Nubya Garcia on the improvisation of jazz: "I think we are leaving the time where everyday people were like, 'Oh I don't like jazz'"
Outside the box
You normally wouldn't expect to find a jazz quartet drawing in the numbers at somewhere like Kilo Lounge, where its discerning revellers often flock to for electronic sounds. But the visiting Brit musicians who performed on 5 June weren't just any other band. Pianist/keyboardist Joe-Armon Jones, drummer Femi Koleoso and bassist Daniel Casimir were performing in support of lead saxophonist and composer Nubya Garcia, who's been touted as one of the leaders in the resurgence of London's urban jazz scene.
We first caught wind of Garcia's pulsing sounds during her first visit to Singapore International Jazz Festival in 2017, among a lineup of fearless females that included Esperanza Spalding, Chaka Khan and Corinne Bailey Rae. This time, the 26-year-old returns with two EPs in her arsenal — her debut, Nubya's 5ive, is followed up by When We Are, released in March — as well as a breakthrough artist award from Jazz FM, a leading jazz, blues and soul station from the UK. Performance highlights included a headlining slot in the iconic Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club in Soho as well as gigs in SXSW, Afropunk, Worldwide Festival, Melbourne Jazz Festival and more recently, Vivid Sydney.
Raised by Caribbean parents in Camden, the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance graduate first picked up the tenor saxophone at age 10. Stretching the boundaries and strict definitions of jazz, Garcia is also part of collectives and bands such as the all-female septet, Nerjia, as well as Maisha, Theon Cross's trio and Armon-Jones' projects. Her sound is heavily influenced by club culture in London, because surprise, surprise — the multi-instrumentalist (she can play the violin, piano and recorder) also spins under the name DJ Nyasha. With residencies on platforms such as Peckham and Hackney radio stations Balamii and NTS respectively, she seeks out sounds such as grime, garage and dub. Her sophomore release saw her exploring a more electronic vibe, which you can hear in the title track.
The fluidity and freedom in her approach to music resonates with another name in music: Farah Azizan, also known as DJ RAH. Opening the Collective Minds-backed gig with Senja, RAH's sound is uncommitted to any specific genre, enabling her to explore jazz in every element — be it hip-hop, funk, soul, dub or drum and bass. As part of record label Darker Than Wax and events and music promotion collective Revision Music, she's flown our flag in Bali, London, New York and the Philippines. This August, she'll be spinning in Croatia for The Move Mag boat party at Dimensions Festival, where Garcia will also perform.
Prior to their sets, Garcia and RAH launched into a chat about the improvisation of jazz and their shared love for not keeping things within a box.
RAH: Congrats on winning the breakthrough act of the year for Jazz FM. Is everything blowing up and moving really fast for you? It seems like it.
Nubya Garcia: Yes and no. I've been gigging for a while now and things are moving forward and progressing, it's not like blowing up as such — which is kind of a nicer, less pressurising way of looking at it. I'm just trying to maintain and improve on what we're already doing and reach further bases and go to more places. That's the plan.
With this whole renaissance of jazz that's happening, what do you think are the key factors that are making it possible? Because everything is just happening at the same time, with the likes of people like Yussef Dayes, Shabaka Hutchings...
People like to go and get these live music experiences you know? It's not like live music is new, but we are experimenting all over the world to find new ways to express what we want to express, having been really into so many different genres. So if you are into the man and DJ laptop live, man and vinyl live or whatever, I think we are just finding new ways to combine everything. Which is in itself is creating something new, but people are kind of drawing similarities to jazz and live music because people want that — people want to see people.
Yeah people are responding really well.
They love it. I love it. I love going to see people play music. I feel something. In any creative world, whether it's theatre or spoken word or any of that, I feel different things to when you go to a rave, but combining them is the vibe we are looking at. People want to dance.
And now they're dancing to live jazz. So I was just watching the We Out Here: A LDN Jazz Story documentary and it was funny because in the beginning, I think Joe Armon-Jones was saying, "I don't want to say jazz, let's say improvisation." What do you think?
Big question. How long do you have? I'm in two minds. I think if you are going to call it jazz, you need to be specific about what jazz means in this context. There's so many different opinions of what jazz means to people and there's no right or wrong answer. The word wasn't chosen by musicians that I was talking about, it was a label given by someone else. And I think that's step number one: You have to be specific.
I feel like jazz to me is improvisation, or jazz to me is like blues or whatever, you can have so many different opinions on what it is. Who the hell am I to define it? I'm one person. It's too big an umbrella, it's a hundred years old and you can't put it in a box. Define what it is before you are like, "Hey we are recreating this." What kind of jazz are you talking about? Then you will have no problem with offending people, or not offending people, or grouping it into this thing, or making it smaller than it is. Jazz has been through so many stages of popularity, or unpopularity. I think we are leaving the time where everyday people were like, "Oh I don't like jazz". That is what bothers me because if you actually listen to different types of jazz, you'll find something that you'd like. I'm like going all over the place, that was a huge question. What was the original question? Let me just answer that.
What is your perception of jazz? Because Joe in the documentary was like, "Oh don't call it jazz".
I think it is inspired by jazz music and the idiom of jazz is so important to say that like, "jazz is too small". It means more to me than one word.
Yeah it's interesting to hear all these definitions, Henry Wu was also saying, "Oh it's not just jazz anymore, it's a London thing."
It doesn't need to be separated though like at the end of the day, we are making music, that's the first thing, foremost in everything. People want to box it up and that's cool. They box it up because they want to write about it, they want to put it in the funk section, in the jazz section, on a jazz label, but it's just to break it up and make it palatable for people. Whereas if you just present it as "music", then you will get people being like, "Oh, what type of music?", and they will come and find out. It's not actually just jazz. There are so many different influences. I can't speak for everyone but I'm not trying to run away from it in any way, I just think people need to actually wake up and be more specific, that's my personal thing. That's why it kind of bothers me.
I think people are so consumed in wanting to categorise certain things, because they want to write about it. Speaking of that, your music has been described as afrofuturism by the media...
Cool. What does that mean?
Yeah, I wanted to ask. Do you think that is the case because is it a conscious thing for you to make this sort of sound? Because you are Caribbean, right? So is it an homage to your background?
It's about a discovery you know, it's about experimentation. I grew up in the UK where there's a heavy sound system culture that's been happening for years. It's getting into that — those raves and stuff — and then kind of figuring out what music comes from there.
Do you listen to a lot of Caribbean music?
Yeah. I went to Trinidad carnival. It's one of the best things I've ever experienced — being on an island where everyone listens to loads of music. There's a central love of soca, calypso, and reggae. We don't have that anywhere else, I think. Maybe I haven't travelled enough. I feel like there are parts of the world that definitely have centralised music where people are like, "This is ours", and it's not an ownership thing, but this is what we love together, this is our culture. Yeah, I think it's a discovery, it's just what I like listening to and what I want to create.
So you are just free-forming?
Right now I'm writing what I hear in my head. I go to gigs and I'm like, "This is sick" or, it's just...I can't really describe it.
So it's a jam session with everybody there?
I write and then I take it. Each live show gets better and better and we change it up and stuff. That's the fun of playing improvised music. Under the umbrella of jazz it's never the same. I don't want it to be the same every time, it's part of the fun. I think I will get really bored if it was the same every time.
Tell me more about Tomorrow's Warriors. It sounds so empowering. What was your involvement in that?
Tomorrow's Warriors was born out of the Jazz Warriors. It's an educational program developed by Gary Crosby and Janine Irons that's a home, space and education centre with a community spirit of everything for jazz music for children and young adults. I started there at 17. I don't study in it anymore but they are still family. That's where we started playing music together, had sessions every weekend from our mentors that we still go to today to hang out or even just call up, ask for advice and chill. That's an important step — when you play with your mentors, it's really good for you. I think it's the healthiest thing for the development of creativity.
Seeing that your EP just dropped a few months ago, are you writing any new stuff at the moment?
I'm always writing. Some of it is going to be used in a year, some of it maybe five, some of it maybe next week, but it's a muscle. You have to keep at it.
Catch RAH at Camp Kilo on 8 July.
You can see both RAH and Nubya Garcia at Dimensions Festival in Croatia from 29 August to 2 September.
Nubya Garcia Live! presented by Collective Minds x Kilo Lounge took place on 5 June.