Joe Armon-Jones embarked upon a duel with Femi, and Dylan Jones knocked out one of the brightest trumpet solos of the week, Femi used the break after this first song (yes, we got all that in the first song!) to lavish gratitude and respect to everyone who had helped put them up on the large stage up front. The mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, friends and extended family of all present were thanked for the support and belief that had given them the confidence and presence to do what they do best, and better than most. It was humbling to hear and to be thanked for being a small part of it. It was a special moment and set the tone for everything that followed.

The familiar bass groove and sax refrain of Enter the Jungle, the first song off of their debut EP, came next. Full and tight this piece never wears thin. Released in the spring of last year, it feels like an eternity since we first heard it though it is still so fresh, so warm and playful as if they had just conceived it backstage.

Into the shifting third song (Colonial Mentality?) which led us through reggae, double time, and slowed down again for another Armon-Jones show stealing solo, some cheeky call and response play between Mollison and Dylan Jones; then into the addictive break and walk of TJ Koleoso’s bass for the title track of the afore-mentioned EP, Chapter 7, building the tension upwards for the release provided by Armon-Jones’ exquisite piano.

A break at this point for Femi to introduce the inspiration for the next section which incorporated Dylan’s Dilemma and People in Trouble from their debut long player released in October, Juan Pablo: The Philosopher. A thought-provoking reminder that we are all in this together. This world, that at times seems so impersonal and uncaring, is made better by being open to our fellows. Reminding ourselves that, despite all the dark news, we are brought together in moments like this by love, love of music, love of the good vibrations. And like the most uplifting pieces, we eventually attain harmony. Analogous to that world around us, the loneliness of Jones’ horn is soon joined by the other actors: where we once find ourselves alone and where there may appear dissonance, if we welcome others into the fold with hearts filled with love, we will get to that harmonious place.

Jorja Smith was welcomed to the stage next, another fresh talent from the more soulful and R&B scene, collaborator with Drake and one to watch over coming years. Her voice had a strength and control about it that challenged us to believe she is only twenty years of age.

An ode to the Jedi amongst us followed. Mace Windu (?) further demonstrated the versatility and fluidity of the Collective as they took us on a journey through broken beat and disco sections; and then to the encores. Emphasis on the plural as there was no way we were letting these guys escape easily tonight…

And it was during the last two closers that the ubiquitous and tireless Nubya Garcia joined the stage with baritone. Garcia has absolutely smashed it this past week, with Maisha, with Christian Scott and on this night with Ezra. She has owned tenor, baritone and flute over the past seven days and has been a joy and inspiration to those that have had the privilege to catch her in one of her many arrangements. On this evening though, it was a thrill to see her reunited with Armon-Jones for the close of this gig and the festival — this time providing some impromptu bottom end to the horn section of Mollison and Jones.

There was so much energy in the room right up until the last. As noted at the top of this article, it was hard to believe that this was a Sunday night at the end of a festival full to the brim, as it has been, of living legends and leading lights in this umbrella of styles and fusion old and new. There was bags full of energy still left in those who made the journey up to see this outstanding and exciting grouping that it was little wonder that the Koleosos had us so easily bending and bouncing lower and lower and lower and springing up on demand during the encore à la Kokoroko. We were a willing crew all told. And, quite frankly, willing to see Ezra Collective again soon. Without a shadow of a doubt.

(Words and photographs: Rob Whitaker @wittakmusic November 22nd 2017)

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