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Camilla George

The People Could Fly


by Ian Mann

October 02, 2018


She once again impresses as both an instrumentalist and a composer, while simultaneously broadening her musical horizons. It’s another impressive offering from one of the rising stars of British jazz.

Camilla George

“The People Could Fly”

(Ubuntu Music UBU0015)

“The People Could Fly” is the second album release by the London based alto saxophonist and composer Camilla George. It represents the follow up to her excellent 2017 début “Isang”, a critically acclaimed recording that helped to establish George as a popular and important figure on the UK jazz scene.

 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, 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. 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.

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 “Isang” has been backed up by a series of exciting live shows, including several major festival appearances.

“Isang” drew on a wide range of influences including George’s African and Caribbean heritage, plus musical inspirations such as Kenny Garrett and the ‘Great American Songbook’ - interpretations of the Garrett tune “Ms. Baja” and the standard “The Night Has A Thousand Eyes” appeared alongside George’s original material on the début.

“The People Could Fly” sees George building upon the success of the earlier recording. The new album is a more tightly focussed, semi-conceptual affair that takes its inspiration from a book of African folk tales as George explains in her album notes;
“This album has been a real labour of love. It’s based on a book of African stories called “The People Could Fly” which are steeped in slavery. My mum used to read me these stories when I was a child and I have always been fascinated by them and really wanted to explore them further. You have the spirited trickster tales where the wily Bruh Rabbit outwits larger, stronger animals like the lion. There are tall tales filled with riddle and mischief, ghost tales which take a sinister turn and finally the tales of freedom. These stories were created out of sorrow but have been passed on to us with hearts that are full of love and hope. I see these stories as a celebration of the human spirit”.

She continues;
“The People Could Fly” was my favourite story from this collection of tales. The cover illustration showed men and women flying over the cotton fields. The idea behind it was that some Africans were magical and had the ability to fly, but through long enslavement lost that ability to fly away. This image is bitter-sweet for me as it is a fantasy tale of suffering and is a powerful testament to the millions of slaves who never had the opportunity to fly away.”

The new album sees George joined again by her core quartet of Tandy, Casimir and Koleoso, the latter sharing drumming duties with the great Winston Clifford. “Isang” featured the guest vocals of Zara McFarlane on one track but “The People Could Fly” finds George widening her sonic palette further with extensive guest appearances by guitarist Shirley Tetteh, vocalists Cherise Adams-Burnett and Omar Lye-Fook and trumpeter Quentin Collins, co-founder of the Ubuntu record label. The album is produced by pianist and composer Andrew McCormack.

“I knew from the moment I decided to write music for these amazing stories that I wanted to expand the sound of my band in order to realise the sounds that I had been hearing in my head” explains George. “I was keen to add to the horn section with trumpet and to have both a male and female vocalist as well as guitar, which is key to many of my compositions for this album.”

George’s comments are perfectly illustrated by the album’s opening track, “Tappin the Land Turtle” which features a sextet of George, Tandy, Casimir, Clifford, Tetteh and Adams-Burnett. The piece takes its cue from the singer’s introductory vocal chant of “Bakon colem Bakon cowbey, Bacon cowhubo, lebe lebe”, this forming the building blocks for subsequent instrumental solos from Tetteh and George, who both impress with their incisiveness and fluency. Tandy plays Rhodes throughout and there’s something of a drum feature for the excellent Clifford towards the end of the tune. This infectious blend of jazz and Afro-beat helps to get the album off to a spirited and exciting start.

Tandy moves to acoustic piano for the next piece which features a core quartet with Clifford at the drums. “He Lion, Bruh Bear, Bruh Rabbit” is more obviously steeped in jazz and bebop and includes solos from George on pure toned alto and from rising bass star Casimir, who delivers an adventurous but melodic double bass solo.

The same quartet also appears on “How Nehemiah Got Free” with Tandy again switching to Rhodes and Casimir playing electric bass. Again the piece is rooted in jazz, but, as the instrumentation suggests, includes elements of funk and fusion with Kenny Garrett a discernible influence. Clifford’s bustling, skittering grooves help to fuel thoughtful solos from George and Tandy.

“Little Eight John” sees the quartet augmented by the vocals of Adams-Burnett and is a jazz lullaby incorporating the somewhat scary lyric “Don’ talk n’ go to sleep / Eyes shut tight n’ don’ you peep / Keep still or he jus moans / Raw head an’ bloody bones”. The words are intoned by Adams-Burnett’s pure but soulful voice while melodic instrumental solos come from George on alto sax and Casimir on double bass. Tandy features on acoustic piano while Clifford deploys brushes throughout.

The title track re-introduces something of the African feel of the opener, courtesy of Tetteh’s guitar. But there’s still plenty of jazz in addition to a fusion element, thanks to Tandy’s Rhodes. Koleoso features in the drum chair and his subtle but colourful rhythms help to inspire the melodic solos of Tetteh and George.

Clifford is back with a powerful solo drum intro to launch the lively “Carry the Runnings Away”. Performed by the core quartet this jazz infused piece features George’s lithe, agile alto soloing plus a sparkling acoustic piano solo from the increasingly impressive Tandy. Casimir and Clifford combine swingingly to drive the music along at a fast clip with the bassist also joining the ranks of the soloists with a dexterous upright bass feature.

“The Most Useful Slave” represents a stark reminder of the concept behind the album as the sound of rattling chains introduces the piece and forms the backdrop to George’s opening sax incantations.
There’s a gravitas about this composition, and about George’s playing, that recalls the spiritual jazz of John Coltrane, plus a strong gospel element that conjures up images of the American south. Tandy again impresses with her gospel tinged lyricism on acoustic piano, while the rich, rounded, resonant tones of Casimir’s double bass come into brief prominence during the tune’s closing stages.

The album concludes with the only cover version of the set, an arrangement of the late US soul legend Curtis Mayfield’s “Here, but I’m Gone”. George says of her decision to interpret Mayfield’s work;
“’Here but I’m Gone’ is a commentary on the black social condition in America which I think is a perfect bookend to an album that starts with a tale of famine and suffering. And with recent political events I think it is even more poignant.”
The performances features a septet of George, Tandy, Casimir and Clifford plus Tetteh, Collins and Lye-Fook.  The latter provides a soulful and convincing rendition of Mayfield’s evocative, socially conscious lyrics, rich in street imagery and drug references. Collins takes the only real instrumental solo, his trumpet briefly flaring as he exchanges musical ideas with George. The saxophonist is hoping to further her appeal with this album and a successful cover such as this suggests that she will do just that, much in the manner of her tenor sax contemporary Nubya Garcia.

“The People Could Fly” is a very worthy follow up to the excellent “Isang” and its embrace of funk and soul elements suggests that George is capable of reaching out to a wider fan base while still retaining a strong jazz core at the heart of her sound. There’s an immediacy about George’s music that is capable of appealing to a younger, broader constituency, while keeping hardcore jazz fans onside. With “The People Could Fly” she once again impresses as both an instrumentalist and a composer, while simultaneously broadening her musical horizons. It’s another impressive offering from one of the rising stars of contemporary British jazz.

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