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Escape Velocity

Listening To Me: Nubya Garcia Interviewed
Teju Adeleye , June 1st, 2018 11:59

Saxophonist, bandleader and best jazz newcomer (officially!), Nubya Garcia is a powerful and precious force on the thriving London jazz scene. Ahead of her set at Field Day, she talks about bebop discipline, dealing with microaggressions, and how to feel the fear and play it anyway

A lot has changed for saxophonist and bandleader Nubya Garcia this year. For one, she recently bagged Jazz FM’s Best Newcomer Award, and the past six months have seen her add a few stamps to her passport. With her core band – Femi Koleoso on drums, Joe Armon-Jones on keys and Daniel Casimir on bass - she’s played in Brazil, and at SXSW, she’s headlined shows at Ronnie Scott’s and at her own Church of Sound tribute to tenor sax player Joe Henderson. That was at the magnificent St James the Great Church in Clapton, and the event doubled as the launch for her recent EP When We Are.

“Church of Sound was great,” she remembers, smiling. “It was sold out, and it’s such a beautiful space. Joe Henderson is king. A lot of artists’ later material can sound quite abstract, but he was of the bebop and hard-bop eras - there were so many different elements to his playing. I love his music writing - when I first heard him, I loved that he wasn’t trying to sound like Coltrane or Rollins. He sounded like himself.”

The same can be said for Garcia. Her numinous tone is instantly recognisable, as is the signature fusion of soul, African, Caribbean, Latin and electronic styles that she has made her own, most notably with her 5ive release on jazz:refreshed. With support from the Steve Reid Foundation and mentorship from Floating Points (aka Sam Shepherd), the record traverses into more electronic territory; continuing the conversation between the idioms of her training, modal leanings and the sounds of the city that has created this moment in UK jazz.

Her recent release explores “the nature and notion of just being yourself - rediscovering who you are and embracing that.” When We Are comes laced with crystalline gospel flavour, cuts a hip hop edge and develops new grooves as each track progresses. Casimir’s bass shadow shuffles against Armon-Jones’ tripped-out keys, whilst Koleoso gymnastic drum licks rise and fall across both tracks. “The connection we have opens up new doors over time,” Garcia says. “Musically, we’re striving for movement.”

There’s a sparkling coolness to the record – the dynamism comes with the ‘tension and release’ the band craft conversations around. Generally, Garcia draws as much from early 90s soul as she does from Dizzee Rascal and Dexter Gordon. On this record, she takes her cue from the roster of south London players and producers who have contributed to the scene – Ben Hayes, Tom Misch, Joe Armon-Jones, Jake Long and Maxwell Owin – crafting a sound that builds on the energy of some of her favourite nights. These include Touching Bass, Co-op and the freewheeling Steez jam nights in south London: “Everyone talks about it like it was a heyday, but it was where we cut our teeth. It was the fact that people were into it, whether it was moving slow to poetry or hollering and whooping.”

Of course, there are different ways of appreciating music at gigs, but as she reflected during our interview, “Dance is one of the primary ways we respond to music.” Its also one of the ways listeners create and exchange energy with musicians in live contexts. Recently, perhaps with the growth of live nights featuring jazz-orientated acts, there have been reflections from gig goers and artists alike about what it takes for people to feel like they have permission to move without inhibition. “I’m always wondering about where the fear lies,” she says. Sometimes, its about the space: “a lot of venues perhaps weren’t designed for the kind of music we are making – so you get a different energy. Right now I’m inclined to play gigs where people are really with you - in some places you don’t know that until end of the show.”

A graduate of Trinity College London, Garcia’s a lead figure in London’s booming jazz community. Alongside leading her own band, you’ll find her on stage as part of Nerija (who just signed to Domino records), Maisha, Theon Cross’s trio and Joe Armon-Jones’ projects. Born to creative Trinidadian and Guyanese parents, Garcia grew up in Camden where she was immersed in music from a young age – she has musical siblings, and was playing the piano from the age of 5. She attended weekend classes with pianist Nikki Yeoh, and was part of youth groups at the Roundhouse and Saturday groups at the Royal Academy of Music, also completed the 5 week course at Berklee College of Music. Like many of her peers, she attended Tomorrow Warriors, who she says “basically gave birth to the scene”.

She worries that future generations don’t have space to find their voices in music, particularly with cuts to specialist music provision and affordable tuition. “What’s the point in all this if no one Is coming up behind you?” she reflects, thinking about a recent video by bandmate Femi Koleoso encouraging musicians to give time to mentor young people. Garcia recalls how important it was for her to partake in master classes by trumpeters like Terrence Blanchard and Ambrose Akinmusire while she was still studying: “I’m still under 30, so it matters for young people to see us now, to know that they can do this. We always hear people complain that no young people are playing jazz, but its up to us to keep it going – Steez was a place where fresh-faced 18 years could pop up and grow.”

The community of friends and collaborators Garcia plays with has been a decade and a half in the making. One of the things that brought this group together, and kept them coming back at weekends and whenever else they could rehearse, most notably at Tomorrow’s Warrior’s, was a love of bebop: “It taught us focus and discipline. You can’t be good without hours and hours of practice. You have to love it, in the grand scheme of things, it’s pretty fucking abstract and virtuoso. Those people were recording at 300bpm, and they were all slaying. That. Takes. Years. Bird and Coltrane were putting the hours in every day – but they also hung together and played together. That music - you can’t learn it by yourself, you need to team up with someone and share the pain. You can’t blag being good at bebop, so you best go practise!”

Much of the engine driving the community of musicians in London lies in a DIY ethos. Tomorrow’s Warriors grew out of a jam, Jazz:refreshed was born out of the desire to champion artists at all stages of their careers, Steam Down is a space to jam with other musicians. Independent labels and self-released projects are an extension of this – there’s 22a and On the Corner, for instance. Garcia embraces this ethos, and self-released her EP. “It’s been really rewarding, and hard!” she says. “I am financially in control of my own stuff. I can do a re-press if I want to, and it’s helped me understand how things work at all levels, from marketing to distribution. I’ve been able to share that with friends and colleagues. It’s important to know your worth.”

Next to her sizeable record collection rests a row of books. Titles include Akala’s Native, Angela Davis’s Women, Race and Class, Skin Deep magazine, and nayyirah wayeed’s salt. Alongside her musical inspirations, Garcia is increasingly taking her cues from literature: “I’ve been reading stuff by black and brown writers. At the moment I’m reading The Good Immigrant, and it’s summing up my life experience. It feels like we’re all finding new ways to talk about these things more.

“Reading the work of people I feel more akin to, people who are writing about the way I also feel in certain situations, helps me to process micro-aggressions. And I’m curious about my history, so I want to know more of these writers because they are the ones that will express what you are feeling, the ones who can shine a light on what is happening and what has happened.”

In the recent We Out Here film that accompanies the Brownswood compilation released at the beginning of the year, many players talk about their music as a product of their African and Caribbean heritages and a celebration of the global sounds that both live and find new life in the capital. Garcia features on five out of the nine tracks on the record. The day of our interview, the ongoing Windrush and wider immigration scandals were still high on the news agenda: “My granddad came here during that time. It’s hard thinking about who is running country and what they are doing to people that look like me. We don’t talk about it, and the apologies mean nothing, but what will be done to repair things?”

A highlight of her recent travels was getting to see Angela Davis in conversation with Esperanza Spalding at the NY Winter Jazz Festival. “It made me feel validated for all the people on the panel sharing how they have had to change, or have thought they had to change, their personalities. When you walk into rooms, you’re thinking about how to look at people. That itself changes you - you become harder. It’s like, we could’ve had a really nice chat but you had to change up the energy! You all ruined it…” she chuckles wryly.

”I am a black wave / in / a white sea / always seen / and / unseen” reads waheed’s salt poem, ‘the difference’. Garcia’s wary of the pigeonholing that can come with being black and female: “Often people don’t know what to do with that information, or they’ll make assumptions and stereotype you in some way.” She recounts frustrating moments of being mistaken for the manager rather than bandleader, ignored while others speak to her bandmates, overlooked while giving staging direction or being confused for other black female artists. Over the coming year, she hopes to develop projects to bring black female creatives together to co-create and support one another: “Black women are often portrayed as angry, but people miss the middle ground – when push comes to shove, people ask where did this come from? But the whole time, you weren’t listening.”

Ultimately for Garcia, music is a way of speaking. “When I was younger, I had so much to say, and loads of energy, but I wasn’t a talker. Music was an outlet for expression. It makes you feel things that you don’t normally get to feel. For instance, someone playing a ballad is melancholy - there is longing and beauty, and no one is saying anything. In instrumental music, you have to emote a whole spectrum of things in your instrument. It’s a next-level conversation with your band and with the audience - it’s learning how to speak in a different way.”

Nubya Garcia plays Field Day on Friday 1 June. More details of her gig and a load of other ace London jazz sets here.