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Forwards Festival, Ezra collective and The Future of UK Jazz.

The Dig is a fresh new radio show on the airwaves of URB. With a focus on hip-hop, soul, R&B, reggae, and jazz, we aim to tackle the big questions surrounding the music industry and investigate the state of mainstream music.

Forwards Festival, The Ezra collective and Future of UK Jazz.

A week ago, myself and the other co-hosts of ‘The Dig’ had the opportunity to attend Forwards festival in Bristol. Spanning two days and brimming with a wonderful musical diversity that is seldom observed in such a concentration, it was a refreshing experience full of vibrant characters and an atmosphere that felt saturated with enthusiasm. From the powerfully vulnerable set of the now well-established independent Raye to the captivating and visually enthralling headline performance by Erykah Badu, Forwards Festival seemed to have something for everyone. However, as a jazz pilgrim, I was especially excited by the prospect of witnessing, first-hand, a group which is arguably one of the main faces of the UK jazz scene. 

James Mollison, performing as part of the Ezra Collective performance at Forwards Festival 2023

Ezra Collective, for those who don’t know, is a London based jazz quintet comprising of drummer and bandleader Femi Koleoso, keyboardist Joe Armon-Jones, bassist TJ Koleoso, tenor saxophonist James Mollison and trumpeter Ife Ogunjobi. They seem to be able to effortlessly fuse together elements of other genres such as afrobeat, dub, funk, and calypso with jazz into a blend that feels nourishing for the soul. So it was with great excitement that I learnt of their feature on the lineup of Forwards Festival. However, I was also filled with some apprehension towards the prospect of witnessing first-hand how jazz is received in a live festival environment. Can it stand up on its own against the flair and notoriety of the other acts? Will the music be accessible enough for everyone to enjoy?

The jazz paradox

As my fellow jazz enthusiasts may know, it can be quite isolating to be the sole jazz fan in the room – jokes are often aimed in the direction of jazz being an inaccessible art form, but how did it get to this? Jazz started out as a wonderful collaboration between the African American communities of New Orleans and the Klezmer music of Jewish Americans. As it spread across the world, it represented  a musical language of peace and collaborative exploration in which there were no wrong answers. It was an intriguing time full of colours and flavours stemming from all backgrounds where (perhaps with the aid of rose-tinted goggles) it seemed that everyone was welcome. However, as time progressed, jazz became more nuclear and inward. It acquired a form of artistic snobbery that is seldom seen in other genres, and it is in this ugly shade of jazz that I believe we find the reason for its fall from popularity. The Ezra Collective formed to fight this discrepancy in what is often seen as inaccessible musical bigotry and bring it back in line with its original purpose: music for the people.

Ife Ogunjobi, performing as part of the Ezra Collective performance at Forwards Festival 2023

Joining the collective

Almost immediately, my fears drained away when we wandered into a crowd just shy of the size of the one that would form later that evening for the headline act. We all waited in hushed excitement as the stage was prepared for the arrival of the Ezra Collective. After what felt like a couple of elongated minutes they burst forth from backstage and immediately seized the stage with a presence that felt impressive. They launched into their first song with a fantastic momentum which had us all dancing before we knew it. The rest of the set felt like a blur, with the many thousands of onlookers all engaging in unembarrassed revelry. About halfway through the set, the tempo was slowed, and the music softened so that the bassist, Femi, could give a brief and sweet motivational speech about the importance of joy versus happiness which seemed to resonate with many of the people in the crowd. They launched into the second half of their set with a reinvigorating enthusiasm which climaxed when most of the Ezra Collective left the stage and came into the crowd to dance with us. It felt like a truly special experience that unified us under the groovy rhythms of their jazz. The set finished with TJ announcing that we had all become part of the ‘Collective’ now, which was met with great applause after which the Ezra Collective disappeared as quickly as they had arrived.

Joe Armon-Jones, performing as part of the Ezra Collective performance at Forwards Festival 2023

The Future of UK Jazz

Having witnessed the Ezra Collective in action I feel far more optimistic towards the future of jazz and its place in the UK mainstream. I feel confident in believing that jazz is safe in the hands of the Ezra Collective and I hope they are given more opportunities to share joy with us on a large scale. They certainly succeeded in bringing jazz back to the people at the festival and allowing us all to access it. I am not alone in this view as a couple of days after Forwards Festival, they were awarded the Mercury Prize for their work. If you are interested in getting into their music, I strongly recommend you check out their latest album: ‘Where I’m Meant to Be’ which is already very highly acclaimed. In addition, the album that first got me interested in them was ‘Juan Pablo: The Philosopher’ which I also recommend giving a listen.

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