NUBYA & TODAY’S JAZZ WARRIORS
In England, a jazz revival is currently in full throttle, with reverberations being clocked well beyond the confines of inner-city London. One of its prime movers, saxophonist NUBYA GARCIA visits Sydney on June 10. Eastside Radio’s PARIS POMPOR caught up with the band leader on the eve of her debut downunder dates.
Asked to put her finger on what makes Britain’s latest jazz movement sound unique even to outsiders, Garcia says: “All the bands are wildly different [but] the energy is what’s noticeable”.
Talking during a brief touring break in Los Angeles, on the opposite coast of America, New York’s Rolling Stone Magazine have just dubbed her tight knit vanguard of compatriots the “new British invasion”.
Having visited the US earlier in the year to play New York’s Winter Jazzfest (with one of her main advocates, Gilles Peterson) and again in March for shows in New Orleans and Texas, what’s not lost on the 26 year-old Garcia on this latest Stateside trip is the comparative scale of America. It’s a country so vast, it makes touring England seem like a walk in the park.
“Oh my god, it’s ridiculous,” chuckles Garcia. “It takes so long to get anywhere, I’ve just been permanently running late!”
Nevermind, I assure her. Right now, everyone seems willing to wait for her, even if it’s just to snatch a few moments.
“London’s kind of full, it’s vibrant, it’s busy, there’s a lot going on,” Garcia continues, highlighting the differences between home and the continental birthplace of jazz. “It must come through in what we do.”
“In terms of what we’re exposed to, definitely every night of the week you can go and hear completely different, completely brilliant music [in London].”
When I tell her I’m jealous given the state of affairs in Sydney, Nubya simply issues a well meaning invite, punctuated with a welcoming chuckle: “You should come!”
It was in “tiny little warehouses” in London, Garcia tells me that she and her friends “cut our teeth.” Nights where “anywhere between 50 and 700 people crammed in.”
Born to parents whose Caribbean heritage now finds some outlet in her freewheeling jazz, Garcia had to search out that rhythmic DNA as it wasn’t music she heard growing up. Instead when it came to music, Garcia’s parents encouraged in her a steadfast commitment. The list of instruments she studied before finding saxophone, impressive: viola, piano, violin, clarinet, flute.
“My mum is from Guyana, which is at the top of South America right next to Venezuela and my dad is from Trinidad,” Garcia explains. “I think when you’re from England, but your parents are not from England, you want to connect to that. I discovered, or wanted to connect with [the music of their homelands], a lot later in life, trying to piece together bits about the Caribbean. So even reggae, from all across the Caribbean islands, and soca, that was a link to something that I hadn’t experienced. I went back, to Carnival in Trinidad [held on the Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday] and got into the soca vibe and calypso. It’s an amazing breadth of music. It’s just so good! It makes you think of sunshine.”
Given saxophone wasn’t her first instrument, does she still, from time to time, pick up the viola for example?
“No I haven’t touched it in years! Basically the deal with my parents was: you have to get to grade eight and then you can finish. So I got to grade eight and didn’t touch it again. I literally put it in its case and never picked it up again!
“That was eight years ago,” she adds with a satisfactory laugh. Sax is definitely her thing.
Just ten years old when she began mastering saxophone, like many of her contemporaries in this new “British [Jazz] Invasion,” Garcia came through a program run by an organisation called Tomorrow’s Warriors.
“Basically that’s where we all met,” explains Garcia. “It’s definitely a community hub and has been for generations. Shabaka Hutchings, Peter Edwards, Binker Golding – who plays with Moses Boyd – Zara McFarlane – lots of us. It’s a youth development organisation that focusses on Black and ethnic minorities, and women, bringing them through music, and specifically the jazz idiom.”
Not everyone in the complex, far reaching web of Britain’s youthful jazz renaissance has come through the Tomorrow Warriors program, but its ethos of sharing opportunities and promoting improvisation as a gateway to trust, appears to have influenced many of Garcia’s contemporaries. Many of the scene’s star players collaborate on each other’s records and guest in each other’s bands. A recorded snapshot of the central scene can be found on the Brownswood label’s ‘We Out Here’ compilation, for which there’s now also a film: ‘We Out Here: A LDN Story’. The film screens in Sydney for free prior to Garcia’s arrival.
“We all want each other to do well, be happy and to be making music that we want to be making,” says Garcia cheerily. “It’s not really ever been about being better than each other. We all want to do well.”
London has been the epicentre of previous jazz buzzes before this one, and even before Ronnie Scott founded his still-thriving Soho club in 1959. In the 1980s, Courtney Pine, Cleveland Watkiss and friends led a Black movement centred around a teeming group called The Jazz Warriors, while the following decade ushered in the somewhat misnamed and dance-oriented ’Acid Jazz’ scene which had long-lasting, global repercussions and constantly seems to threaten a come-back.
In contrast to Acid Jazz, this latest renaissance is far more musically progressive. Like the earlier Jazz Warriors period, it also appears to be more political and socially conscious. There’s little evidence of pop-chart aspirations in the avant-garde, freeform blowings of Garcia and fellow horn playing contemporaries like Theon Cross, Yazz Ahmed, Laura Jurd, Emma-Jean Thackeray and Shabaka Hutchings. In fact Hutchings seriously bent Sydney audience’s ears recently at The Sydney Festival with his all-male, but resolutely feminist group, The Ancestors. Even more refreshing is the number of women instrumentalists involved, quite a few of them listed above.
Nonetheless, Garcia told The Guardian recently, she still gets asked if she’s a singer quite often. The assumption being, if you’re a woman, you can’t possibly be a towering instrumentalist, soloist or… goddess forbid, the bandleader!
Yep, the patriarchy is alive and kicking.
“I do it find it very frustrating,” admits Garcia. “I think as we continue to change the narrative around it, I have to get used to it. Everyone like me, who plays music, vocalists or instrumentalists, it’s the same frustration as people assume that you are something, whether you are it or not. I don’t think men get the same assumptions, so I think we have to get used to it – realise it’s a frustration but not let it get the better of you – and tackle it head on. It’s happened from the beginning of time, [but] hopefully my goal – in however many years it takes – is that it’s not going to be such a surprise, so that no one has to ask anymore. It’s the same in any industry, there’s a huge gap between women and men. It’s a constant fight that we just have to do. That’s our generation’s task. Those who have gone before us have gone this far and we’ve made it a long way, but we have far to go.”
With many of Garcia and her colleagues independently released vinyl LPs selling out very quickly, I finish up by asking her why they don’t press more.
“We’re all still building slowly, so I think smaller numbers are great for now because you do not want to store thousands of vinyl records in your house. You know, getting that delivered to my house, I was like: God damn! And they went – thank God! The runs will get bigger as we go along, but at the same time, when you’re your own boss and in control of your own budgets, you just want to take care rather than spend thousands and not sell [them]. That would be the worst thing that you could do.”
So it’s not about exclusivity?
“They are exclusive, but they’re not meant to be.”
Nubya Garcia performs exclusively in Sydney at Cake Wines in Redfern, Sunday June 10, part of the venue’s Vivid program [TICKETS]. It’s an intimate venue, so we suggest grabbing any remaining tickets fast. The documentary featuring Garcia and friends called, We Out Here: A LDN Story screens May 24th for free at the same venue. Garcia also performs at the Melbourne Jazz Festival in June alongside Terri Lyne Carrington, Sun Ra Arkestra, Madeleine Peyroux and Brandford Marsalis.