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Ezra Collective's Femi Koleoso: On Tony Allen and UK jazz today

Ezra Collective's Femi Koleoso: On Tony Allen and UK jazz today

Courtesy Clockenflap


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The only reason Tony Allen passed away was because of that lockdown–he had a whole life of rock ‘n’ roll, you can’t just lock someone like that in the house for two years.
—Femi Koleoso, Ezra Collective
Of all the artists to emerge from the overbaked "UK jazz explosion" of recent years, Ezra Collective are arguably the greatest crossover success—based on Spotify stats and tour bookings, anyway. And while the juggernaut of early hype may have worn itself out, things are only looking rosier in 2023: The barrier-busting London quintet is currently gearing up for a breakthrough North American tour, topped by a week at New York's Blue Note Jazz Club. Their first post-pandemic outing comes off the back of career-defining new album Where I'm Meant to Be (2022, Partisan Records). Where early EPs and debut long-player You Can't Steal My Joy (2019, Enter the Jungle Records) succeeded in bottling the raw energy of the band's live sound, this sophomore outing significantly expands Ezra's sonic and stylistic scope, suggesting a depth and longevity beyond the party- starting hoe-downs the brand became famous for.

At the group's core sits self-confessed leader Femi Koleoso, and the tidal wave of rhythm reverberating from the drum kit he presides over. Born into Afrobeat, schooled in grime and hip-hop, the 26-year-old talent discovered jazz in his teens. Today he omnivorously draws on all these rhythmic languages behind the kit—as well as reggae, Latin and house beats—driving the group's infectiously unclassifiable tracks, largely instrumental, hooky horn-led vibes which inevitably prioritise uplifting groove over anything else.

As the band passed through Asia—where they were notably booked as the only "jazz" act at Hong Kong's Clockenflap festival—we dialled Femi on Zoom, mid-tour and freshly showered in his hotel room. Most recently, the band's kudos was further established when the Fela Kuti estate asked Koleoso to remix the legendary "Lady" for a 50th-anniversary reissue of Kuti's Shakara album—which is naturally where our conversation started. And from there, it just unfolded effortlessly...

AAJ: You're about to tour in the States for the first time since 2019. There's this whole stigma about being a British band coming to the home place of jazz...

Femi Koleoso: I think if I'm being totally honest, I so don't care. We just end up doing our thing, and I so couldn't care less. When I was a bit younger I definitely saw New York} as the mecca and the jazz pilgrimage, (but) the more I've navigated this world of jazz music, the more I realise the negativity and snobbery tend to come from those that aren't necessary killing it themselves, and when you meet a Herbie Hancock or a Sonny Rollins they're the people are like, "Oh, amazing, go there and do your thing, have a great time." Because if you ever go to New York and try to play like Americans, you just get swallowed up, because there's no one better at sounding American than Americans. But if you go there with your London swagger and vibe it's just totally something different. And that's the vibe of it.

AAJ: How did the Fela remix come about?

FK: It's crazy—Fela is by far my musical hero, it doesn't get bigger than him to me. It was just one of those moments when my manager called me up and was like, "Fems you are not gonna believe this. The 50th anniversary of Shakara and "Lady" is coming up, and they want to have a bonus seven-inch as part of the package ... and they want you to do it." From that moment to being in the studio must have been like a week. I just sat in the studio with the boys and thought, how do you remix a Fela tune? You don't want to sound like Fela, but you want to do justice to Fela. It was just like, what's the London music that makes me dance the most? Funky house? Cool—let me put Fela with funky house, and that will make it sound London, and it will make it sound Fela, and you submit it off, and that was that. A few months later I got given a record and there was my name and Fela Kuti's name there on the same bloody record, it was mad, man. That was very, very special.
But we have a very good relationship with Fela's estate; we cleared the rights for our version of "Colonial Mentality" on Chapter 7, and then our version of "Shakara." I think there were a few televised moments in big performances where we snuck in a Fela Kuti tribute, so the estate and family were well aware that there was a band in London that absolutely loved this guy, and so it just kind of blossomed from there.

AAJ: I understand you got to spend some time with (Fela's drummer) Tony Allen ...

FK: Yeah, he was my drum teacher—I used to get the (budget) Megabus from London to Paris and walk around Paris all day and then have a drum lesson with him. That progressed from drum lessons to where we would start to get booked on similar festival lines-ups— Ezra Collective would be playing and somewhere else would be a project that had Tony Allen in it, whether it was The Good, the Bad & the Queen, or him with Jeff Mills, or him with Ernest Ranglin so we ended up spending a lot of time together. Every time he was in London I'd get a phone call from someone saying, "Doctor Tony is in London, go see him," so we ended up having a really special relationship, and he was a hero of mind.

AAJ: Sorry, but how did you get Tony Allen to be your drum teacher?

FK: I was playing the drums in a jazz club in London and someone came up to me and said, "You know you sound rocking on those drums. Who's your favourite drummer?" I said Tony Allen and the guy kind of laughed and walked off. I remember thinking that was a bit weird. Then he came back and he handed me a phone, and it was Tony Allen on the other end of the line. It turns out this person was Bukky Leo, and he was Fela Kuti's saxophonist, so they'd obviously been playing together for years. So he put us in contact, and I said, "Tony can I have a drum lesson?," and he was like yeah, and that was it, I was on a bus to Paris. "I need to meet you, you're the greatest of all time," and then we got on well, and a relationship was formed and whenever I could see him I would see him.

AAJ: I've got to ask, did he charge you?

FK: He didn't charge me, no—he was just impressed I was willing to travel from London to Paris to see him. And he taught me so much about treating the drums as a delicate instrument, not exerting too much force or energy or power, but treating it as a delicate thing—it has the power to hold an orchestra when you treat it right. It was so much about being yourself, he was sat opposite someone who idealised his playing, and he spent a lot of time telling me, "You are just as good. Just do your thing, don't try and be me—do your thing." It was a special experience.

I remember being sat in this room, two drum kits facing each other, and he just started playing one of Fela's drum beats, and I was just playing along with him, and it was just like I had to keep trying not to snap out of reality every two seconds, 'cause it was such a mental experience. It would be like having a singing lesson with Ella Fitzgerald or trying to dance with Michael Jackson—it was that mad. Such precious moments. I think he kind of took me under his wing, he had a lot of time for me which was special.

We stayed in contact until his passing. The last time I actually spent the day with Uncle Tony was 2019, at Pukkelpop festival in Belgium—he was there with The Good, the Bad & the Queen with Damon Albarn, and I was with Jorja Smith, and our dressing rooms were next door to each other so we ended up spending the night just drinking and partying together. That was the last day we had together, but it was a precious day.

AAJ: He was still partying when he was 80-odd...?!

FK: Mate, the only reason he passed away was because of that lockdown—he had a whole life of rock 'n' roll, you can't just lock someone like that in the house for two years. I'm convinced if it wasn't for the lockdown ... When they told me Uncle Tony had passed sway, it was like hearing a 20-year-old had passed away. I was that shocked, even though the brother was 79. He was still full of life the last time I saw him, which is nice because those last memories of him are so rocking and bouncing. There's some beautiful pictures of us at—bleary eyed, smiling bright, you know what I mean?—from the last day we chilled.

AAJ: And you also studied alongside Fela's grandson, Made Kuti.

FK: He came to Trinity College of Music (now Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance) in London to study—that's where Fela studied and where I also studied alongside Joe Armon-Jones in Ezra. Made was doing composition and I was doing jazz. I was with him recently in Lagos and we were reminiscing over university times—it's funny because we were always saving each other's homework, like he'd be calling me in the dead of night, "Femi, I need you to play drums for this exam I've got tomorrow," and I'd be like, "Bro, say no more, just send me the music, I'll be there." He's a very, very special friend of mine and I'm very honoured to have studied and worked with him. We haven't actually recorded a track together yet, which isn't right but I'm sure we will soon.

AAJ: Let's talk a little bit about your new record—which isn't really so new to you anymore ...

FK: Yeah, it's definitely not new. I finished the record in 2020, and then I didn't listen to it until it came out November 4, 2022. Let me get this right—we started recording some of it in 2019, finished it off December 2020, and then it was the vinyl production delays that delayed it so much. COVID meant that all the vinyl factories closed so they were very backdated, and then albums like Adele's meant that every vinyl factory in the world was printing Adele records and that backlog was two years. We ended up even making songs to release as singles just 'cause we were so agitated to get things out there.

AAJ: It feels a lot more composed, arranged, a lot more post-production, than your earlier work.

FK: That's totally right man—to be fair, it's the first time we weren't touring and making a record at the same time, so were able to spend a lot of time in the studio. You Can't Steal My Joy was recorded in two days in the studio. Chapter 7 (2016, Self Produced) was one night—just a few hours. Juan Pablo: The Philosopher (2017, Enter the Jungle Records), one night—this one was two weeks. So that was like a long time for us, it meant that, like you say, the post-production—there's synths and stuff on the record, we were able to add percussion, string parts, add this and layer that, we had so much time to work on it. That just allowed for creativity at both ends of it—the improvised moments of creativity, and then also the moments of creativity on the other side of the recording, what shall we add, would shall we take away?

AAJ: So 10 days for the music, and then I guess the featured guest vocals came later?

FK: It was totally done in 10 day—one day on strings, one day on each of the four vocal features, the rest of it was done in about five or six days. We'd been hanging out through the pandemic—there's a room called The Dairy in Brixton, and they'd let us sneak in and play music, so we had been playing with some of the ideas of the tunes. A lot of the songs were thought out and chiselled and kind of composed before, and when we got in the studio we just set up our instruments in a circle and started playing. Then we closed the book and got the computer up and started adding and taking away. And then we sent some tracks out—"Siesta," we knew that needed a singer, so I sent it out to Emeli Sandé and then she came in and did her thing. I sent a track ("Life Goes On") to Sampha (The Great), she was in Zambia at the time so it was a Zoom session. Kojey (Radical) came in one night, banged it out. It was one of those kind of records.

AAJ: So you didn't have any of the guests lined up before you started recording?

FK: Nah, you need to make the song, unless you're gonna make it with them, which was difficult in those COVID times, we'd create a song and then I'd be looking through my phone book, thinking who does this fit? I always make the joke, I wrote four songs on Kojey's record Reason to Smile, so I always say, "You owe me four songs." So I called him up and said, "Kojey, I'm gonna need one of those songs back, so he came in and did his thing" (on Fela's "No Confusion").

AAJ: How did you and the band navigate the pandemic?

FK: It was frustrating, it was hard to work on other stuff because the stuff that had been finished hadn't been released, and you kind of need that exhaling moment, to get on with the next vibe. So it was a frustrating and difficult time, I'm not going to lie, because it was also the first time we'd got into bed with a record label, and we were experiencing that, it started to give the fear of what a lot of people are talking about, "Oh I'm not allowed to release my music, I'm not allowed to go forward." It was a tough time, we couldn't even gig, so we were just at home, and it felt like everyone was doing things and we weren't doing anything.

We made digital singles "More Than a Hustler" and "May the Funk Be With You" ...we were allowed because they weren't on the record. I tried to release songs on the album, I said to my manager, "I'm sick of waiting, I want to release it today," and the label were like, they weren't gonna stop me, but they were just saying we've worked a lot on a really strong marketing campaign, if you want to put this song out right now, it's not going to do it justice. So we came to the compromise, "Why don't you go in the studio, and write other songs," and that is something that comes naturally to us. That meant we could do need other stuff that wouldn't fit on the album.

AAJ: Tell us about how you conceived the cover.

FK: I was trying to show a little bit of the headspace of where we at making the record, 'cause (the cover) was like our COVID bunker. Sadly it's a studio-built room, but all the contents are our own, everything in the room is from my bedroom. If you can see, there's a teddy bear at the back, that's my Arsenal Football Club teddy bear, all our Fela records, the chicken and chips there were genuinely eaten on the day. Our Real Book jazz books. The pictures that are hung on wall came from James' flat. My drum kit, TJ's guitar, the decks are ours—it's all our stuff. It would have been in a real room, but it'd be a massive bedroom that none of us have access to right now, so it was a lot easier to build a fake square and fill it up with what our bedroom would look like if we all lived together.

AAJ: And what were you trying to say?

FK: It was Where I'm Meant to Be being a journey, but necessarily a destination. COVID made us feel like we were meant to be somewhere else, but at the same time there was lots of beauty in the lockdown. So you might not be where you want to be right now, but you will be in the future, so make the most of now.

It was inspired by a Thelonious Monk record called Underground (Columbia Records, 1968), because reminded me of a COVID bunker—I think it's a wartime bunker—so the piano position (in ours) is in a similar place, and it just looks like it's Thelonious Monk's crazy life in a room.

AAJ: How would the record have been different if there was no pandemic?

FK: The post-production side of the record would not have been as strong, because I think we would have rushed though the process a little bit more than we did. We spent such a long time on that album cover, on the packaging, all of those things, the time just wouldn't have been there. I do think we grew as a band during COVID, and the pandemic therefore made the record better, and now we're approaching making another record, it's taking those skills and finding the precious moments and using them to your advantage—not pancaking at every moment of emptiness, but sometimes embracing it.

AAJ: You very much appear to be the band leader.

FK: Yeah, I'm defo the band leader, but I think the best band leaders try and get the very best and loudest voice out of everyone in the band. I might be the one who says, we're going into the studio on this day, I want to make this tune or that tune, but when we're making that tune it's all about, what Joe's opinion on the chords, and what his brother TJ Koleoso's opinion on the bass. I think really that the only reason you need a leader is because it allows for everyone else to be busy with other things, but the Ezra ship to stay afloat, rather than collapse every time someone gets busy with something else.

AAJ: The Gilles Peterson compilation We Out Here, an early and important document of the London scene, just turned five years old (on February 9, 2018). Looking back, how do you feel about how the fabled "UK jazz explosion" unfolded?

FK: I think it was definitely more attractive from a journalistic point of view than it was in reality, being in the middle of it. It was beautiful to see my friends doing really well, but I think there was an oversimplification of how similar we all were—at times they would make it sound like there was no difference between Ezra, Nubya Garcia, Shabaka Hutchings and Moses Boyd—"it's all just same thing" ... and it wasn't really. But that's what journalists do. Grime is doing well—everyone is like Skepta. I've seen the electronic dance seen is doing well? Everything is about Fred Again. But really and truly, there's a lot of differences, but it's tedious to go through that.

It's a very special feeling to read the bloody Guardian and see one of your best mates (Nubya Garcia) with a saxophone in their hands on the front cover, it's mad. Those moments are very special, but I'm just happy that everyone is doing so well. It's beautiful to see a different angle on UK music getting attention, but at the same time you've always got to just move forward. We Out Here—it shocks me that was five years ago now, but as amazing as that is, you've got to move forward, and say right, UK jazz made a name and blew out, what's the next place from there?

AAJ: You definitely enjoyed that media buzz, and it helped you reach a new level, but surely it can't maintain that momentum for ever.

FK: It's such uncharted territory now. The next Ezra gig in London is 5,500 people. It was sold out months ago. It's a different realm now... These moments are to be celebrated and championed, but also, what is the next place, where is the next place, the next goal? You can't be defined just by media hype, otherwise every musical movement and genre would be done in a year and a half, because no one wants to read the same thing 10 years in a row, unless it's... well, they don't seem to be bored writing about Beyoncé. She seems to be on everyone's pens for the last two decades.

AAJ: There must also have been a feeling of winners and losers, some artists that soared while others suffered with the label.

FK: I think that there's definitely is lot of gain, a lot of people got a lot of attention and people found something amazing—like, "Oh my gosh, Kokoroko are sick, I want to find something else like this—oh Ezra Collective exists"—we definitely did gain from that. And there might be some loss, maybe the generation of jazz musicians that are older than us in the UK might have been stung a little bit because it wasn't the new fresh thing, they were already four albums in when this kicked off. And I definitely think they struggled a little bit to get attention, because no one wanted to hear the 35-year-old trumpet player, because we've got Ezra Collective right now! That's definitely a loss. But at the end of the day, when great music is getting made it does get heard eventually, it can take a little while—bearing in mind Ezra's been going 10 years now—but there's always someone there for it.

AAJ: So the big question remains, can we keep it up? Will we still see improvised music in the mainstream in 10 years?

FK: I think so. It's been wonderful going to universities and colleges and hearing people saying, "Ezra's my favourite band, I'm trying to play saxophone like James Mollison." That's wavy, and I think also a lot of attention is brought when we're put toe to toe with quote-unquote mainstream artists and we kill it. We're on a festival stage in Hong Kong and the line-up is Artic Monkeys and Wu-Tang Clan, and people will be like, "Ezra Collective were hard, not a single lyric sung, but that still made everyone dance." Those moments will shed light on the whole of improvised music beyond London.

AAJ: A lot of media emphasis was placed on the role the weekly Steam Down club night, in East London, played in gestating the UK scene. How accurate was this narrative?

FK: I can only talk on my own experience. I think the UK jazz explosion was down to many different factors, and every band had a different avenue into it. For Ezra Collective, we met at Tomorrow's Warriors, and then we started to playing gigs in small pubs, and that led to small venues, then small festival bookings, before you know it, we're taking on Glastonbury—if I'm being honest, the Steam Down thing isn't realty a part of the Ezra Collective story, but it's definitely a part of the UK jazz story. I think the movement needed some sort of a constant meeting place for people to access it. You can't just go to London and watch Ezra Collective, we only play twice a year in that place, but you can go to Steam Down every week. I think a lot of people hear about UK jazz and want to see something—"Oh, Steam Down's on Tuesday"—that definitely played a part.

A big moment both for Ezra Collective and UK jazz when the New York Times did a feature on Ezra Collective and they came and they were like, "We want to see you play," and I'm like, "Well we don't have a gig, and I'm not putting on a gig just for the New York Times." And then it was like, "You know what, we can meet you all at Steam Down, we'll jump on and play a track," and I think it did definitely serve that purpose. Whether it was the alpha and omega of the UK jazz scene, I don't know about that, but it definitely had a role to play.

AAJ: A key indicator of "the scene" was this romanticised idea of a scene of likeminded musicians coming up together. Did it feel like a community on the ground?

FK: Defo. I was in youth clubs with Nubya, I went to church with the guitarist from Kokoroko—I met half the horn section when I was 16. I've known Moses Boyd since I was 15—when I needed to get into university, it was Moses helping me practice—so it is that community definitely. When the scene grew, there were people added to this narrative that I might not have known from those ages, but when we talk about people like Nubya, Moses, Kokoroko—definitely I've known them since the beginning.

I haven't spoken about it for a while, in 2017, I was talking about it every day. It's so fascinating if you're not in London, like how the hell does it happen? How was does Femi know Nubya?

AAJ: So, if we're going back to the beginning, how did you guys get started?

FK: We were in a youth club, Tomorrow's Warriors, and they entered the Yamaha Jazz Experience competition at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, so they needed to put a band together for the competition, and that ended up being the Tomorrow's Warriors Youth Ensemble, and we won the competition. And then I was like, we should turn this band into an actual band—and let's change the name, and came up with Ezra Collective, and that's when we did our first gigs in 2012. It was the Olympics in London so there was loads of playing opportunities, and that led up to supporting Terence Blanchard in Ronnie Scott's in December. That's how it all started.

AAJ: The influence of club music is overstated in your music, and UK jazz in general—but you would have been too young to go the club back then.

FK: I was listening to a lot of radio, pirate radio, mainstream music—you don't have to go to club to experience club culture (Dizzee Rascal's) Boy in da Corner was putting clubs into people's laptops. Then at 16-17, by the time I moved out to study music, I was going out every night.

AAJ: It seems like you listened to a fair bit of UK grime growing up.

FK: Oh yeah, that was the foundation. I found Skepta and Jme's music when I was about 10 years old. That was the first music I listened to after Fela Kuti. Dad was Fela, grime was primary school, and then music as a big word was secondary school, so from 11, 12, that's when I'm starting to discover hip-hop, and reggae. I had a wicked drum teacher and he was the one who started putting me onto jazz music, Tim Giles his name was, he started telling about jazz, dub, he showed me The Meters, King Tubby, Charles Mingus—I just thought it was so alien, it sounded mad. I'd only heard church music and grime, I didn't even know the saxophone existed.

AAJ: Were there any gateway jazz albums that really stood out for you?

FK: Ah Um (Columbia Records, 1959) by Charles Mingus, because "Boogie Stop Shuffle" to me was the Spiderman theme tune—hums—I was like, that's Spiderman, that's kinda cool. Then Maynard Ferguson, his version of "Chameleon"—I just thought it was mad how loud and aggressive everything was. Herbie Hancock Headhunters (Columbia Records, 1973), that record killed me. "Sissy Strut" by The Meters. And then when I got to Tomorrow's Warriors, I got given Kind of Blue(Columbia Records, 1959), and was like, shoot there's a whole world of music that I don't understand.

But the first record that made me fall in love with music was Fela Kuti's Teacher Don't Teach Me No Nonsense (London Records, 1986), it still does man. We keep having this debate in Ezra: What's the greatest song ever written, and it's between (title track) "Teacher Don't Teach Me No Nonsense" and (Kuti's) "Zombie," it's one of the two, either/or. Or "How Deep is Your Love" by The BeeGees (laughs).

AAJ: OK, so let's get real—top five Fela records?

FK: Teacher..., Zombie (Creols Records, 1979) .... phew, "Colonial Mentality" from Sorrow, Tears & Blood (Kalakuta Records, 1977), you gotta say "Water" from Expensive Shit (Editions Makossa, 1975), that record is just bad. Fela's London Scene (His Master's Voice, 1971) is a bad album—I think that's the most album-like album, the others are just two big tunes. But it changes every week, he's just the baddest.

We've been watching a lot of the 1979 Berlin Jazz Festival set that Fela did and it's just mental.

AAJ: The show that broke up the Afrika '70 band, when he supposedly kept all the money himself ...

FK: But what a way to go out, man—that might be what I do, go play Berlin Jazz Festival, get $200,000, not pay anyone, and end the band.

AAJ: Speaking of, last year Sons of Kemet split up and now all their members are pursuing solo careers. So far only Joe Armon-Jones in Ezra has gone solo... any plans in the camp?

FK: I think trumpeter Ife Ogunjob's going to put out a solo album that I'm excited about. I just know that for me I don't have the capacity to put out a solo record and look after Ezra and I guess that's a sacrifice you just have to make as a bandleader. I just don't have it in me. If I put out a solo record, it will mean having to put Ezra on the back foot and I don't really feel inclined to do that right now. I've definitely written a lot of songs which I'm like, it's not an Ezra tune really, it's something else.

Who knows, I can't tell the future, maybe one day I'll put one out, but I feel like in this point of time, it would be counterproductive to what I'm trying to achieve with Ezra. Part of the reason the rest of the band have this freedom to put out amazing solo records and do their thing is because Ezra's become 24/7, and someone needs to do that work. That's where I'm at with it.

AAJ: OK, let's end with a fun one—dream collaborations?

FK:  Little Simz, Erykah Badu, Tiwa Savage, Uncle Femi Kuti and Made Kuti...

I'd love to make a tune with a golden age '90s rapper—Mos Def would feel very good. If I could get the most out of Mos Def that would be very special. And then there's some people I want to be in the studio with, whether it would work or not, but I want to try—all the people I just mentioned I know it would work, I know I'd write Erkyah a banger, I know "Simbi" will just be killing with Ezra, everyone would be so happy if we put that out.

I'd love to just get in the studio with Tame Impala and see if I can make it work, or with Hiatus Kaiyote, Khruangbin—they don't come naturally, I don't hear it immediately, but I do think it would be interesting if we all had our microphones next to our instruments and a couple of days off, what would come out of it... Can you imagine Herbie Hancock blazing through an Ezra tune? That would be so special.

AAJ: Why not ask? Domi and JD Beck, Flying Lotus and Thundercat made it happen...

FK: Yeah, but they're all LA boys, I'm from Enfield in North London, it's not quite the same. And I refuse to move there.

You know what? I'll give him a shout, I'm there in LA in a couple of weeks, we'll see what happens, and if it does happen I'll call you up and say, "Rob you inspired that moment." Yeah, alight I'll give him a ring and see what happens.




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