Despite training first in classical guitar and then jazz at London’s Trinity Laban music school, Oscar Jerome’s music isn’t your typical conservatoire jazz fare. Anchored by his nonchalant baritone and soul-inflected grooves, and lifted by his rhythmically intricate guitar riffs, his eponymous first EP and this month’s ‘Subdued’ offer a glimpse into the intersections between introspective singer-songwriting and improvisatory jazz.
“I used to be against the jazz label because I don’t feel like what I’m playing necessarily is jazz” Jerome explains. He is speaking from a café in New York having just played the prestigious Blue Note the night before and with a Winter Jazz Festival showcase presented by Gilles Peterson on the horizon. It’s his first visit to the US and despite having landed in a snow blizzard that left half of his equipment stranded, his excitement to be in the birthplace of jazz is palpable.
“My records are definitely jazz-influenced”, he continues, “but then I’m equally influenced by hip-hop, punk, West African music, soul and lots of other genres. I don’t mind the jazz label as much now, though, because it’s gained a much more positive connotation in the last couple of years.”
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The ‘positive connotation’ is the flowering of a new tradition of jazz in Jerome’s hometown of London, one spearheaded largely by collaborators and friends such as Moses Boyd, Nubya Garcia and Ezra Collective. A couple of years earlier, Jerome, Boyd and others would attend formative jam sessions such as Peckham’s Steez and Good Evening Arts, trading ideas and honing their sound before heading into the studio to record releases such as Boyd and Binker Golding’s ‘Dem Ones’, which won them the MOBO for Best Jazz Act in 2015.
“I was in so many different bands at the time that there would be situations where I might play four different sets in a night” Jerome exclaims. “It was hectic but all of that work has gotten us to the point where we can start making careers out of our music; it’s amazing to be playing a venue in New York now on the same lineup with a load of people who live only 20 minutes from my house in London”. This collective scene has recently been immortalised on Brownswood’s ‘We Out Here’ compilation, which features Jerome playing with keyboardist Joe Armon-Jones as well as in the group Kokoroko.
The journey from sideman to bandleader is a common one in jazz – note almost every musician playing with Miles Davis in the 1950s and ‘60s – and for Jerome both experiences are fruitful. “It’s a very equal writing process with Kokoroko,” he explains, “normally each person will bring an idea to the table and then we'll build it from there. With the music I release under my own name, though, I write every part for every instrument, it’s very much my vision of how I want the music to be and I love being able to express that.”
Influences bleed into one another and Jerome cites the West African sounds used by Kokoroko as a formative presence in creating the ‘Subdued’ EP. He pushes his guitar playing to the forefront of each track, culminating in the sweeping solo closing the seven-minute title number, as well as the low-swung instrumental ambience of ‘Where Are Your Branches? Where Is Your Fruit?’.
Having come up performing solo alongside his group work, Jerome’s second EP also displays a maturation of his songwriting skills. “This whole EP ended up being a form of social commentary on the times we live in,” he says, “tracks like ‘Subdued’ and ‘Smile On A Screen’ reference the arrogance of Western culture, how we choose to live in an airbrushed and purposefully ignorant world, while ‘Chromatic Descendence’ is about whether music can exist above political concerns as a spiritual force.”
For Jerome, his music is a means of tapping into something greater than himself. Through the concentrated present tense of improvisation he finds “a way of understanding something greater than ourselves, a way to see a different perspective”.
With another EP already in the works, Jerome is quietly asserting his unique presence on the UK’s jazz scene and beyond. “Before, I worried that if I called my music jazz, the only people who came to my gigs would be old!”, he says, “now you go to a jazz show and it’s full of all ages dancing and having fun. It has relevance to everyone.”
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Words: Ammar Kalia
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