by Ian Mann
January 03, 2023
The way George brings together her various musical & cultural influences is undeniably impressive & the result is a distinctive & highly personal sound that still has its roots firmly planted in jazz
(Ever Records EVER102CD)
Camilla George – alto sax, Daniel Casimir – electric & acoustic bass, Sarah Tandy – piano, Renato Paris – vocals, piano, Rhodes, Shirley Tetteh – guitar, Winston Clifford, Sam Jones – drums, Daru Jones – drums & percussion, Lady Sanity – vocals, Kadialy Kouyate – kora, Sheila Maurice-Grey – trumpet, Rosie Turton – trombone
“Ibio-Ibio” is the third album release from the London based saxophonist and composer Camilla George, a musician who has made a big impression on the UK jazz scene and beyond since the release of her début album “Isang” on the Ubuntu Music imprint in early 2017.
The critically acclaimed “Isang” was followed in 2018 by “The People Could Fly”, also on Ubuntu, which consolidated her success. Both albums were inspired by her Nigerian heritage and by the folklore and legends of that country, stories passed on to her by her parents.
Born in Nigeria George moved to the UK as a child and later studied at Trinity College of Music. She has also been part of the Tomorrow’s Warriors programme. Her tutors have included fellow saxophonists Jean Toussaint, Tony Kofi, Julian Siegel, Christian Brewer and Martin Speake. Her work has also been championed by Jason Yarde and Courtney Pine.
Besides her illustrious mentors George also cites alto sax giants Charlie Parker and Cannonball Adderley as significant influences, but even more important to her are Sonny Stitt and Jackie McLean, with George naming Kenny Garrett as a more contemporary source of inspiration.
As a performer George has been part of the Nu Civilisation Orchestra, Jazz Jamaica and Courtney Pine’s Venus Warriors project. She has also recorded with her great friend, vocalist and songwriter Zara McFarlane and has performed with vocalist China Moses, the late saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis and with the band Kokoroko.
In 2014 she formed her own quartet, the members coming together through encounters on the Jazz Warriors scheme and at the late night jams at Ronnie Scott’s. This was the group that appeared on “Isang” with the leader joined by pianist Sarah Tandy, bassist Daniel Casimir and drummer Femi Coleoso, of Ezra Collective fame.
In February 2017 I saw the “Isang” quartet give an excellent live performance at Kenilworth Jazz Club, the date part of a UK tour promoting the album. George is a hard working musician who has developed a following through regular gigging, and the critical acclaim for her recordings has been backed up by a series of exciting live shows, including several major festival appearances.
In October 2021 I was lucky enough to see another version of the Camilla George Quartet (this time featuring George, Tandy, electric bass specialist Jihad Dawish and drummer Rod Youngs) appear at Warwick Arts Centre as part of the wider From the Source Festival, an annual series of events co-ordinated by the Serious organisation that explores the influence of jazz on a range of other musical genres, among them soul, hip hop, electronica and performance poetry.
The first half of the Warwick show featured then new material, which has since been recorded for the “Ibio-Ibio” album, meaning that I was one of the lucky ones to be afforded a ‘sneak preview’.
The second set featured what at the time represented more familiar fare, a selection of compositions sourced from George’s first two albums. I was able to speak with Camilla after both the Kenilworth and Warwick shows and as I observed at the time of the latter “it’s easy to see why this highly skilled and very personable musician is so popular with audiences”. George is a great communicator, both on and off the stage and her success has been very well deserved.
“Isang” (meaning ‘voyage’ or ‘journey’) featured the core quartet of George, Tandy, Casimir and Koleoso plus a brief guest appearance from vocalist Zara McFarlane. As well as George’s original writing the programme also included arrangements of the jazz standard “The Night Has A Thousand Eyes” plus the Kenny Garrett tune “Ms Baja”. Album review here;
“The People Could Fly” featured the same core quartet and also incorporated a wider range of guest appearances from guitarist Shirley Tetteh, vocalists Cherise Adams-Burnett and Omar Lye-Fook and trumpeter Quentin Collins, with pianist Andrew McCormack fulfilling the role of producer. The album widened the sonic palette and also saw a greater focus on George’s original writing with an arrangement of Curtis Mayfield’s socially aware “’Here but I’m Gone” representing the only ‘outside’ item. Album review here;
“Ibio-Ibio” extends some of the processes that began on the second album. This time round the album features George’s compositions exclusively while the trend to feature vocals and lyrics more extensively also continues. The use of guest musicians is taken to another level with George essentially deploying a ‘pool’ of players on this new recording. As far as I can tell she, Casimir, Paris and Tetteh are the only performers to appear on every track. The album also sees a change of label with George moving from Ubuntu Music to Ever Records, a division of K7 Music.
George also has Caribbean heritage, which also finds expression in her music but her primary source of influence remains her birthplace of Nigeria as she explains in her album notes;
“The album is dedicated to the Ibibio people of South Eastern coastal Nigeria, to our creation and our beliefs. ‘Ibio-Ibio’ is a nickname for the Ibibio people meaning ‘short’ or ‘brief’, which is a reference to the Ibibio’s quick way of doing things – not our height!
The album focusses on our creation and the legend of Abasi, the supreme ruler/god of the universe and of his wife Atai, goddess of mediation. They are believed to have created the Ibibio people in their own image. The Ibibio people are regarded as the most ancient of all ethnic groups in Nigeria. They stand for togetherness, wishing good things for one another, their family and community. In these strange times of turmoil and disruption I couldn’t be prouder to be part of such a special and unique group of people whose message of love and togetherness is one that we can all take on board in our lives. ‘Nnyin Ido Ibibio’ - We are Ibibio People!”
The music commences with “Creation – Abasi and Atai”, which features guest appearances by the American jazz, rock and hip hop drummer / percussionist Daru Jones and by Birmingham based rapper Lady Sanity, who performed with George at Warwick Arts Centre as part of the first From The Source Festival in 2019. Sanity’s words place a modern slant on the Ibibio creation myth while the music incorporates elements of jazz and funk with Casimir, Paris, Tetteh and Jones combining to lay down an infectiously propulsive groove that acts as the springboard for George’s joyously melodic sax soloing.
“Journey Across The Sea” sees Clifford take the drum chair and also includes strong contributions from guests Sheila Maurice-Grey (trumpet), Rosie Turton (trombone) and Kadialy Kouyate (kora). An uplifting West African inspired groove underpins a vibrant series of horn exchanges between George, Maurice-Grey and Turton plus a fluent kora solo from Kouyate. The title of the piece again references the Ibibio origin story.
The title of “Ekpe”, one of the pieces that was performed at Warwick, references “the ancient secret society of the Ibibio people which upholds truth and connects with the ancestors”. George’s grandfather was once a member. Maurice-Grey and Turton remain on board to fill out the collective sound while Paris, Casimir and Clifford lay down an urgent, sometimes funky groove that provides the platform for George’s fluent but incisive alto soloing. Casimir follows, demonstrating great nimbleness on the electric bass. Clifford also features at the drums on a piece that follows the same pattern as the Warwick performance.
“The Long Juju Slave Route of Arochuru” was also featured at Warwick, albeit under a slightly different title, but the album version is significantly different with Lady Sanity and the returning Daru Jones bringing a strong hip hop sensibility to the music. The title references the slave trade and the imagery is made so much more graphic thanks to Sanity’s rap - “the rivers still flow red”. Instrumental solos come from Paris on Rhodes and the leader’s treated alto, which meanders in and out of focus throughout the course of the track.
The title of “Ukpong” references the myth that everyone has the soul of an animal. The mood of the piece is positively vibrant with the funky grooves and breezy melodies having invited comparisons with the music George Benson. The performance features Paris’ wordless, scat style vocals and a dazzling solo from Sarah Tandy on acoustic piano, clearly relishing being let off the leash at last. This piece features the only appearance on this album from Sam Jones, regular drummer with tenor saxophonist Nubya Garcia.
Tandy also features on “Abasi Enyong”, the album’s only true ballad played by a quartet of George, Tandy, Casimir on acoustic bass and Clifford on brushed drums.
George’s alto solo is achingly beautiful and she’s followed on lyrical acoustic piano by the equally impressive Tandy.
The first single to be released from the album was Aabasi Isang”, the title roughly translating as “God of the Earth”. This was given a powerful rendition at Warwick but the album version adds the horns of Maurice-Grey and Turton, which helps to give the music even more verve and colour. Vibrant Afro-beat grooves drive the music and the blend of the three horns is infectious. Rousing solos come from Turton on trombone, Maurice-Grey on trumpet, George on alto and Tetteh on guitar. It’s thrilling, life affirming stuff.
The album is bookended by a second telling of the Ibibio Creation Myth, “Nnyin Ido Ibibio”, which as we learnt from the liner notes means “We are Ibibio People”. Sanity and Daru Jones return to the fray, bringing back a hip hop sensibility as Sanity reprises the creation story with an articulate rap. But there’ s also a chugging funk groove and lithe instrumental solos from Tetteh on guitar, Tandy on acoustic piano and finally George on the fade out.
“Ibio-Ibio” represents another impressive offering from George. It’s less obviously a ‘jazz’ recording than her first two releases, which may alienate some potential listeners, but I suspect that its vibrant mix of musical styles is likely to attract many more, especially on the London scene.
African and Caribbean elements have always been part of George’s sound and these are joined here by those of rap and hip hop, not usually a favourite genre of mine I’ll admit but overall I rather enjoyed the contributions of Lady Sanity and Daru Jones.
The way in which George brings together her various musical and cultural influences is undeniably impressive and the result is a distinctive and highly personal sound that has still has its roots firmly planted in jazz soil. The continued use of voice and lyrics also adds an extra political dimension to the music that is particularly pertinent during these troubled times. However this doesn’t compromise the essential joyousness and humanity of George’s music, above all this album is a celebration of her cultural heritage and of her musical journey to date. Long may it continue. Her next move will be awaited with interest.
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