Ezra Collective: ‘There’s something so powerful about saying: ‘‘I have rehearsals tomorrow’’’

Time Out’s Londoners of the Year on sparking joy, coming home and inspiring the next generation

Ezra Collective on football pitch
Photograph: Jess Hand for Time Out
Chiara Wilkinson

The December air is cold enough to see our breath. It’s a Tuesday night and I’m sat with Ezra Collective on a rickety London bus – specifically, a DMS127 model from 1976 – parked in front of Arsenal’s Emirates stadium. An inviting, garlicky smell wafts out of Xi’an Impression across the road, where diners slurp bowls of noodles behind steamy windows and delivery drivers come and go. Late-night commuters push down the breaks on their Lime bikes to peer at the bus; inside, the band rubs their hands on their thighs to stay warm between camera flashes. It’s been a long day.

Nonetheless, London’s hottest jazz quintet are in good spirits. They banter and brag like a group of school boys, smug to have bagged the seats at the back. There’s TJ Koleoso, the bassist: witty, chatty, generous. There’s keys player Joe Armon-Jones, who arrives visibly exhausted after a day of filming a music video for his solo project: quiet, patient, thoughtful. Then, there’s trumpeter Ife Ogunjobi, whose boyish warmth and initial shyness could be down to him being four to seven years younger than the rest of the band, and James Mollison, the magnetically chill saxophonist with sharp green eyes. Drummer Femi, TJ’s older brother and Ezra’s charismatic band leader, is also – thankfully – here, after arriving to the shoot an hour and a half late. Together, they make up what is arguably the most influential British jazz act of a generation. 

Five men siting inside a bus

Ezra Collective achieved milestone successes in 2023. In September, they won the Mercury Prize for their album ‘Where I’m Meant To Be,’ making them the first jazz act to receive the award in its 31-year history. They’ve been hailed by critics, fans and teachers for shining a spotlight on the genre and exposing it to the mainstream. They’ve played all over the world – Nigeria, Japan, France, Australia, to name a few – and taken their sound global. In the background, the band has been working to inspire the next generation of musicians at a time when cuts to the arts have been especially severe. And, as anyone who has been to one of their live shows will tell you, they’ve also been making a hell of a lot of people smile. 

Introducing Ezra Collective: Time Out’s 2023 Londoners of the Year. 

Born and bred 

I last spoke to Femi in April, where he reccounted blagging his way into Ronnie Scott’s to play the drums as a bright-eyed 14-year-old. Since our chat, it’s been non-stop for his band, moving from the next festival to the next flight at a thousand miles per hour. ‘To be honest, this week is the beginning of a bit of normality,’ Femi says. ‘I left the house in February this year and only got back this week. It’s made me appreciate London a lot more.’

The make-up of Ezra Collective is about as London as it gets. There’s Femi and TJ, from Enfield, James, from Catford, Ife, from SE1 – and Joe, from Oxfordshire, who moved to the capital in 2011 to attend Trinity College. ‘There’s something very London about someone not being from London and saying they are,’ says Femi, with a laugh. ‘That’s like the most London thing you can do.’

Men walking onto the pitch
Photograph: Jess Hand for Time Out

Their sound is distinctly London, too – in that it clearly works so well because of its multiple, composite elements. It’s a dynamic, vast, living monster, a culmination of cultures all synthesised together into something strong; something beautiful. ‘Londoners can pick ten different countries and tell you the national dish immediately – the reason being is because all ten of those national dishes are represented on their high street,’ Femi says. ‘Do you know what I’m saying? It comes across musically, you end up having influences from so many places. It leaks out in everything you do.’ 

Ezra Collective’s music is undisputedly jazz – but not necessarily in the way you might expect jazz to sound. It’s jazz fused with a concoction of influences: grime, Afrobeat, hip hop, bashment, calypso, dancehall, reggae, jungle, salsa, dub. It’s jazz that will fill a room with 6 Music dads alongside 15-year-old techno heads and chin-stroking swing nerds: all of them dancing, clapping, foot-tapping along. In other words: this is jazz that’s representative of London now

In Enfield, we don’t even have a single live venue, which is a painful shame

‘Southeast London contributed significantly to our sound,’ says Femi, when I ask how the city manifests itself for the band sonically. He nods to Tomorrow’s Warriors and Kinetika Bloco – the Southbank Centre youth clubs focused on teaching young people to play instruments  – where Ezra Collective first met. ‘But that’s probably because south is musically slightly better-funded than north. The schools that those youth clubs outreach to are in that direction, and you’ve also got things like STEEZ and Brainchild and the Royal Albert pub: there’s more playing opportunities for grassroots music. I’d credit a lot of the grime music we like to north London, but in Enfield, we don’t even have a single live venue, which is a painful shame.’

Bigging up the youth

When Ezra Collective played Glastonbury’s West Holts stage this year, they brought out 30 young musicians from Kinetika Bloco to join them. They did the same at their Hammersmith Apollo show back in March, as well as in their recent main auditorium Royal Albert Hall show – an experience which, if you’re still in primary school, looks pretty good on the old CV.

‘I look at what youth clubs allowed me to have – that’s what makes me want to champion them,’ Femi says. ‘The schooling institution is under pressure to make sure that I can read and write. If you had zero funding, the saxophone is not going to be your highest priority. But a youth club is a building where my ability to read and write is irrelevant, and it’s giving me hope and something to occupy my mind.’

Ezra Collective on a pitch
Photograph: Jess Hand for Time Out

It’s something Femi is passionate about – he’s always eloquent, but he speaks with particular purpose on this subject – and with good reason. Youth services in this country have been subject to a decade of scarring cuts: according to a 2022 YMCA report, funding cuts for youth services in England reached £1.1bn last year, representing a real-terms fall of 74 percent since 2010. At the same time, there have been studies showing the correlation between youth violence and areas with fewer youth services: one study from 2019 claimed that areas suffering the largest cuts to spending on young people had seen bigger increases in knife crime. 

‘I look at a lot of knife crime statistics and some of the consistencies I see is a void in a hope for tomorrow,’ says Femi. ‘How can you give someone that hope? You say: ‘‘Look at how great that trombone player is. They get to travel the whole world. You’ve got a trombone, too, you could just be like them’’. I was never a candidate for being a statistic, but I grew up around it. And I know for a fact that there’s something so powerful about saying to someone: ‘‘I have rehearsals tomorrow.’’’

How can you give someone that hope? You say: ‘Look at how great that trombone player is. You’ve got a trombone, too’

This year, Ezra Collective donated a portion of their gig fees to youth organisations, including Kinetika Bloco, East London Arts and Music (ELAM), and Brighton’s Audio Active, to go towards purchasing an instrument or helping to pay someone’s salary. ‘It’s not masses and masses,’ Femi says. ‘But it’s what was possible for us.’ On Femi’s afternoons off on tour, he’s also been going into schools and youth organisations, usually joined by one or two of the other band members, giving talks, drum lessons and just generally sharing his story. ‘That’s more important than the gig itself,’ he says, recalling the lasting impression he felt from when the late Benjamin Zephaniah visited his primary school. ‘It’s so cool that [almost] everyone in London or the UK had him come into school and read a book. What a legacy to leave for the world.’ 

Femi speaks with the sort of forthright confidence that is more associated with politicians than musicians – and it’s clear he could go on about this subject for hours. His enthusiasm is especially tangible when he recounts a string of names of young London musicians he’s rooting for: ‘There’s Tegan, who plays the tuba, Emmanuel, a fantastic jazz drummer… every school you go to, you’re meet someone and you’re like, ‘‘Bloody hell. You’re so much better than me, man’’.’ 

Coming home

When Ezra’s name was called out, announcing them as the Mercury winners, it was carnage. A mass intake of breaths from the audience followed by a roaring standing ovation confirmed they were a surprise win, but a deserving one – they were, of course, the first jazz act to ever be awarded the Mercury prize, up against the likes of Arctic Monkeys and Raye. The boys’ reaction was priceless: they jumped up, muddled their arms around each other and toppled over into a brotherly pile of limbs. ‘We thought if you’d won, you’d have been told before and would just have to pretend you didn’t know – we hadn’t heard anything, so when they were announcing the winner, I just assumed it was someone else,’ Femi says. ‘That’s why we reacted like that.’ 

From Moses Boyd and Nubya Garcia to Yussef Dayes and Shabaka Hutchings, the London jazz scene has undergone a revival in the last decade. It’s grown into a movement which has helped to reshape stereotypes of the jazz establishment as being something of an ivory tower, recasting it as something for everyone. And for all the snarks about the relevance of awards in 2023, if anything, Ezra’s Mercury win is proof that the scene is finally being recognised. ‘We weren’t the first jazz act to deserve it,’ Femi says. ‘But I feel like every jazz artist that came before us put a brick in place for that moment.’

Ezra Collectie in Arsenal changing room
Photograph: Jess Hand for Time Out

Their album speaks for itself. It’s spiritual in the way that two-stepping in front of a speaker at 4am can be – but also in the same way that singing along to a gospel choir in church can be. It leans on grooves, making it very easy to dance to, and importantly, manages to translate the same levels of energy you get from Ezra’s live performances. These shows have become legendary: roaring instrumentals are punctuated with guest appearances from Skepta, Emili Sandé and Kojey Radical, the band members will jump down from the stage to play among the crowd, and the whole thing is orchestrated by Femi’s infectious hype-man speeches about joy, faith and love. ‘There were moments where I’ve gone on stage feeling sad this year,’ Femi says, when I ask him how genuine it is. ‘On stage I’ll say: ‘I ain’t feeling 100 percent today, man, this happened. But you know what, for this one hour, I’m gonna make the decision to just channel the emotional joy.’ 

For a band who rely so heavily on improvisation in their shows – improv, of course being the nature of the jazz beast – you might wonder how they go about recording an album. Sometimes we write individually and bring it together as a band,’ TJ says to me on the back of the bus. ‘There’s a melody or a line that’s repeated – the head of the tune – we’ll call it and each of us will return our own improvise.’ On their first EP, they didn’t have the time or money for longer takes – three of the songs were recorded in one go – but since Covid, they’ve been able to spend more time on the studio process. ‘We’ve been able to think more about the sonics of an album,’ he says. ‘‘‘Where I’m Meant To Be’’ was definitely the start of putting a lot more intention into that side of the music.’

Since the win, it’s been highs and lows. ‘The Mercury Prize made it feel like we jumped three years in one night,’ Femi says. ‘I’m not gonna lie. A lot of the infrastructure wobbled, I wasn’t used to having quite this many interviews to do and having to make decisions so far in advance. It’s been turbulent. Everyone wants a slice. But that doesn’t mean you grab everything, you know what I’m saying?’ 

Ezra Collective tour
Photograph: Alamy

Ezra Collective came together a whole ten years ago. Since then, their growth has been steady, organic and gradual – until now. ‘It’s pretty tough to find the balance,’ says Ife, who, as well as Joe, also has his separate musical project as a solo artist. ‘But it’s definitely possible, and we respect our responsibilities elsewhere. It’s easier now having the luxury of choosing exactly what to do, meaning we can take time out to do certain things or take time to focus on Ezra.’ 

Despite the phone ringing off the hook since the win, Femi says he’s determined to stay true to his priorities – and it’s easy to believe him. ‘The busier you get, the more schools you have to go to, the more money you’re earning, the more you have to give away, the more jet lagged you are, the more you have to wake up and teach that drum lesson,’ he says. ‘The temptation just to be an out-of-touch rockstar is ever present, but what we’ve learned as a band is making the uncomfortable decisions to make sure that what’s of deep importance always reigns supreme.’ 

Victory tour

The boys are standing on the open top of the bus now, grinning down at the camera, each wearing a football shirt from one of the countries they visited this year. Joe is smoking a fag, James is waving a bottle of prosecco, and TJ and Femi are shouting ‘What do we think of Tottenham?’ like they’ve just won the league. 

Ezra on top of a bus
Photograph: Jess Hand for Time Out

Football means a lot to the band. While they touring, they’d post on their Instagram story and ask if local teams wanted to play against them on a rented pitch. Going straight from a five hour flight to a match in Singapore’s tropical heat maybe wasn’t the best idea, TJ tells me – but the majority of the games were a laugh, allowing them to connect with fans on a more casual level. When it comes to London teams, Femi and TJ are hardcore Arsenal fans, James is Arsenal when push comes to shove, Joe is indifferent – and Ife is Chelsea. ‘The beautiful thing about having five in a band is anything that gets three votes wins,’ said Femi, smugly, the day prior. 

These days, the band has arrived at a place where they’ll – mostly – go with the flow (even, for Ife, if that means shooting at Emirates). ‘We’ve been learning more about each other on tour even though we’ve already known each other for, like, ten years,’ Joe says. ‘And we’ve come to the point that everyone knows how each other likes to run their day and how some people like to be on their own.’ Ife agrees. ‘We’ve become a lot more patient,’ he says. ‘Touring, understanding people’s personalities – understanding why someone would be a kind of way. It’s made us all better friends – and I feel like it comes across in the music we play, as well.’ TJ laughs: ‘Like a family, you don’t like everyone all the time, but you still love them.’

As for new Ezra music, they hint that it won’t be too long until we hear anything new. Although it came out in the latter part of last year, ‘Where We’re Meant To Be’ was actually recorded in 2020, and since then they’ve recorded and released several singles, including ‘More Than A Hustler’ with Novelist in 2021 and a recent Christmas cover of ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’. On the road, they’re always experimenting, always dreaming – Khruangbin and Little Simz are high on the list of dream collabs – and, of course, always writing. 

Like a family, you don’t like everyone all the time, but you still love them

‘You can’t not write songs when you go to places like Lagos,’ Femi says, explaining the trip was something of a pilgrimage for the band. ‘It was a surreal experience,’ says TJ, who, along with Femi and Ife, is Nigerian and grew up with Fela Kuti music. ‘Meeting the whole Kuti family, playing at the New Afrika Shrine and being joined by Femi Kuti – it was something we said we needed to do as a band. It took a minute, but we got there.’ 

It’s been a year of jetting around Europe, Asia, Africa, Oceania and North America, but for now, Ezra Collective are back on home turf. And after that? ‘I expect we’ll be doing the same as we’ve been doing for the last decade, which is getting together and playing music,’ TJ says. ‘The formula seems to be working.’

Ezra Collective are playing All Points East with Loyle Carner and Nas on August 17.

Photographer: Jess Hand @jesshandphotography
Design Director: Bryan Mayes @bryanmayesdotcom
Senior Designer: @818FPV
Photo Editor: Laura Gallant @lauramgallant
Video Editor: Mashana Malowa
Stylist: Connor Gaffe Williams @consgaffe
Grooming: Ema Tiller Corey @ematc
Location: Emirates Stadium @arsenal
Bus: @londonretrobus

James wears @cloakroomarchive, @nicholas_daley and @by.stanley.
Femi wears @zegnaofficial, @nike and @neweracap.
Ife wears @sefr___, @carhartt, @guess and @by.stanley.
Joe wears @pattauk, @thenorthface and @uniqlo.
TJ wears @by.stanley, @nike and @cloakroomarchive.

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