Ezra Collective bring the Brit-Jazz Noise to New York’s Winter JazzFest

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Much like in other recent editions of New York's Winter JazzFest, Afrofuturism pervaded this year's nine-day run, offering a palpable and much needed antidote for our country's political divisiveness. To paraphrase a line from Parliament Funkadelic’s ‘Children of Production’, it blew the many and varied cobwebs out of our minds. The British jazz Introducing... showcase on 9 January, was presented in part by BBC Music and the PRS Foundation’s global initiative, aimed at creating ‘50-50 gender balance’.

Celebrated progenitor of the UK’s Acid Jazz/rare groove movement, and latterly of his own Brownswood Records imprint, Gilles Peterson was a fitting host throughout the evening. He was quick to point out the rich and storied history of the music, even to the point of giving homage to the fact that Le Poisson Rouge was once the home of the Village Gate.

Vocalist Tawiah (above) kicked off the night with an intimate 45-minute set. Accompanied by rhythm guitarist Mike Haldeman, the Ghanaian’s voice was redolent of her varied influences. In a few notes, she captured the promise of Lauryn Hill’s Unplugged album. An unpolished yet lyrically potent effort, at the time of its 2002 release, it was panned by critics and devotees, alike. But Tawiah commands both the stage and your undivided attention. Albeit fleeting, she warmly invited us into her life and experiences, from ‘Borders,’ an ode to the challenges of a long-distance relationship, to the achingly soulful ‘Mother’s Prayer’. An aural exploration of her Pentecostal upbringing, the latter song opened with a sample of the voice of her 103-year-old grandmother singing a traditional hymn, recorded on cassette tape during a family trek to Ghana just before she died.

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Trumpeter Emma-Jean Thackray (above) and her fine arsenal of players (Dave Drake on keys, Ben Kelly on sousaphone and drummer Tcheser Holmes) also drew from their influences – from the intersecting and complex rhythms of Fela Kuti, to an endless list of Freddie Hubbard’s CTI recordings. In their half-hour set, Walrus harnessed the sheer joy of listening to these now seminal records for hours and hours, just lingering inside the infectious loops with no end in sight.  

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In-demand keyboardist Joe Armon-Jones put in serious overtime throughout much of the night. First gracing the stage as the accompanist for vocalist Yazmin Lacey, then later, closing out the night with the high-energy five-piece group Ezra Collective (pictured top). The latter group join the ranks of The Soul Rebels and Brownout here Stateside, injecting both a rebelliousness and spontaneity that (generally speaking) has been largely absent from the music. The interplay between Armon-Jones on Rhodes and another promising voice, drummer Femi Koleoso (above), had both Peterson and I dancing together in unison, on opposite sides of the stage. Their arrangement of Sun Ra’s magnum opus, ‘Space Is The Place’, was a timely reminder for all of us to have hope in the future – in spite of the present Administration.  

– Shannon J. Effinger

 – Photos by William B. Gray