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Camilla George: Warrior Charge

Chris May By

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There are some people who are very unhappy about what’s happening in London, trying to put it down. They say the musicians can’t play or they’re dumbing down the music. —Camilla George
In 2017, alto saxophonist and composer Camilla George's band was the support act for a Dee Dee Bridgewater gig at the London Jazz Festival. After George had finished her set, Bridgewater, who had been listening in the wings, came onstage, took the mike, and announced: "The world is safe because we have Camilla." Others in Cadogan Hall that night felt the same way. Three years on, the band is fiercer still and George is prominent among the cohort of London rebels who are shaking up and revitalising the British jazz scene. After tours to China and throughout Europe, next up is the US and a third album.

George moved to London from Nigeria aged three, the only child of a British-Nigerian mother, a psychotherapist, and a Grenadian father, a tailor who worked on Savile Row. Like many of her London contemporaries, she studied at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance. And like practically all of those contemporaries, she also attended the uniquely influential community programme run by Gary Crosby and Janine Irons, Tomorrow's Warriors. She later became a member of The Jazz Jamaica All Stars, made up of Tomorrow's Warriors alumni.

George hopes to release her third album around autumn 2020. It will follow Isang (Ubuntu, 2017) and The People Could Fly (Ubuntu, 2018). Both feature her quartet, formed in 2014. This comprises Sarah Tandy, regarded by some as the most exciting young keyboard player in Britain, bassist Daniel Casimir and drummer Winston Clifford, who has replaced Femi Koleoso, now too busy with Ezra Collective to commit to anything else. Singer Zara McFarlane guested on Isang and the guests on The People Could Fly include vocalists Omar Lye-Fook and Cherise Adams-Burnett and guitarist Shirley Tetteh.

There is a strong socio-political strand in George's music, which, like that of her compatriot Fela Kuti, succeeds in being simultaneously cerebral and danceable. The People Could Fly was inspired by an eponymous collection of African American folk tales which George's mother used to read to her when she was a child. Back then George thought it was simply a collection of animal stories. As she got older she realised that they were slave tales and the animals in them represented slaves and slave owners. "Although the stories were born out of suffering and sorrow," says George, "they are essentially tales of hope for black people and mankind in general, that we can one day live together in harmony."

All About Jazz: When did you start playing sax?

Camilla George: I was eleven. I'd been wanting to play since I was eight, when I tried one at my mum's friend's house. It was her boyfriend's tenor. Nobody could get a sound out of it. But I got a sound! I asked my mum to get me one but she was, like, yeah, but you wanted to do this and you wanted to do that and.... So I didn't get one. Then at secondary school there was a music competition and I won the chance to have free saxophone lessons and get cheap rental of an instrument. I was already listening to records in my dad's collection. Cannonball Adderley, Jackie McLean, Sonny Stitt, Fela Kuti.

AAJ: Later you went to Trinity Laban. Before and during that time you also attended Tomorrow's Warriors. When did you start with the Warriors?

CG: It was right after I'd got my sax. My mum had taken me to a few gigs. I grew up in west London and we'd been to the Ealing Jazz Festival. Then mum saw that Jazz Jamaica was playing at Harrow Arts Centre. Afterwards we met Gary [Crosby] and Janine [Irons] and mum said I'd just got a sax. And they were so nice to me. They said, you need to come to the Warriors project, we run workshops, they're free. And I was speaking to Denys Baptiste and Jason Yarde, who were in the lineup that night. It was a great moment. So at age eleven I started going to the Warriors. Years later I actually got into Jazz Jamaica. I really wasn't ready at that first gig, but I had worked hard and Gary and Janine took a chance on me. That's what they do. They deliberately have a turnover of musicians so they can give gigs to young people.

The London scene owes so much to Gary and Janine. You can't overstate it. They have empowered a generation. It's like the Warriors are a family. We're people from different backgrounds. There are people who can't afford lessons and people who might come from privileged backgrounds, but we're all in it together. If you see another Warrior you immediately have a connection and you're friends.

AAJ: Practically all your contemporaries on the London scene have come up through the Warriors. Is that influencing the type of jazz you are collectively creating?

CG: Definitely. What's so cool about the music is that it is the sound of London. It's got all those things that make up the London demographic. It might be African, it might be classical Indian, it might be Caribbean, and they're all coming together in this melting pot. So there is Afrobeat, hip hop, electronica, grime, whatever, all mixed in, and it is not any less jazz. You've got people who might say they don't like jazz but they're coming to the gigs and they're enjoying them. It's a new generation coming to jazz.

AAJ: Do you detect a backlash against the new scene coming from the jazz establishment?

CG: There are some people who are very unhappy about what's happening in London, trying to put it down. They say the musicians can't play or they're dumbing down the music. I've seen so much stuff on Facebook. But how great it is that people are doing gigs in large venues that don't usually present jazz—and selling them out. Some people are even doing stadium gigs. The purists may not consider them jazz acts but they are jazz musicians. I mean groups like The Comet Is Coming, Ezra Collective, Nubya Garcia. You've got young people, older people, women, men, all backgrounds, all ethnicities. It's not the usual thing that you get in some jazz clubs where the audience all looks a certain way. I love the diversity of the music and the audience.

AAJ: One older musician who has given you personally a thumbs up is Dee Dee Bridgewater. That must have been a special moment for you.

CG: It was lovely. I'd got a call from Serious [the Festival promoters]. Would you do the opening slot for Dee Dee Bridgewater? I think they'd had a bigger name who had pulled out. And I was like... yes! But I remember we came to the soundcheck and it was terrifying. There was a moment just before we came onstage—and we'd all played fairly big gigs—when it hit us and we all looked at each other, thinking: this is a big one. Dee Dee was very gracious and she came out and listened to us. Quite often headliners don't do that. Then she said that thing from the stage. I tour in her daughter's [China Moses'] band now.

AAJ: The fact that some of your generation of London musicians are making a living out of jazz is a real milestone.

CG: Online culture has been the game changer in that respect. In the past, most jazz musicians had to take day jobs to make a living. Teaching for instance. But now more and more of us manage just as musicians. And we don't need to go through the traditional gatekeepers. Online means you can reach people directly, you can record, you can sell merch, you can promote your own gigs. You don't need the old gatekeepers, a lot of them are redundant now. It's a drastic change. People are making a successful business out of playing jazz. They're doing big venues, they're getting great publishing deals, they're selling a lot of vinyl and a lot of merch and they've got top agents and managers. Some are even playing stadiums. They're in quite good financial positions.

Whether it will last, I don't know. Things go up and down. Maybe not everybody who is on the wave will continue to do as well as they are doing now. But there are key figures who definitely will. People like Nubya and Ezra Collective and Moses Boyd, they're strong enough now, they're well respected, they've travelled the world, they have an audience.

AAJ: The Take Five programme organised by Serious each year has been helpful to you in terms of career development, hasn't it?

CG: Yeah. Serious have been very good to me. I was lucky to get on the Take Five scheme in 2018. You go and stay in a farm in the middle of nowhere for a week and you have industry experts come in to share their knowledge with you. There were seven of us who were selected. It's very intense. The day started at nine a.m. and finished at ten p.m. and it's just go go go go go. You're focusing on your goals. For me it was European gigs and how are you going to get them. You have chances to pitch to people who come in and talk to you, booking agents and so forth. They tell you what they're looking for when they sign new artists. And there were record label people. It was hard core. We did play as well, we had morning sessions. And we had yoga sessions.

AAJ: What does the immediate future hold for you?

CG: I'm about three quarters through writing the next album. We're playing some of the tunes live and I'm hoping to record soon. The concept is about where I come from, Eket, my little village in Nigeria, the creation myth about how our people came to be. The idea is to gig the tunes a bit and then, whoosh, go in and record, because studio time is still expensive. I would imagine it will be coming out later in 2020. It will be the quartet plus Cherise [Adams-Burnett] on vocals on some tracks and Shirley [Tetteh] on guitar. And there's a rapper that I met when I was doing this project, A Change Is Gonna Come: Music For Human Rights. She's called Lady Sanity, she's from Birmingham. I've asked her to do the intro and outro to the album.

AAJ: Before that you're doing the 2020 Jazzahead! trade fair in Germany, aren't you?

CG: We're doing a showcase on 24 April. It's amazing to find it will include another musician from Eket. Etuk Ubong , the trumpet player. He's representing Nigeria and I'm representing the UK. I really want to travel with the band so this is a great platform for us to reach people who can help us achieve that. You perform to all the top promoters, festival people. I got an agent last year and she's already got us quite a lot of overseas work. The first gigs were in China. We did two nights at the Blue Note in Beijing. Then we did Porgy & Bess in Vienna, and we've just come back from a series of gigs in Seville. We're working our way around Europe—we'll see how Brexit effects that. We haven't done the US yet but I've just got a US agent so we're focusing on it now. We need support though because it's so expensive with the visas and everything. We've got to get there, I've got a great band. But it isn't an easy thing to make happen.

[George certainly does have a "great band." Hear the solos by guitarist Shirley Tetteh and pianist Sarah Tandy on the video clip below. Both begin almost tentatively, but stay tuned... you will be glad you did.]

Camilla George's All Time Favourite Alto Saxophonists

"All these players have great technique, which is something I'm really working on at the moment," says George. "Jaleel Shaw, I've just come back from New York and I had a lesson from him. He's a fantastic player. I saw him playing with Roy Haynes. With Sonny Stitt it's the phrasing, the sound. With Jackie McLean it's the swing feel. Jackie swings like nobody else. With Charlie Parker it's the phrasing, the rhythm that gets me more than anything else, more than the bebop language. His phrasing is... odd. I like that."

Camilla George's All Time Favourite Albums

"That's a tough one, there are so many," says George. "But if I have to pull half a dozen out of the air right now, it's these."

Camilla George's Saxophone Set Up

  • Selmer Mark VI alto saxophone (1959)
  • Aizen 6 mouthpiece
  • Vandoren Java Green number 3 reeds

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