Photo: Adama Jalloh
Meet Nubya Garcia: The Rising Star Taking The London Jazz Scene By Storm Talks Debut Album 'Source'
In clubs around Britain, a loud, colorful revival is happening. Shaped by artists like Soweto Kinch, Shabaka Hutchings and impresario Gilles Peterson, the blossoming U.K. jazz scene, propelled by a welcoming attitude to genre and a celebration of diversity, is bringing a healthy challenge to jazz's long-running U.S. focus.
In the middle of London's vibrant scene sits Nubya Garcia, a saxophonist and composer who has a hand in many of the next wave of U.K. jazz outfits. You can find her in Nerija, the female-led septet now signed to the Domino label. She changes tack in Maisha, an outfit contributing to the history of spiritual jazz. It's telling of her pivotal place in the scene that Garcia's lucid sax lines appeared on over half of the tracks on the era-defining We Out Here, the 2018 compilation album spotlighting London's rising jazz scene.
Garcia now follows two successful EPs, Nubya's 5ive (2017) and When We Are (2018), with her first album, Source, released Friday (Aug. 21) on Concord Jazz. But even on this debut solo release, the temptation to hog the limelight is never satisfied. Despite being imbued with questions of personal identity and roots, Source truly feels like a group effort. Appearances from Nerija bandmates Cassie Kinoshi and Sheila Maurice-Grey as well as versatile pianist Joe Armon-Jones only add to this feeling. This community-driven scene behind Source creates a uniquely cosmopolitan sound as Caribbean flavors meet EDM-infused club culture, all built on a solid understanding of Black jazz history.
Garcia is a star in this world, a role model for youngsters across the country. But the outlook on Source is global, as is its creator's reach.
GRAMMY.com chatted with Nubya Garcia about how her debut album, Source, explores identity and community, how the sounds from her multicultural roots left a "life-changing" impact on her and why she thinks livestreams will never replace live music.
The Guardian recently described your music as "post-American" jazz. What sort of sounds and influences do you find in your music that you might not find in more straight-ahead, bebop-oriented music?
Labels are really interesting; they can often leave out quite a lot in the picture they create. I'd say you can find a lot of reggae and dub. You wouldn't necessarily hear it in my music, but I [also] love garage, footwork, tiny bits of early dubstep and music from the Latinx community. Essentially, I like music from all over the world—global music. I don't like the term world music, and I'm glad that's slowly leaving 'cause it's ridiculous—we all live in the same world!
How much of this stems from growing up around these sounds in Camden, North London?
Kind of in a big way, but also, I wasn't exactly listening to bashment at home when I was a kid. We had a lot of reggae and dub in the house, but as much as that, we had classical music and mum's '70s and '80s pop records. A really big influence for me growing up was visiting Trinidad Carnival when I was 10; that was my first dive into a culture that I was born into [Editor's Note: Garcia's father is Trinidadian]. Witnessing the multitude of sounds within soca and calypso was life-changing. Since then, I gravitate towards it—I seek it.
I guess our music is a real involvement of jazz within a different dancing complex. Jazz has always been dance music, and it's taken little windy routes away and back from this. Perhaps this is another one of those moments. Bringing jazz to different venues has charged the music with a different energy, too, although it hasn't lost any of the influence of "the tradition." I can still play a ballad in a club if I wanted to. And by club, I don't mean a jazz club.
Exactly. I think one of the most interesting things about the U.K. jazz scene at the moment is its emphasis on space and place, as well as sound, which often means jazz-influenced music turns up in unexpected places.
We're blessed with curiosity and a supportive community, which includes venues, too. There are lots of places to play, to see what everyone's up to and collaborate.
Collaboration isn't unique to us, but there is certainly freedom of creation. [In non-COVID times,] we were in jazz clubs alongside pubs, warehouses alongside "club" clubs, places that only had indie bands, rock bands, grunge, punk … These weren't really places for jazz-inspired music, and that's what's really exciting to me. We're just creating, playing what we like and pushing it together.
On Source, the thing that flows through the album is a focus on identity, but I like that each track shows a different chapter of this story. I imagine it's been a personally rewarding experience putting it together culturally as well as musically.
Rewarding, but challenging. There was a massive pandemic in the middle of it ... It feels like a whole story, but as complete as it sounds, it still feels searching enough to me. There are themes throughout about identity—my identity and our identities as humans—how we connect to it and what grounds it. It's a really honest representation of me at the moment.
Albums like Source and the upcoming Blue Note Re:imagined, the latter of which features an all-U.K. lineup reworking iconic Blue Note tracks, show that the world is listening to your community at the moment. Where's the scene at now and where might it be headed?
It was a really exciting place to be [pre-COVID]. If you saw my calendar … we were finally like … well to be honest, I never really imagined any of this happening. My goal as an 18-year-old was to get a gig! Being able to play the music I grew up listening to all over the world was something I never really imagined could happen.
We'd been touring and building slowly, but really well. Everything felt very rooted in enjoyment rather than sales 'cause it's not pop music …
But where's the movement as a whole going now?
Right now? I think things are opening up. We've done a few sessions, and I've had a couple of livestream offers, but I'm not a fan of the livestream thing, I'll just be straight with you.
Because we can't survive on livestreams. I think it's going to become even more difficult to be a musician, which is going to leave a huge gap in generations to come. When we look in five, 10 years, we'll ask, "Why are there no young bands coming through?" Because there's no money in it, there's nowhere for them to play, they don't have any options to get those £100, £50, £20 gigs. Lord, I hope they're not still doing that sh*t anymore!
They still are …
That's what was going on when I was 20! That's how we cut our teeth and learned when to say no, when to say yes and when to push for more. But I think livestreams aren't the same thing. They are something, don't get me wrong, but I'm very worried that it'll become the norm if there are no venues to play out in. I think the big venues will be fine, but we really need to protect the smaller venues that have had such a huge part to play in our development. You need to play out to improve. You can't just play together in a room for a year and then say, "I want to play at Glastonbury."
I'm trying to remain hopeful because I need to, but I don't think livestreaming is the way forward. It's great for reaching out around the world, but it's not sustainable, and it changes how the audience communicates with the other members of the audience, too. Music is a huge part of sharing that experience—it only happens once.
That's the other thing: Source feels live. How have you reconciled this with the current situation where there's virtually no live music?
I've made my peace with it—there's no point crying about it! It's all that we have, and it's the closest we can get to the real thing right now. Hopefully, we can play it in the future, and when we do get to tour it, it'll be mad. I've never done a gig so long after a record has been released, so in a way, it'll be really beautiful because then people will know the album.
What do you hope new listeners will find in your music?
Bits of themselves, bits of other people, stories they've not heard before and stories they're reminded of through the tunes. I just want listeners to listen, feel it and have an open mind, feel some joy, express themselves, dance, move and share. Most of all, I just want people to be present!
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.