Ezra Collective – Juan Pablo: The Philospher

Released: October 6, 2017



At this year’s Winter Jazz Fest in New York City, Ezra Collective closed out a BBC Music Introducing showcase at (Le) Poisson Rouge with stunning energy, saving an evening that never quite caught fire until the quintet set the stage ablaze. In particular, bandleader and drummer Femi Koleoso’s aggressive approach that evening showed he came with something to prove (he did announce that after a terribly long wait, they had finally secured year-long visas). In addition to bassist TJ Koleoso’s gift for constantly keeping the proceedings groovy, the interplay between Koleoso and pianist Joe Armon-Jones – especially when the band stepped back so the two could face off – carried a palpable intensity that elicited shouts from the crowd. Relentless from start to finish, the group kept their crowd dancing well into their encore.

On record, late 2017 EP Juan Pablo: the Philospher is the most recent statement from the group, founded in 2012. Along with fellow scenesters Nubya Garcia and Shabaka Hutchings, Ezra Collective is part of London’s new, young wave that’s taking the promise of live jazz in energetic new directions.

Compared to jazz stateside, Britain’s deep Caribbean influence means the polyrhythms of calypso and Afrobeat and the heavy low in reggae are embedded in UK jazz’s modern DNA. There’s still virtuosity, but there’s also a key focus on danceability, all of which is present on the brief but promising Juan Pablo.

“Juan Pablo” arrives with a triumphant brass call backed by an Afrobeat shuffle. “Dylan’s Dilemma,” a breathy aside from trumpeter Dylan Jones, slows down the energy before leading into “People in Trouble” with a slow, somber introduction aided by strings. Armon-Jones’ keys cascade into a four-on-the-floor chasm, their fall mourned by Koleoso’s marching toms and intermittent cymbal crashes. Jones’ solo is likely the most straight-ahead moment on the EP, a nervous mix of fast flourishes and jagged chords and movement, his hands never sitting comfortably in a zone for more than an instant. Jones squeals his way into the musical mix, and Armon-Jones makes way for a conversation with his bandmate. The moment feels akin to a dance, a musical give and take with neither ever stealing the spotlight from the other.

Similar to “Dylan’s Dilemma,” “James Speaks to the Galaxy” is a brief solo from saxophonist James Mollison that intros into Ezra’s funky take on Sun Ra’s “Space is the Place.” It’s a stand-out on the EP, and a tribute to the group’s key influence. The quintet spruces up the tune in their own image, adding a rhythmic urgency that duels with the laid-back brass, resulting in a satisfying musical tension. Special guest Theon Cross shines on tuba, adding a heft and grit to the song’s rugged chug.

Juan Pablo: the Philosopher works well in two ways. For jazz heads, it’s a fascinating modern insight into the art form’s current global relevance and mutability. It’s also a great entry point for new listeners looking for something with a little more heat and energy than older “classic” jazz.

Words by: Brandon Roos – 2018