Playing the Changes

ESKA by Jaroslav Moravec

“I can definitely say that I’m excited for ESKA right now. I’m a new mum and I’m finally releasing music as an artist. Yes, I’m enjoying the changes.”

Eska Mtungwazi is something of a phenomenon in the U.K. music scene. Hailing from Lewisham in South East London, this multitalented musician, songwriter, arranger, and—most importantly—vocalist, has become a go-to person for many of the most discerning artists and producers around. For the best part of two decades Eska has, often somewhat anonymously, lent her tones to a myriad of musical offerings, including work from The Cinematic Orchestra, Matthew Herbert, Zero 7, and Grace Jones. She’s seen very much as “the singer’s singer,” and one whose fans have been desperately waiting for far too long to hear her full-length album. The wait is over. Eska’s self-titled, full-length, solo debut album is out now on Naim Edge Recordings.

Essa comes from Zimbabwean stock, but is very much a London girl. It seems her father’s musical taste had a significant impact on her. She explains, “His vinyl collection was incredibly eclectic. We could end up listening to Quincy Jones, Madonna, Bob Marley, Freddie Hubbard, and Peter Frampton all in the same afternoon. I believe it taught me to be open-minded. Dad had an acoustic guitar and would improvise along to his records. The record player and TV were, unfortunately, in the same room and more often than not Dad would have the urge to play records just when the cartoons happened to be on. This wasn’t met with enthusiasm on our part. The compromise would be that we could watch the TV, but with the sound turned down. In the end, we’d eventually give in to the spectacle of Dad dancing around the living room and playing his guitar whilst trying to get us to join in with the fun. Those are very dear memories to me.” She goes on to say, “One of the earliest words my little brother learned was ‘speakers.’ As we grew older, Dad would ask for our suggestions on new records to buy. He was accommodating of our tastes, even if they were radically different to his. Nonetheless, Dad periodically reminded us that eventually, ‘No matter what you do, you will always return to jazz!’” She adds, laughing, “I would shake my head in disbelief back then.”

With a voice reminiscent in tone of one of her heroines, Joni Mitchell, and the fearless style of another, Kate Bush, Eska’s vocal chords alone are enough to stop you in your tracks. But this lady has far more up her sleeve. As a renowned multi-instrumentalist, she plays keys, violin, cello, percussion, recorder, clarinet, guitar, and vibraphone on her debut. And in typically modest style she admits, “I wouldn’t expect anyone in their right mind to ask me to play any of those instruments on their album.” Impressively, she taught herself the recorder at the tender age of eight, and once again it was her father who encouraged her into the world of music. She explains, “Dad bought us all a descant plus a couple of exercise books. That made the transition to violin a year later a lot smoother.”

Eksa’s first experience as part of a band was with open-minded outfit Quite Sane, who she hooked up with through a friend of the family, Oroh Angiama. She says Oroh was “obsessing about this band that was looking for a new vocalist to join them. He said it was a jazz band. Jazz was synonymous with my Dad so I didn’t think that was particularly cool at the time. I was dismissive of Oroh’s enthusiasm for Quite Sane and wasn’t in any hurry to go and meet their band leader, Anthony Tidd. Anthony (bass) started the band with his school friends Richard Cassell (drums) and Eric Appapoulay (guitar). Oroh was unusually persistent about me meeting up with Anthony. His love of jazz seemed to know no bounds. Oroh was also eagerly taking me out to hear these great musicians who were passing through town. I recall us going to see Betty Carter at the Royal Festival Hall and witnessing Steve Colemen and the Five Elements at Dingwalls. I didn’t get the music at all. Strangely enough, I did notice that there seemed to be the same faces in the audience at a lot of these gigs and a lot of them were young people. I was drawn to this very attractive scene as much as I was intrigued by the funk and intellect in the music.”

ESKA by Jaroslav Moravec

Being part of Quite Sane garnered musical relationships for Eska that still exist 20 years later. Other long-term relationships are also evident on Eska’s debut: collaborators David Okumu (from highly regarded U.K. outfit The Invisible), Louis Hackett (of the afro-electronic Owiny Sigoma Band), and celebrated British producer, composer, and band leader Matthew Herbert were all instrumental in the recording and production of Eska’s eponymous long-player. As she enthuses, “These have been three great personal and creative relationships. The fact that there was no dynamic shift whilst working on my record is a testament to the huge level of mutual respect. I found three exceptional artists to help me steer my thoughts and facilitate me in distilling my ideas.”

A solid base on which to build has helped Eska deal with expectations for the album. She says, “I did my utmost not to pander to expectations early on, especially when I was previously being ‘hotly-tipped.’ Had I made an album back then, it would have contained so many affectations due to the influence of my collaborations at that time. I don’t think anyone has higher expectations of me than I do.” She continues, “Trying to live up to my own expectations whilst keeping the external voices in their right place has been a process of becoming my harshest critic yet being my biggest fan most of all.” And that attitude looks like it’s paying dividends with an album that perfectly captures Eska’s unique spirit. Songs like “She’s in the Flowers” and “This is How a Garden Grows” highlight this incredible talent’s folk leanings, whereas the excellent “Heroes and Villains” shows her love for a dub bass-line—all delivered with lashings of soul, naturally.

ESKA by Jaroslav Moravec

It seems that in her own good time, Eska has delivered not only the album that fans have been waiting for, but the one that she’s happy and comfortable releasing.

She states, “As a work in progress, I can definitely say that I’m excited for ESKA right now. I’m a new mum and I’m finally releasing music as an artist. Yes, I’m enjoying the changes.”

And without wanting to jump the gun, what of a sophomore release?

She confides, “It’s mainly written. I just have to find the money to finish it. Nothing has changed in that department!”

Photography by Jaroslav Moravec

 

Stylin’ Down Under

Ennio Styles

“I never set out to do a label that was focused on Melbourne or Australian music. It just so happens that, in my opinion, Melbourne right now is stronger than ever. There’s so much happening in all the styles I’m into, and we’re seeing people conquering the world.”

Australia has, in recent years, become a recognizable hot spot on the world’s map of electronic music. Major cities like Sydney and Melbourne have grown healthy scenes that took inspiration from America and Europe and added their own local twist. Australia is now a common stop for bands on tour, and homegrown artists like Sydney’s Flume and Melbourne’s Chet Faker are quickly becoming household names.

For local Melbourne lad Ennio Styles, music discovery began in the 1980s with hip-hop, house, and techno. Soon he began to mess around with production and sampling, which in turn sent him down a crate-digging rabbit hole into the worlds of jazz, soul, and funk. “There was a store in Melbourne called Central Station, which was an influential dance music and hip-hop outlet, and a lot of the oldest records in my collection came from there. But I soon realized my local shop wasn’t going to have all the music I was looking for, so I needed to find another way. I did a lot of mail ordering from Germany and the UK, and it was all done by fax. The stores would send me faxes of all their new releases and I would choose. You couldn’t hear anything. You’d go off artists, labels, things like that. It’s fair to say I probably bought a lot of stuff that wasn’t quite as good as it looked on paper!”

Ennio Styles
Ennio Styles

Taking on the artist name Blackout, Styles formed a hip-hop group called Code of Ethics, influenced by the Native Tongues, X-Clan, and Eric B & Rakim. They recorded to cassette in bedroom studios, and while they never had an official release, they did go on a few tours. It was at this time that Styles also began to familiarize himself with the world of radio as he would bring cassettes of their tracks to air on Triple R, the local independent station. Years later in 2002, he would begin his musical career proper on RRR when he started the weekly Stylin’ radio show.

“In a lot of ways the show hasn’t changed much from when I started,” he explains. “I play anything soulful: electronic, hip-hop, latin, jazz, gospel, disco, afro, boogie. There are times I wonder if a person who liked the last track might enjoy the next one, but I can only do me and be true to that. I think there are a few people who appreciate it, and maybe some who will come back to it later.”

As Styles reached his 500th show — also the broadcast’s 10th anniversary — he decided to celebrate by putting together a compilation of unreleased tracks. “I play a lot of new music on the show. I like to dig for new artists, stuff people aren’t up on. I was blown away by the response [to the compilation], and it became a three-part release.” Styles started his own label, Heard and Felt, to release the Stylin’ 500 compilation. He had already been involved with a small label in the early 2000s, around the time he started the Stylin’ broadcasts. And while that experience was short-lived he still felt that running his own operation would be best. Another compilation, Stylin’ 600, followed and this month sees the release of Cy Gorman’s Carmen – the first artist album release on the label. “In some ways this is the first proper release. The others were all download-only, with no other form of distribution. Times have changed since my first label experience, so there was a lot of work and care put into this one.”

Cy Gorman
Cy Gorman

Gorman met Styles back in the mid-1990s. He would accompany Styles’ DJ sets at the Lounge in Melbourne with percussion, keyboards, and sax. “We got to know each other through that. Over the years he’s made a lot of music that he just sits on and he’s one of those guys who can make just about any style of music that I’m into. This record explores jazz and beats, with a little electronics. I’ve also heard him do amazing acoustic jazz with a quartet, as well as house and techno. He’s a phenomenal talent and a natural choice to start things off.”

Across eight tracks, Carmen displays what Styles refers to as Gorman’s talent for immaculate production, regardless of genre. “We worked together on the track listing, in order to theme the release. Even though Carmen might sound diverse, it’s still only a small fraction of what Cy does. We wanted to put something together that would make sense thematically as a single work.”

Cy Gorman
Cy Gorman

Looking to the future, the next three releases for Heard and Felt are already lined up, along with the next compilation, which celebrates 700 shows. The next act is also from Melbourne — a young jazz guitarist called Juxtpose who, fittingly, started making techno after he heard Styles interview cult Detroit techno crew Underground Resistance on Stylin’. With some pride in his voice, Styles refers to the Juxtpose record as some of the “best Australian techno ever.” He is also quick to insist that the label is in its early days and any perceived musical focus is purely accidental. “I never set out to do a label that was focused on Melbourne or Australian music. It just so happens that, in my opinion, Melbourne right now is stronger than ever. There’s so much happening in all the styles I’m into, and we’re seeing people conquering the world. So, even if I’ve always had a strong interest in music from all over, especially America, the first three releases are going to be Melbourne artists. I still plan to work with international artists in the future, from remixes to releases.”

Sufjan Stevens: Intimacy Unmoored

Sufjan Stevens by Emmanuel Afolabi

Seven of the 11 songs on Sufjan Stevens’ new album, Carrie & Lowell—out now on Asthmatic Kitty—end with ethereal postludes, in which the singer-songwriter’s vocals are subsumed into gorgeous, abstract textures. The wistful opening track, “Death with Dignity,” concludes with an electronically manipulated, bending, wordless chorus—a brief and almost Bon Iver-like moment.

I bring up this bit of trivia not only to point out an intriguing continuity across Carrie & Lowell, but also to situate this release in its author’s broader trajectory. The songs of earlier albums, such as Age of Adz, Illinoise, and even Seven Swans, might give way to a postlude, but it would be sprawling, a communal bacchanalia in which the giant band comes to the fore, complete with a gaggle of extra voices and the requisite smattering of strings, brass, and synths. Think of the ecstatic climax of “Chicago,” the twitchy flutes and electronics of “Too Much,” or even the slow burn of “Seven Swans” itself.

On Carrie & Lowell, though, songs close with a reticence in line with the album’s deliberate intimacy. Sufjan is joined only by only a handful of collaborators, including Laura Veirs, Thomas Bartlett (of Doveman), and Bon Iver’s S. Carey. The longest tracks are barely over five minutes. There isn’t the sense of large-scale exploration that marked the past 12 years of Sufjan’s development—the sonic arc traced from Michigan’s “Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head!” to the Mahlerian heights of Adz’s twenty-five minute “Impossible Soul” freak-out. Carrie & Lowell’s outros, if anything, are fleetingly experimental flashes, harnessing Sufjan’s production-heavy past toward the confessional seclusion at the core of the album. Those uncanny last fifty seconds of “Death with Dignity” balance out the rest of the tightly wound song: the way in which each verse terminates with a pregnant pause, the bare effortlessness of the lyrics (“I forgive you, mother, I can hear you/And I long to be near you”), the elegant ease of the piano solo.

Sufjan Stevens by Emmanuel Afolabi

Or take the dusky “All of Me Wants All of You,” emblematic of Carrie & Lowell’s careful attention to creating variety from simplicity. In the first chorus, Sufjan’s singing winds upward, tailed by an echoing instrumental line. When the chorus returns, as Sufjan intones “Landscape changed my point of view,” it is followed instead by layered backing vocals, Sufjan’s voice chasing itself. Again, the music begins to become unmoored in its final moments, as the vocals and instruments quizzically blur together, suddenly snapping back into place before the next song.

That avoidance of vastness is guided by the album’s autobiographical premise. Carrie & Lowell is a powerful meditation on the 2012 death of Sufjan’s mother, Carrie, and her relationship with his stepfather, Lowell. Every Sufjan album has its own mythology—from the epic depiction of local lore in Illinoise and Michigan to the sci-fi trappings of Adz—but here, myth is turned inward. As Sufjan told Pitchfork in a definitive interview, “It’s not really trying to say anything new, or prove anything, or innovate. It feels artless, which is a good thing. This is not my art project; this is my life.”

We are not far from the realm of Björk’s recent Vulnicura, in which personal trauma is projected outward into monumental musical offering (and attendant global media event). So despite what Sufjan says, we should take into account that Carrie & Lowell certainly represents an art product for its listeners, and that its intimacy can be considered not only in terms of its autobiographical content but also its creator’s artistic evolution. After all, the interior turn here is likely appealing for longtime fans that ache for the folksy, banjo-inflected Sufjan of yore after the avant-garde of Adz (and that banjo is quite prominent on Carrie & Lowell, meticulously plucked but also meticulously layered into instrumental textures).

Sufjan Stevens by Emmanuel Afolabi

At the heart of the album is “Fourth of July,” a song that if it appeared on Illinoise would probably depict a childhood summer night spent staring at the sky. But here, the title is posed as a question of significance to a departed loved one; its rejoinder is “We’re all gonna die.” The song is simple and bleak, with a wash of electronic murmurs in the backdrop of an unadorned chord progression, as Sufjan sings directly to his late mother of the rituals of death: “Such a funny thought to wrap you up in cloth/Do you find it all right, my dragonfly?” The song concludes with incessant reiterations of “We’re all gonna die.” It is perhaps a distinction from the earlier Sufjan: repetition as emotional burden rather than sonic splendor.

Listening again to those prior albums, one gets the sense of Sufjan not only embracing his own eclectic vision but also carving out a space for a new kind of musician, one who could harvest both the familiarity of indie-folk and the expanse of minimalism. More recently, that mantle has been taken up by composers like Nico Muhly and ensembles like yMusic, who have stamped minimalism’s sonic print onto bands including the Dirty Projectors and The National (not to mention composer-songwriter Gabriel Kahane, who has further developed Sufjan’s polyglot prototype). Perhaps in Carrie & Lowell Sufjan has happily ceded ground to that developed scene. After all, he has plenty of time to explore that world in side projects, whether the BQE symphonic suite, the Planetarium collaboration with Muhly and Bryce Dessner, or most recently a live score for a rodeo documentary. These other endeavors have percolated into the sound of the new album as well; those otherworldly postludes are a direct echo of “Alcohol,” the final track of Sisyphus (with Serengeti and Son Lux), in which Sufjan screams “I am not my father” into an electronic maelstrom.

Sufjan Stevens by Emmanuel Afolabi

The intricacy of Carrie & Lowell’s songwriting is best on display in “Should Have Known Better,” at once breezy and dark. Atop layers of banjo and guitar, Sufjan describes how he should have grieved, were he not choked by his “black shroud.” There is a humble beauty to the music, with plainspoken verses and a translucent gauze of backing vocals. At its exact midpoint, the song brightens and opens outward with an instrumental interlude. Sufjan declares that the past is the past, and looks instead toward the future (“My brother had a daughter/The beauty that she brings, illumination”).

The unvoiced tragedy of this song, though, is how early it appears on the album; there is much more pain to come. I think of Schumann’s Dichterliebe, a song cycle in which the narrator lingers on lost love, pretending to have moved past his heartbreak but still taking another 11 songs to fully process his anguish. The craft, too, is comparable: bold artistry in simple, sorrowful songs.

Photography by Emmanuel Afolabi

 

Love and Light

Polar Bear by Jacek Zmarz

“The last album is night and this is day… I wanted to make an album that hopefully would lift people and myself, too.”

U.K. avant-jazz outfit Polar Bear have released their sixth album, Same As You, exclusively on Bandcamp. It’s something of a natural progression from In Each and Every One, which was shortlisted for the 2014 Mercury Music Prize. It is also a distinctly more optimistic and uplifting offering. The album features lauded saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings (who has also played with Courtney Pine’s Jazz Warriors, Mulatu Astatke and the Heliocentrics, and Melt Yourself Down), as well as spoken word from London shop owner Asar Mikael, vocals from Toronto-born songstress Hannah Darling, a fully formed choir, and drummer/bandleader Seb Rochford on the very catchy crossover “Don’t Let the Feeling Go.” I caught up with the latter to discuss his influences, his method, and the making of the album.

Bandcamp: Same As You feels like a particularly optimistic, direct and personal album, almost as if it represents moving from dark into the light. Is there some truth in this?
Seb Rochford: Yes, the last album is night and this is day–the moon and the sun—because of certain situations in my life and all of the heightened war, greed, racism, and prejudice in the world today. I wanted to make an album that hopefully would lift people and myself, too.

BC: There’s a kind of serenity and feeling of being at peace on this album. How did the place you recorded the album and the people you recorded it with influence that atmosphere?
SR: This album was very much influenced by the desire to share positivity and love, but also by my experience in the Mojave desert, where I found amazing inspiration and perspective. The vastness of nature there gave me a heightened sense of awareness. The album was mixed by Ken Barrientos, an amazing producer and musician from Los Angeles. We spent a couple of days at his place and then headed to the desert for a week to mix at Red Barn Recorders, a studio in the Morongo valley. I think Ken really captured how the desert feels, and being there was a hugely important part of the sound of this album.

Polar Bear by Jacek Zmarz

BC: The album also has an almost classical feel, like every track is a movement of a more cohesive body of work. Was this intentional?
SR: I thought a lot about how we could deepen the communication of what I wanted us to express and give to people on this album. Feeling it as a whole was important to this process, and at the same time, if people want to listen to one track in isolation, then that’s their free choice. Each track on this album holds the emotion of the album as a whole—this was my intention.

BC: Following on from this, how relevant is the idea of “the album” to you?
SR: Personally, there are some songs I love to listen to in isolation and some albums I love listening to as a whole. For me there is room for both, and I’m sure both ways of listening will continue to coexist. One of the beauties of music is that there is no right or wrong way—everyone’s expression is valid no matter what. I don’t feel the need to lock down where I think a certain music trend is going. There is always an exception to the rule and, as someone who creates music, this is an integral part of my growth.

BC: Same As You is your sixth album in just over a decade. With the output of contemporaries Melt Yourself Down, Roller Trio, Matthew Halsall, and more recently, Mammal Hands, Sons of Kemet, Zara McFarlane, and GoGo Penguin, would you classify this period as being somewhat of a “golden age” for British jazz—be it improv, avant-garde, vocal, or otherwise?
SR: I feel like this is not something I can comment on since I’m involved in some of these. But U.K. music, in general, seems in a very healthy place to me. If you look in the right places and see music as one, then it’s always a “golden age.”

Polar Bear by Jacek Zmarz

BC: How have the previous generations of British jazz artists, from Courtney Pine back to Ian Carr and Tubby Hayes, influenced your take on the genre?
SR: I’ve seen Courtney play and consider him to be a master of his instrument. He could play for days and never run out of ideas or energy. I think the most influential people for me, in terms of U.K. jazz, have been Django Bates, Julian Arguelles, Stan Tracey, Steve Buckley, Martin France, Gene Calderazzo, and the people I play with. From the little that I know, we, like generations before, have mixed influences to make our own flavor of improvised music.

BC: Do you think there has been a more open-minded stance to jazz from the mainstream music press, and the music industry in general, in recent years—especially in light of the Mercury Music Prize nominations for both GoGo Penguin and yourselves?
SR: Open-mindedness is always a positive thing in my mind. In these times I’m aware there seems to be a promoted leaning toward closed-mindedness and prejudice, which is reflected in some of the music media, but also I feel there is a big move toward being open-minded, which is also reflected in the music media. I guess what I’m saying is that I feel both. I do feel that younger generations can sometimes have less stigma attached to jazz and are able to just like what they like.

BC: Did the nomination for your last album ramp up the pressure on this one? If so, how did the musicians around you, and your label, help alleviate that? Did you feel it was important to get this album out quickly?
SR: We had already recorded the next album by the time we found out about the Mercury Music Prize, so I didn’t feel any pressure at all. My relationship to writing the music for this band is that I can’t force it. We make albums when it becomes clear to me what I wish to express.

BC: I’m sure you’re already planning album seven. Any clues on what we can expect from your next opus?
SR: I know what it feels like and have some colors, even a couple of tunes, but it’s still forming in me.

When he’s not running the excellent Wah Wah 45s label, Dom Servini also writes for Echoes.

Photography by Jacek Zmarz

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