There’s a shy sunlight breaking away from the grey clouds hanging over Peckham as I eye the narrow Bussey Alley leading to the record store Rye Wax. It’s mid-afternoon on a Friday and Rye Lane is vivid with scores of teenagers dressed in similar uniforms, loudly roving the market stalls after yet another week of school. I’m on my way to meet jazz prodigy Moses Boyd, a drummer, composer, producer and label owner who spent generous time in his youth exploring the area – his hometown, Catford, is just a handful of miles further south.
As I cross the bustling road, I find myself picturing Boyd some years ago, strolling up and down this very lane with his classmates, perhaps juggling a couple of drumsticks in his hands after a lesson in his Secondary School. I guess he was far from imagining back then that by his early twenties he’d be playing with London’s most reputed musicians, let alone wearing a MOBO and a Gilles Peterson awards on his belt. But most of all, he was far from knowing that he’d be championing the British jazz renaissance.
“These are awesome times, but very busy as well”, he says as we sit at a table in Rye Wax’s gloomy, low-ceiling room. Occasionally sipping his white coffee, Boyd says he had a non-stop working week at the studio and that today was written down on his schedule as his day off. Instead he spent the whole day clearing press obligations, which got me wondering how he finds the time to zone out and tune in with himself. “I just stay on top of things, really. I have to be a very organised person. I’m a band leader, I’ve got records to put out, shows to attend, so it’s really about structuring the day, that is key for me. And change [throughout the career] is inevitable, I’m alright to keep up with it.”
The buzz surrounding Moses Boyd these days is linked to his upcoming performance on one of the most exciting events in the world, the global arts convention SXSW. Following a partnership with Jazz re:Freshed and British Underground, Boyd and his Exodus band are headlining the UK jazz showcase at Outernational Stage with acts like Yussef Kamaal, Native Dancer, United Vibrations and special guests GoGo Penguin, Sarathy Korwar (presented by Jazz Standard). Signalling a collective achievement of the British contemporary jazz. “People are already reaching out saying they are really looking forward to see this line-up”, he says, drawing an infectious smile.
The performance is scheduled for 15 March 2017, only a matter of days away, but I can’t read in Boyd’s expression a pinch of stress. If anything, he exudes a very relaxed personality, one in absolute control of whatever challenges that may come. “I try and give the same energy and respect on every gig, but I really understand the magnitude of SXSW”, he says. “It’s a really important showcase, I’m conscious that this is a very good opportunity to do something for me and the scene in general. And the beauty of what’s going on with SXSW’s trip is that the bands participating have their own unique and individual voices. So hopefully the light will shine on everyone because there’s so much going on, the scene is in a really healthy state right now.”
In keeping with his rigorous working ethics, Boyd spent these past few weeks mostly in the studio, splitting sessions between his own projects in the making and those of his fellow jazz musicians – “This month alone I’ve done three sessions for people’s EP’s or albums to come”. 2017 is shaping up to become a replete year for Boyd, recordings-wise. His duo with saxophonist Binker Golding is scheduled for the end of the year on Gearbox Records the follow up to ‘Dem Ones’, the LP that scored both a MOBO 2015 Best Jazz Act. On single-signature outputs, Boyd’s been working on a third EP, after 2015’s ‘Footsteps of Our Fathers’ and last year’s ‘Space and Time’ , but also the much-awaited debut album with his Exodus band. “Some tracks of the album were recorded a couple of years ago. Back then I was at a space and time where I was in a particular vibe, exploring different sounds and concepts. It wasn’t as an intense period as now, which may be a blessing and a curse.”
When I finish something, I very rarely go back and rethink it, because it documents a certain time.
“[With this album] I’m always flying two different time zones – a then and a now”, he goes on. “I believe in capturing the moment as close as to whatever creative moment I’m in and kind of learn from it. I may listen to the older tracks and think, ‘oh I could’ve done something more like that’, but I’m quite against changing what’s been made. When I finish something, I very rarely go back and rethink it, because it documents a certain time. So I feel I achieve myself if I add something now that I know a bit more instead of fixing it. I can’t fix what’s already been done, that’s how I feel.”
Boyd’s on-going learning process was met along the way by a wave of eclectic collaborations with producers and musicians navigating distinctive sonic approaches. Among the features are Little Simz, Zara MacFarlane, Ed Motta, Soweto Kinch and, most recently, Sampha, to name a few, making up a group of experienced urban sound creators whose creative translations inform Boyd’s impending projects. “When I wrote my first couple of EPs, I didn’t have the information I have now”, he says. “And if you saw a chart of the progression from ‘Footsteps of Our Fathers’ to my latest single ‘Rye Lane Shuffle’ and then to the new album and EP when they come out, you’d spot how I’ve learned from a lot of people. ‘Rye Lane’ was one of those pivotal factors, because it got me working with people like Four Tet and Floating Points. And even after that, getting introduced to the DJ/electronic sort of world opened me up to different people, with their own outlooks and collections of music that I definitely took into my productions.”
As I learn and grow and do stuff and meet people, it only gets bigger and wilder
‘Rye Lane Shuffle’, released last year, was dubbed by Gilles Peterson as the track of the year. An infusing compendium of contagious snares and plates paced by serpent-like saxophone reveries, the single’s outstanding dancefloor charisma is a sort of poster of Boyd’s unique explorations. The track was mixed by Four Tet and Floating Points, two of Boyd’s renowned tutors (according to the official YouTube track post), but the production was entirely designed by Boyd, who cherishes the ability to steer every architectural aspect of his tracks in a clear demonstration of a hands-on-approach commitment to translate his ideas the best possible. “I started playing drums in my secondary school when I was 13/14 years old. At the same time, I was having a class on music production. That was a time of experimentation for me, trying to figure out how both worked together. So when it actually came to putting out my own music, I felt an obvious synergy between drumming and producing. I mixed my first two EPs by myself and did all the effects and post-production. For me it was always about having a composition, a mix, a sound, and getting it across. It’s something I’ve always tried to better myself at, as much as I’m trying to evolve as a drummer and producer. I seek to add as much elements that interest me into one song because some are more about the production quality rather than about the harmonic or complexity of it. So as I learn and grow and do stuff and meet people, it only gets bigger and wilder.”
This mindset is apparently transverse to a generation of London jazz artists pushing the scene forward in new and unexpected ways. Besides being specialists in their own instruments, many like Boyd are producers and DJs who’ve embraced a wider access to production tools while immersing themselves in the ocean of infinite references that are digital platforms such as YouTube and Soundcloud.
The free-wheeling of experimentation, of blending the conventional notes of jazz with worldwide influences to build a unique sounding voice, has been fuelling the scene’s resurgence in the UK. But on that conversation, there’s much to talk about London’s intrinsic melting-pot of cultures, which gave birth to a multitude of soundscapes that Boyd absorbs since his formative years. “When I was a kid I was listening to pirate radio, to Roll Deep, Wiley, Dizzee Rascal who weren’t superstars back then, whilst I’d also listen to Miles Davis. Fortunately, I was born in a good place and time where I had all these influences, so when it came to making music I just had to be honest with myself. I am a drummer, I am playing improvised music that is very influenced by jazz, but I’m also into grime, garage, dubstep, reggae, afrobeat… London’s a very special place in that sense. Then my dad is from Dominica and my mother from Jamaica, so I have that as well. And we’re here in Peckham and, if you think, there aren’t many places like this and I didn’t realise that until I started touring and travelling. I have the whole world at my doorstep and that is transported into my music.”
It’s not just in the UK that experimental jazz’s reach is changing. Its ‘revival’ has been underway for quite some time in the far-out West Coast of the United States. When looking for that decisive moment that turned jazz on its head, there’s a propensity to pinpoint Kendrick Lamar’s generation-defining ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ as the event that turned the limelight back to jazz and funk, opening new paths leading to popular music. But that transition, that sort of rebirth, didn’t happen overnight. Instead, it has been brewing in Los Angeles for at least a decade, with experimentalists like Flying Lotus, Kamasi Washington, Thundercat, Terrance Martin, and iconic clubs like Low End Theory, stretching the boundaries of a genre that is no longer perceived as a smoky old type of sound.
I’ve grown with Roll Deep and Grime and Bob Marley, which I know I put into my jazz.
As the resurgence is living up to its moment in the UK, I wonder if Boyd finds particular differences between the L.A and London scenes. “I don’t think they are that different at all. L.A’s a very different place, but if you listen to someone like Thundercat and Kamasi, you find the same ethos, which is a community-rooted type of sound. You talk to these guys and they all came about together and know each other socially. That’s also really important in my band. I grew with my bass and trombone players, way before we were musicians. And I’ve known for years the people I’ve been playing with. I guess what’s different is the context. L.A. is sunny and has its bad things happening, but that social climate is not the same in London, so it all breeds different music. L.A.’s probably close to London in a way that sort of infusing everything – picking on West Coast hip-hop and people like Reggie Andrews and Ice Cube. I’ve grown with Roll Deep and Grime and Bob Marley, which I know I put into my jazz. If anything, L.A.’s quite close to London.”
As our chat draws closer to its end, there’s a little sunlight spilling into Rye Wax’s coffee shop. Boyd’s white coffee is now cold, but I can sense that he had a lot tell about his journey into the spotlight of British jazz while keeping his enthusiasm honest, simple and positive. In the end, his multitude of talents could only be nurtured over a strong do-it-yourself vein. And that sentiment, that spirit of independence has been one of Boyd’s most valuable lessons up to this day. “I’m a second-generation West Indian, so I’ve been instilled, even outside of music, to be able to stand on my own two feet. I’m all about collaborations and I don’t say that I’ll never work with a label. But I think it’s important to build your own vision and to get it across, and that’s what I’m aiming for. I’m glad I’m in a position where I’ve built my own niche and brand that hopefully will only get bigger.”