by Ian Mann
September 12, 2023
Ian Mann with a personal reflection on Ezra Collective's historic victory at the 2023 Mercury Music Prize ceremony, making them the first ever jazz act to win an award first instigated in 1992.
EZRA COLLECTIVE WIN 2023 MERCURY MUSIC PRIZE
I was delighted to see that Ezra Collective have won the 2023 Mercury Music Prize, the first ever jazz act to win an award that has been going since 1992. They collected the Prize for their second full length album “Where I’m Meant To Be”.
The London based quintet was formed in 2012 by brothers Femi Koleoso (drums) and TJ Koleoso (electric bass), together with James Mollison (sax), Joe Armon-Jones (keyboards) and Dylan Jones (trumpet). Jones has since been replaced by Ife Ogunjobi.
Ezra Collective’s victory was particularly gratifying for The Jazzmann, who first reviewed a live performance by the group as far back as 2013 when the original line up appeared at the Ray’s Jazz Cafe performance space at Foyle’s Bookshop on Charing Cross Road. This event formed part of that year’s EFG London Jazz Festival and saw the then teenage quintet impressing with both the quality of their playing and the maturity of Femi Koleoso’s original writing.
Having come together as part of the Tomorrow’s Warriors programme under the guidance of bassist Gary Crosby the Collective’s mixed race line up was already beginning to explore a wide variety of music, including jazz, funk, soul, reggae, hip- hop, grime, salsa and Afrobeat, a heady mix that continues to inform their sound to this day.
At the time The Jazzmann wrote of;
“the spirited playing of this talented young band”
“Expect to hear a lot more from these excellent young musicians. They played with genuine youthful vitality and a good deal of skill, with Femi Koleoso’s writing also impressing with its maturity”.
The full review can be found here;
For the 2016 EFGLJF Ezra Collective returned to Foyle’s to play in the new, larger performance space on the top floor. The original line up remained in place, and at a highly exciting sold out show it quickly became apparent that this rapidly maturing young band had really ‘kicked on’ during the interim.
Here are a couple of Jazzmann observations from Ezra Collective’s 2016 Ray’s Jazz at Foyle’s EFGLJF performance;
“Ezra Collective gave notice that they’ve really come of age as they played a barnstorming set to a sell out audience. This is a band that has clearly accrued a loyal following, and on the evidence of this highly skilled and thrillingly energetic show I’m not surprised.”
“In the three years since I last saw them the members of Ezra Collective have matured both individually and collectively. They were good then but in the intervening years they’ve honed their chops and now play with an impressive confidence and swagger. This is a group that has grown up together and now have the assurance of a band that ‘know that they are good’.”
It was to be nearly seven years until I saw the band again when they played a sold out headline show at the Town Hall as part of the 2023 Cheltenham Jazz Festival. By this time Ife Ogunjobi had taken over from Dylan Jones in the trumpet chair and Ezra Collective were part of a wider London based jazz movement that had seen the music finding favour with young audiences and being performed in larger and larger spaces. It was a scene that the Ezras had done much to create, thanks to the quality of their exciting and inclusive live performances. They helped to pave the way for artists such as Nubya Garcia, SEED Ensemble, Kokoroko and also the Steam Down and Jazz re; freshed organisations.
This time The Jazzmann wrote;
“I thoroughly enjoyed this high energy, crowd pleasing performance by Ezra Collective, a band capable of entertaining a large crowd without overly compromising either themselves or their music. Musical intelligence and instrumental virtuosity are still at the heart of their sound and this was still unmistakably a jazz performance. And as the crowd melted away into the night I couldn’t resist a smug smile, heartened by the band’s awesome progress and thinking to myself “you read about them here first”.”
The Mercury Prize has often included a jazz album among the shortlist of twelve nominations – not every year, but pretty close to it. Previous jazz nominees have included Polar Bear (twice), Kit Downes, Portico Quartet, Led Bib, Roller Trio, GoGo Penguin, Sons of Kemet, Dinosaur, SEED Ensemble, Moses Boyd, Nubya Garcia and Fergus McCreadie, but there’s usually been the feeling that these have very much been ‘token entries’. The only one of these that I seriously thought might be in with a shout was Sons of Kemet for “Your Queen is a Reptile” back in 2018.
Nevertheless merely being listed has raised the profile of all the jazz nominees and until this year merely making the shortlist has been viewed as a success for the ‘token’ jazz or folk act. Seth Lakeman was nominated in 2005, alongside Polar Bear, and subsequently became one of the biggest folk acts on the scene. He’s still seeing the benefits of that nomination to this day. I’ve no doubt that this year’s ‘token folkies’, the Irish group Lankum, will see a surge of interest in their music too.
That’s why the Ezra’s unexpected triumph is so exciting. This is a band that has earned its success the old fashioned way, earning itself a reputation through the quality of its exciting live performances and building a following by word of mouth. These are guys who have grown up together and ‘paid their dues’. They’ve worked hard for their success.
They’ve won their fair share of other awards along the way, including a number of youth jazz prizes in their early days, plus the Parliamentary Jazz Award for ‘ Best Ensemble’ in 2019, the same year that The Jazzmann collected the equivalent Award for ‘Best Media’, so in a sense we’ve grown up together.
I watched the BBC’s coverage of the Mercurys, screened from the Eventim Apollo, Hammersmith (still the Hammersmith Odeon to those of us of a certain age), and enjoyed the majority of the live performances – it’s sometimes good to see and hear music that isn’t jazz.
Nevertheless the Ezras’ exuberant performance of their tune “Victory Dance” was a real highlight and had the audience on its feet clapping along joyously. The crowd seemed to be full of Ezra supporters and they really got behind their heroes. The group was the second act to perform and they proved to be a tough act to follow, this was a performance that really mattered to them.
Not every nominee turned up to perform live on the night, the Arctic Monkeys being particularly conspicuous absentees and the energy, vitality and commitment of the Ezras’ performance must surely have impressed the judges.
When Ezra Collective were announced as winners by the DJ Jamz Supernova, acting as the spokesperson for the panel of judges, the excitement and elation expressed by the band members was totally genuine. There was no forced jollity here, merely the spontaneous joyousness of people who didn’t expect to win suddenly finding themselves making history. This really meant something to the recipients, it wasn’t ‘just another award’, as it might have been for Arctic Monkeys.
Here is the jury citation:
“Virtuosity, community, listening to each other to work out where to go next… who knew that such seemingly old-fashioned values would come to the fore on the winning album of the 2023 Mercury Prize with FREENOW? It wasn’t easy to choose an overall winner from such an eclectic and exciting list, but ultimately the judges were unanimous: Ezra Collective, the London five-piece made up of Femi Koleoso on drums, TJ Koleoso on bass, Joe-Armon Jones on keys, James Mollison on saxophone and Ife Ogunjobi on trumpet are a living argument for putting the hours in, achieving musical brilliance, and tapping into a joyous spirit that ensures their album is as fun as it is impressive. The British jazz renaissance of the past decade has been one of the most significant developments in modern music. Now, ‘Where I’m Meant To Be’, with its touches of reggae, soul, Latin and Afrobeats, its call and response riffs and rhythmic intensity, is a landmark not only for jazz, but for contemporary music in general.”
Even more pleasing and significant was Femi Koleoso’s victory speech. As the disbelieving quintet, still congratulating one another, joined Jamz Supernova and presenter Lauren Laverne on stage Femi pulled his thoughts together to make some very salient points.
He began by joking;
“If a jazz band winning the Mercury Prize doesn’t make you believe in God, I don’t know what will.”
After thanking the band’s manager and other members of their entourage he got on to the really serious stuff;
“This award represents something very special because we met in a youth club. This moment that we’re celebrating right here is testament to good, special people putting time and effort into young people to play music. This is not just a result for Ezra Collective, or for UK jazz, but this is a special moment for every single organisation across the country, ploughing efforts and time into young people playing music.”
Femi then bigged up the London based institutions that had supported the band, such as Tomorrow’s Warriors and Kinetika Bloco, but his speech resonated beyond the capital. There are organisations and jazz clubs supporting youth music all over the country, two local to me being Black Mountain Jazz in Abergavenny with their JazzKatz youth jazz scheme, and also Brecon Jazz Club with their links to local schools and colleges.
Back to Femi Koleoso;
“Let me tell you something really serious – we’ve got something special in the UK. We’ve got something special by way of young musicians, so let’s continue to support that.”
Great credit is due to Femi for delivering an important and serious message in the midst of so much excitement. Ezra Collective is a band that has stayed true to its roots and one suspects that his words were aimed directly at Rishi Sunak, and if he wasn’t listening Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer certainly should have been.
Seriously, what a brilliant acceptance speech.
As is customary at the Mercury award ceremony Lauren Laverne asked the band if they would play again. Of course this just had to be a reprise of the now appropriately titled “Victory Dance”, with Ogunjobi and Mollison down on the floor and parading around an audience whose members were all up on their feet celebrating this unexpected and most popular of victories. Incorporating solos from Ogunjobi, Armon-Jones and Femi Koleoso this was a subtly different performance to the earlier rendition – this was still jazz after all.
Let us hope that Ezra Collective have well and truly broken the mould and that future jazz recordings can be serious contenders for the Mercury.
For the record the full list of nominations for the 2023 Mercury Music Prize were;
Arctic Monkeys - The Car
Ezra Collective - Where I’m Meant to Be
Fred Again - Actual Life 3 (January 1 - September 9 2022)
J Hus - Beautiful And Brutal Yard
Jessie Ware - That! Feels Good!
Jockstrap - I Love You Jennifer B
Lankum - False Lankum
Loyle Carner – Hugo
Olivia Dean – Messy
Raye - My 21st Century Blues
Shygirl – Nymph
Young Fathers - Heavy Heavy
To conclude, heartfelt congratulations to Ezra Collective on their prestigious award, which comes with the added bonus of £25,000 of prize money.
The Jazzmann has been a supporter of Ezra Collective almost from its inception and I’d like to think that my writing has played a small part in the band’s success, particularly in the early days. It was hard for me to keep a dry eye when I found out that they’d actually won!
At The Jazzmann we like to say “we know how to spot ‘em”, but never in my wildest dreams could I have foreseen this. I never thought that I’d write about a jazz act winning the Mercury Prize. I suspect that the Ezras are probably as surprised as a I am – but in such a good way.
Very, very well done, guys.
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