Ezra Collective
On his work with Jorja Smith, the jazz resurgence, and Sun Ra...

Femi Koleoso knows the power of rhythm. When you catch the drummer live it’s clear that it surges through him, a life force, an energy distilled down into a pulse, that sublime repetition providing a bedrock for whatever comes on top.

When Clash catches the musician he’s taking a break from the road. One of the creative forces behind sought-after London jazz outfit Ezra Collective, Femi is also the long-standing drummer in Jorja Smith’s live group, watching the singer’s rise at first hand.

“I love it!” he exclaims. “My favourite thing about this at the moment is just that I consider Jorja to be a real friend, and it’s been really beautiful to see the growth of the whole thing. I was there when we were doing 50 capacity venues in Manchester, we didn’t really have enough space for the drum kit! So to see her sell out Shepherds Bush – twice! - the same month as she’s just put out a track on the Black Panther soundtrack album… it’s all moving positive. It’s good vibes, I’m happy!”

It’s been an incredibly natural process, Clash observes; nothing about Jorja’s rise has felt artificial.

“Do you know what, though?” he points out. “When you’ve got talent at that level it will always be organic the way things grow.”

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Equally at home in an arena and a sweaty jazz club, Femi approaches every show, every performance with the same mentality, a desire both to connect with the audience and to push the music forward. “It’s the same thing for me, really,” he reflects. “I want to go out and do justice to the music with all of my heart. That’s my thing. Any opportunity to play music I’m grateful for.”

“It’s the same headspace, just slightly different scenarios. I’m always doing what I can to play the best gig possible. I think the reason I play music is because of joy and happiness, and trying to spread that. So regardless of who I’m playing with and what I’m playing for it’s always going to be the same.”

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I want to go out and do justice to the music with all of my heart. That’s my thing.

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There’s an intimate relationship between the voice and the beat; the melody line to the kick drum is the skewer of any live performance, a conversation in dynamics that centres the DNA of any song. 

“I think for me, playing the drums for a vocalist like Jorja is really similar to playing the drums for a trumpet player like Dylan in Ezra Collective,” he insists. “When Dylan’s soloing I’m interested in one thing and one thing only – I want Dylan to sound as hench as possible! Every time Dylan plays he needs to think: This guy on the drums behind me is for me right now.”

“And that’s the same when Jorja is singing ‘On My Mind’. She needs to feel like I’m right there, for her to sound as great as possible,” he says. “And when it’s drum solo time it’s all about me!”

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The audiences definitely have expanded... There are no limits.

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There’s plenty of room for solos in Ezra Collective. The group’s free-wheeling collective veers from afrobeat to hard bop to cosmic visions of Sun Ra. Live, they’re a force to be reckoned with – one of the most exciting experiences in the much-mythologised London jazz resurgence, their sheer unbridled creativity is already renowned far beyond the jazz community.

“The audiences definitely have expanded,” he comments. “There are no limits. I don’t see why we can’t get Ezra Collective and Moses Boyd billed next to Tyler, The Creator. Or why we can’t see Blinker & Moses and Nubya Garcia share a stage in Glastonbury against Flying Lotus and Four Tet. We’re pushing those boundaries. I’m just excited for jazz, and how this music is going to do when we get to go into different scenarios, and different spaces and try to play that music.”

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Ezra Collective’s most recent release was part of Brownswood’s We Out Here compilation, a stunning jazz event that linked some of the country’s most ambitious musicians. Overseen by Shabaka Hutchings, the friendly competition seemed to push each group further, supplying some of their finest music in the process.

He’s clearly delighted to be involved in the project, commenting: “It’s a snapshot of the positivity that’s happening right now, and I think this is going to last a while, a long time. And I’m so honoured and blessed to be considered a part of what’s happening.”

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It’s a snapshot of the positivity that’s happening right now...

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At heart, what’s happening is a London thing, a London sound; the city’s many flavours, colours, and languages being expressed in a famously free-form arts arena.

“I feel like when you’re playing an art-form like jazz, it’s an American tradition so the moment you try and replicate an American tradition, trying to use an American accent when you were born in North London, you’re going to get found out,” he argues. “The only way for me to play this music is to give it my own personal touch and that’s going to be directly influenced from where I am, which is London.”

“I think one of the things that’s made this whole thing so magical is that there’s a pocket of us who have all grown up with each other making this music and trying to stamp our own sound on it,” Femi continues. “You can hear the aggression, the sound of London… and to me, that’s a beautiful thing, and that’s why it’s so attractive to people.”

“No one wants second hand. I don’t want to hear Londoners playing American songbook classics in an American style, in a New York style. I’d rather go to New York and see it first hand.”

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There’s a pocket of us who have all grown up with each other making this music and trying to stamp our own sound on it...

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At the centre of this fresh energy in London’s jazz scene is a small crew of drummers, future rhythm machines casting out new ideas – Yussef Dayes, Moses Boyd, and of course Femi himself. Watching Ezra Collective live is a discourse in rhythm, the sheer physicality of sound pushing the audience connection.

“You see, for me the music that Ezra is playing – really and truly- is just how I love music, and how I want to express myself with music,” he explains. “I love dancing, and jazz music is a dance music. If you think about swing dancing and tap dancing that’s all jazz tradition. But now it just looks different. No one’s really come through and tap danced at one of our gigs yet but people are moving, people are dancing.”

“And it’s definitely a drum thing – drum beats make people dance. That’s how I like to play drums, that’s how I like to listen to drums. Whether I’m listening to Art Blakey or I’m listening to a Jme produced track or a 90s hip-hop thing or an Indian raga thing or a drum solo from West Africa… drums make people dance and that’s what I’m trying to incorporate in Ezra’s music.”

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It’s not just sheer physicality that makes Ezra Collective so impressive, though; there’s a message to the musicality. Last year’s ‘Juan Pablo: The Philosopher’ picked up Best Album at the Worldwide awards, and it contains a version of Sun Ra’s ‘Space Is The Place’, an audacious take on a truly magical composition.

“Sun Ra is a real hero for all of us, man,” he says. “I think what I love about Sun Ra the most is when you hear his music you don’t hear restrictions and boundaries. I just hear someone that’s playing for love and happiness. It’s almost like emotion and people and interaction is influencing his music more than theory, harmony, and rhythm.”

“So to me, when write an album called ‘Father Is The Philosopher’ you’ve got to include one of the greatest philosophers ever… And to me, that’s Sun Ra. That’s the thought behind it.”

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I’m a super fan of Simz, I’m a fan so I was so honoured when the call came.

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Ezra Collective’s next challenge is one of London’s most historic venues: Little Simz has asked the group to play her specially curated bill at the Roundhouse. It’s a challenge they’re eager to accept, not only to further expose their music, but also to pay tribute to the enormously talented MC.

“Part of me is petrified,” he admits. “Let’s be honest. People are there to watch Little Simz, and we don’t sound like Little Simz. So I’m excited for how they’re going to receive it. I know full well that most of them are going to be watching us for the first time, and I know full well that it’s going to be tough but in the most exciting, perfect way ever because that’s really what we’re aiming for. We want to take it to new places, and Little Simz’ crowd represents London. If we’re going to call ourselves a band making London music then we need to go for it.”

“So I’m super excited. I’m a super fan of Simz, I’m a fan so I was so honoured when the call came. I’m proud of her, I look up to her. She’s a young black girl from North London. It’s not easy when that’s who you are. She’s stood by and look at how well she’s doing: she’s going to sell out the Roundhouse, and that’s testament to her. She’s a hero of mine. And there’s something special about someone from North London.”

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Little Simz: Welcome To Wonderland II hits the Roundhouse, London on March 3rd - catch Ezra Collective there, or online.

Join us on Vero, as we get under the skin of global cultural happenings. Follow Clash Magazine as we skip merrily between clubs, concerts, interviews and photo shoots. Get backstage sneak peeks and a true view into our world as the fun and games unfold.

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