Before the pandemic struck, Ezra Collective were on fire. A world tour awaited them following years of hard graft, the critically acclaimed release of their 2019 debut album You Can’t Steal My Joy, and an explosive Glastonbury performance that brought UK jazz to unseen heights. “Then a big pause button was pressed,” says Femi Koleoso, the drummer and bandleader. Ezra had been touring relentlessly for more than half-a-decade, stopping only occasionally to record. “The pandemic was how we entered this transition phase,” he continues.
Ezra Collective’s new era, a venture in discovered maturity and raised stakes, will be defined by the anticipated second album. Where I’m Meant To Be is a thumping celebration of life, an affirming elevation in the Ezra Collective’s winding hybrid sound and refined collective character. The songs marry cool confidence with bright energy. Full of call-and-response conversations between their ensemble parts, a natural product of years improvising together on-stage, the album - which also features Sampa The Great, Kojey Radical, Emile Sande and Nao - will light up sweaty dance floors and soundtrack summer dinners in equal measure.
The group - consisting of Femi (who also drums for Gorillaz) as drummer and bandleader, Joe Armon-Jones on keys, James Mollison on saxophone, Ife Ogunjobi on trumpet, and Femi’s younger brother TJ on bass guitar - originally came together in 2012 as teenagers at the youth band of Tomorrow’s Warriors, a music education initiative at the South Bank Centre in London. They have since shot forward to become architects of a new phase in their city’s musical journey, a hybrid time in which Black genres - jazz, grime, afrobeat and more - can dovetail and harmonize fluidly, at new, forever rising levels.
“My dad had three CDs that he used to play in the car: Fela Kuti, Bob Marley and Kirk Franklin,” Femi remembers, of the musical influences on his childhood. “Ezra is about being Black Londoners. We always try to be very UK, and a lot of that is to do with falling in love with grime.” The Koleoso brothers were raised near the Tottenham birthplace of Boy Better Know brothers Skepta and JME, whom they cite as “blueprints”.
“When we were younger, there was a UK jazz pathway: once you get to Ronnie Scotts, you’ve made it,” says TJ, referencing Ezra headlining the prestigious institution in 2017. Looking back now, instead of having reached a ceiling at the end, they realize that it was a launchpad and a new start, from which to spread wings and fly. Far from the moody underground clubs and men in stiff suits of jazz yesteryear, Ezra Collective’s shows are light and airy, “forcing people to feel good for that short period of time that we have your attention,” says Femi.
A couple of years ago, artist and filmmaker Steve McQueen invited Femi and TJ to breakfast in central London, days before they performed at the launch of his new exhibition at the Tate Modern. “We hadn’t even sat down yet when he was like: your ancestors made Soho cool, you’re not an imposter. You are meant to be in this place,” says TJ. “It was a mad epiphany. He helped us articulate what Ezra Collective has been for us,” beams Femi.
The first single from Where I’m Meant To Be is called Victory Dance - a pulsing, addictive anthem that looks set to emanate from festival stages. “It’s classic Ezra: an aggressive Afro-Cuban-salsajazz-afrobeat smash-up! Playing that live is gonna be…it’s gonna go off!” grins Femi. He explains the album’s other multi-genre-spanning songs - which range in tempo and tone from the steady bop of dub reggae, to the two-step of funky, to the rush of body-shifting samba - in their lived terms, as vehicles of healing, empathy and community.
“Ego Killah is about that humility that happens to you when you’re meant to be there, but you’re not quite there yet. Togetherness helps you get where you’re meant to be. Belonging is the feeling when you’re there. Welcome To My World is about bringing people through.” On another album highlight, No Confusion – which features a clip from a phone conversation between Femi and Tony Allen – Femi explains, “Tony was like: I know who I am, and that’s why I know I’m the afrobeat drummer that everyone needs. There was no confusion in his mind. He was never dazzled, because he knew who he was.”
The fourteen tracks on Where I’m Meant To Be took eighteen months to record. This gear-shift, far from the mere hours and days spent on all previous releases, not only reflects the impact of lockdown life on artistic creation. It is buoyed by the patience gained from slowing down.
“There was always beauty in sitting down and playing, but there is also something nice in realizing that we need not rush every process,” Femi says. “Where I’m Meant To Be is a journey, it’s not just a destination. I might be in this dark and difficult place now, but I know where I’m meant to be is better than this place, and that’s the motivation to keep going.”
With sold-out spring and summer shows and long-awaited big label support from Partisan Records, ambition and excitement are running at an all-time high. Ezra Collective is back, bigger and better and bolder than ever before.