by Ian Mann
January 17, 2017
A remarkably assured and mature début. George impresses with her purity of tone, melodic sense and improvisational fluency.
(Ubuntu Music – UBU004)
“Isang” is the début leadership album by the young London based alto saxophonist and composer Camilla George. Born in Nigeria George studied at Trinity College of Music and has also been part of the Tomorrow’s Warriors programme. Her tutors have included fellow saxophonists Jean Toussaint, Tony Kofi, Julian Siegel and Martin Speake and “Isang” features liner notes by Jason Yarde, another champion of George and her music.
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 touchstone.
As a performer George has been part of the Nu Civilisation Orchestra, Jazz Jamaica and Courtney Pine’s Venus Warriors project. 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. Joining George are pianist Sarah Tandy, bassist Daniel Casimir and drummer Femi Koleoso, the latter perhaps best known as a member of rising stars Ezra Collective. “Isang” also features a guest appearance by George’s long time friend, vocalist Zara McFarlane.
“Isang”, meaning “voyage”, takes its title from the Efik language of South East Nigeria and the album packaging includes a quote from the author Ben Okri - “Who can dream a good road and then travel on it”.
George explores her African roots in her writing, particularly on the piece “Mami Wata”. She also has Caribbean ancestry and this too, is reflected in her music. However George’s rich heritage is filtered through a jazz prism and the programme includes the standard “The Night Has A Thousand Eyes” plus an arrangement of the Kenny Garrett tune “Ms Baja”.
George describes her début album thus;
“Isang is an album about a journey from my African and Caribbean roots through to jazz in its modern day forms. I was keen to explore different stylistic elements such as high-life, afrobeat, calypso and hip-hop. It’s a project which wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for my amazing band whose musicianship is of the highest degree”.
Well said, but for all that George’s music remains firmly rooted in the bebop and hard bop eras with the influence of musicians like McLean and Adderley still shining through. George’s compositions possess memorable melodies and strong grooves in equal measure and her music is eminently accessible with a youthful energy that is likely to give it considerable across the board appeal. It’s an essentially acoustic quartet capable of reaching out to dyed in the wool provincial jazz fans as well as to younger London audiences.
The album commences with “Mami Wata” which celebrates a West African spirit and combines blues, hard bop and African influences and instantly seizes the listener’s attention. It’s introduced by Koleoso’s drums and he continues to drive the music hard throughout the piece. I’ve seen this supremely talented and confident young man performing on a couple of occasions with the Ezra Collective and he consistently impresses throughout this album. He’s definitely a name to look out for in the future. As of course is the leader who solos here with an assertive fluency before handing over to Tandy who positively sparkles at the keyboard. Then it’s that man Koleoso again with a richly colourful, polyrhythmic drum feature that is totally engaging.
George acknowledges her Caribbean roots with “Lunacity”, a tune that was the title track of an earlier EP. Loosely based on the standard “It’s Only A Paper Moon” the piece is delivered in the style of a Sonny Rollins calypso and even manages to squeeze in quotes from Rollins’ “Don’t Stop The Carnival” and Dizzy Gillespie’s “Salt Peanuts”. There’s an infectious joyousness about the music with a confident, incisive George well supported by her colleagues. Tandy again impresses with a lively but intelligent solo and there’s also a feature for Casimir, currently making a name for himself on the London jazz scene after graduating from the Jazz Course at Birmingham Conservatoire.
George reveals a gentler side to her writing and playing with the beautiful ballad “Song For Reds” which she dedicates to her father, the man who introduced her to the music of Stitt, McLean and the others. George’s appropriately tender alto is complemented by Tandy’s lyrical piano plus languid bass and sensitively brushed drums. During Tandy’s solo the rhythm section drop out altogether as the young pianist plays unaccompanied, summoning up the spirit of jazz from a bygone era with warmth, maturity and intelligence.
The title track raises the energy levels with its jaunty and infectious blending of jazz, African and Caribbean elements. George’s alto points the way but there’s some delightful unaccompanied bass and drum interplay between Casimir and the irrepressible Koleoso on a piece that is essentially a feature for this brilliant young rhythm combination.
Kenny Garrett’s “Ms Baja” is a piece sourced from his landmark “Songbook” album. In a recent interview with Kevin Le Gendre for Jazzwise magazine George said of the piece “the harmony is hard, but the melody is so nice and catchy, and that’s the genius of it really. The music really isn’t that easy but it SOUNDS it”. George’s arrangement features a wordless vocal by her long time friend Zara McFarlane. I was impressed by McFarlane’s 2011 début album “Until Tomorrow”, which featured a contribution by George, and was even more so by 2014’s “If You Knew Her” but I have to say that I find her efforts here rather gratuitous and ultimately superfluous. The real substance comes in the intelligent, softly probing solos of George and Tandy with Casimir and Koleoso adding characteristically sure footed support.
“Dreams of Eket” is another example of George’s skills as a writer and performer of ballads. Her pure toned alto is well supported by Koleoso’s exquisitely detailed drumming as the young man reveals his skill as a colourist. George smoulders with a quiet intensity and there’s also a melodic bass solo from the consistently excellent Casimir.
The standard “The Night Has A Thousand Eyes” receives an interesting re-working in a well integrated group performance featuring interchanging solos from George and Tandy, who both place the emphasis on melody and lyricism while relinquishing nothing of their improvisational fluency.
The album concludes by almost coming full circle with Mami Wata Returns / Usoro” which builds from Casimir’s opening ostinato electric bass groove and also features Tandy on electric piano. The insidious grooves reach out to a younger audience and fuel solos by George on alto and Tandy on keyboards. This is music with a harder, more contemporary edge that emphasises the versatility of this band and hints at possible directions for future explorations.
Throughout the album George impresses with her purity of tone, melodic sense and improvisational fluency. She’s well supported by an excellent band of rising stars who all emerge with great credit. I’m sure we’ll be hearing a lot more from all four of these musicians, both collectively and individually.
George also comes out of this session with a burgeoning reputation as a composer, The individual pieces on this album are all excellent, rooted in a variety of styles and traditions but always sounding fresh and invigorating. “Isang” represents a remarkably assured and mature début.
A word too, for the new Ubuntu label co-founded by marketing executive Martin Hummel and musician Quentin Collins. If this album plus the recently released archive recording “Chet Baker Live In London” are anything to go by Ubuntu Music could become a significant presence on the UK jazz scene. Collins, himself a highly talented trumpeter, is the producer of this album and his mix serves George and her colleagues well.
Camilla George and her quartet will be touring the UK in support of this album during February and March 2017. Dates as below. I hope to catch the band somewhere along the way, most probably in Kenilworth.
22 February – The Lescar, Sheffield
23 February – Matt & Phred’s, Manchester
25 February – Zeffirelli’s, Ambleside
26 February – 7ARTS, Leeds
27 February – Kenilworth Jazz Club
28 February – Royal British Legion, North Wales Jazz
1 March – Dempsey’s, Cardiff
2 March – The Vortex, London