Interview: Ezra Collective is Ready to Take on the World
Story originally published on GoodMusicAllDay. Read here.
It’s day two of South by South West and the Austin streets are about as packed with people as the sky is with the clouds covering the impending sunset. Visitors scramble to Airbnbs and hotels for naps before the evening’s concerts. Bands trudge along sidewalks dragging amps and instruments. As they pack in tour buses, others unload into venues across town.
At the Main II on Red River Street, a breeze of London jazz is flowing for the “Jazz re:freshed Outer National” showcase. While Moses Boyd sound checks and Nubya Garcia follows, the backbone of Ezra Collective, brothers Femi and TJ Koleoso, stand off to the side and watch. Referred to locally as “the chosen ones’,” Ezra Collective mixes jazz with contrasting styles such as afro-beat, reggae and hip-hop. Their experimentation has helped define the jazz invasion occurring across the pond.
Femi plays drums and TJ is on bass. The rest of the group, now out exploring Austin, consists of Joe Armon Jones on piano, Dylan Jones on trumpet, and James Mollison on tenor saxophone.
Tonight will be Ezra Collective’s first performance in the United States and they’re first opportunity to play in front of a SXSW crowd that’s usually ridden with music industry folk.
For Femi, it’ll be just another show.
“People been asking, ‘are you going to change your approach since it’s South By?’ a lot of industry cats,” he says. “I’m like nah, whether you work for Sony or Atlantic or Warner, you still like being happy and dancing.”
The brothers head for the venue’s back courtyard and sit down on a bench that gives way to a view of Austin’s growing skyline. Over drowned out jazz horns from inside, they explain how Ezra Collective’s music lends itself to jazz appreciation in the modern era.
Femi says they study not only greats before them like Sonny Rollins and Felt Kuti, but also jazz and hip-hop forces of today such as Robert Glasper, Kendrick Lamar, Giggs and Skepta.
The name Ezra Collective embodies the group’s musical philosophy, TJ says. He explains how they’re named after the biblical prophet Ezra who made wisdom of the past relevant in the present by teaching it through relatable elements. Femi decided Ezra was a fitting symbol for the group since they blend an legacy art form, jazz, with the genres the group and their peers grew up listening to.
“We have this melting pot of all these different influences,” Femi says. “You need an openness to letting them all come out, I think jazz music allows for that.”
Femi and TJ agree that London naturally breeds their style.
“London is one of the most multicultural places in the world,” TJ says. “When people say, ‘oh you got a mix of that a mix of this,’ yeah cool, we grew up on that, we just learned to play it with jazz.”
Femi and TJ first picked up the drums and bass in church, giving them a gospel foundation that they only wanted to expand upon. They started studying other genres and Femi fell in love with jazz after reading his favorite musicians quoting jazz drummers in interview after interview. TJ didn’t appreciate the music coming out of his brother’s room until he started to play it.
“As soon as I started playing jazz, I fell in love because I realized it was about how well I could get my message across with my instrument,” says TJ. “It’s so authentic and it’s so you.”
“I love that jazz music is one of the genres where people like Sun Ra, Yusuf Lateef, Louie Armstrong and Nina Simone are all doing the same genre,” Femi adds. “I love the freedom that the word jazz music can give.”
The brothers honed their jazz skill at Tomorrow’s Warriors, a London jazz development organization for teenagers of ethnic minorities. There they would meet the rest of what became Ezra Collective in 2012.
o put themselves in a position to tour the world playing jazz, Femi says it was important Ezra Collective stayed true to their roots.
“The moment we try to sound like Americans, that’s the end of everything because no one can be better at being an American than an American,” Femi says. “People in London recognize us as sounding and looking like London.”
For Femi and TJ, preserving that London feel also means not changing their fashion from the streets to the stage, even if past etiquette called for suits and tuxedos.
“Oh, I wear suits,” TJ says.
“A tracksuit,” the brothers say simultaneously and laugh before realizing they’re wearing the same Nike sweatsuit but in different colors.
“I think it might be weird if Wynton Marsalis turned up in what I’m wearing right now,” Femi says. “If I’m going to be honest with the sounds I’m making, the music I’m playing, how I look has to be honest. This is what we wear in London. This is me.”
London hasn’t only been an influence for their success, it’s also been a resource. Once Ezra Collective solidified as a group and started to carve out its sound at Tomorrow’s Warriors, they were introduced to their community through organizations like Jazz re:freshed and British Underground.
Jazz re:freshed is London’s leading alternative jazz label that gained its clout by putting on weekly live music events in Notting Hill. The brother’s appreciation for the organization manifests when our interview is interrupted by Jazz refreshed Co-chief Executive, Adam Moses who is filming with a camcorder.
“That’s mister. jazz refreshed himself!” Femi screams. “He’s a hero of ours.”
“Big ups!” TJ adds.
The brothers say Ezra Collective benefited from London’s vast ecosystem of online music broadcast companies like NTS and Boiler Room. They also credited American artists like Kendrick Lamar and Kamasi Washington for redefining people’s preconceptions about jazz. Femi says they helped open the floodgates for wider Jazz acceptance and hopes this will translate to Ezra Collective fans around the world.
“I want people in Asia screaming about this, in Africa, let it be a South American ting too,” he says. “Let everyone know the magic that happens in London.”
Worldwide recognition and a Giggs feature are among the goals for Ezra Collective. For any of that to happen, though, Femi says maintaining the group’s chemistry is top priority.
“As bandleader, I’ve got to keep people happy, keep us together, keep making memories, he says. “If we’re friends first, then the features, the albums, the tours, the gigs…all of that will take care of itself.”