Preview: Chicago x London with Ashley Henry Interview
In recent years, the London jazz scene has been met with a deservedly vast amount of hype. Although, from our perspective at least, this sense of dynamism is no doubt a product of being based in the city in which things are blossoming. Word of the contemporary Chicago jazz scene, namely artists like Makaya McCraven (who played a Boiler Room last year) and boundary-pushing labels like International Anthem, has also pricked ears, though perhaps hasn't got people this side of the Atlantic excited to the same degree.
One thing that’s undoubtedly rare, however, is that you'll hear the two scenes cross paths. Yet that’s where EZH (formerly Jazz Standard) come in. This month they’ve put together two insanely special and thoughtfully curated nights at one of the venues at the heart of that London scene, Total Refreshment Centre.
The first night, Wednesday 18th October, features a never-before-seen line-up that will combine the energy of Chicago and London in a celebration of both of these thriving scenes. At the centre of this collaboration is drummer Makaya McCraven, who’ll team up with an array of London’s finest musicians across the two nights, including tuba player Theon Cross, saxophonist Soweto Kinch and keys players Joe Armon-Jones and Kamaal Williams.
Alongside this, trumpeter Jaimie Branch will lead her Fly Or Die ensemble bringing Chicagoan free jazz by way of New York into the melting pot. Finally, Theon Cross will be locking it down with his own trio, consisting of two more of London's most exciting players - Nubya Garcia and Moses Boyd.
What a line-up!
Picking apart such a heavy list of musicians could, and no doubt would, turn into an essay of pure excitement. It has to be said though, it’s this considered programming that pushes the music we know and love to the next level – crossing borders and boundaries into new territory. Serious shouts to EZH!
For now, let’s focus on night two, Thursday 19th October, which features a collaboration between Makaya, Joe Armon-Jones and Theon Cross, alongside string trio, Hear In Now, composed of Chicago-based cellist Tomeka Reid (also of Jaimie Branch's ensemble), violinist Mazz Swift and bassist Silvia Bolognesi.
One of the performances of that evening we’re most excited about comes from Ashley Henry, who will present his extended RE:Ensemble for the first time. Featuring the core trio of Henry, bassist Daniel Casimir and drummer Eddie Hicks, they'll be joined by saxophonist Binker Golding and poet Anthony Joseph for a very special performance. Having released and sold out his Jazz re:freshed 5ives EP last year, Ashley’s forthcoming project with the RE:Ensemble is due for release on Sony. A huge step for the expanding London scene.
Ahead of the Chicago x London show, we super-briefly caught up with Ashley to discuss his year, in and around the music.
Hi Ashley, thanks for stopping by with us. You've had a pretty amazing year so far, touring with Akua Naru, hitting the festival circuit with the Trio and then playing with the Outlook Orchestra at the festival's opening party. Have there been any other highlights?
Yeah this year has been crazy! I recorded my new EP at the beginning of this year which will be released on Sony in January 2018. I feel that a great connection was established with every single musician/vocalist that recorded with me on this project and being able to document that has been a blessing. Looking forward to putting it out! The record will feature Anthony Joseph, Luke Flowers (Cinematic Orchestra), my mentor Jean Toussaint on saxophone, Mattic (Wax Tailor), Cherise Adams-Burnett (Trope), and my new rhythm section Eddie Hicks on drums and Dan Casimir on bass.
I also recorded Jean Toussaint’s new album with Troy Miller as producer and some stuff with Zara McFarlane (Moses Boyd as producer)… Drummers are taking over! I’ve been touring this year quite a bit with China Moses who’s the daughter of legendary jazz singer, Dee Dee Bridgewater. We’re doing some recording later in the year.
Busy man! Aside from the music, have you been up to anything?
I’ve had a lot of fun curating the “Milestones” series at the Jazz Café earlier this year. It was amazing to book loads of different bands from all different corners of the London jazz scene and getting such an amazing response from the public.
Aside from music although very much the backbone of my sound and its progression, I managed to spend some time out in Jamaica this year, which was an amazing experience as it was the first time traveling out there alone. I got to spend some time with the family and see more of the island. I have been exploring my history on a much deeper level this year, getting into a lot of Eddie Chambers and Linton Kwesi Johnson, for example. I’ve discovered a lot of Jamaican jazz musicians that moved to London in the 50’s and made a HUGE impact on the scene like Joe Harriott, Wilton Gaynair and Dizzy Reece.
So yeah, a big year of transformation, expression, and connection. Looking forward to many more.
Have you seen any special or noteworthy performances yourself this year?
Wow! That’s difficult. I've been lucky enough to see so much amazing music this year. I really enjoyed Thundercat’s performance at Glastonbury. The musicianship and the consistent energy between the band really stood out. Actually the same with Sons of Kemet too! I saw them at Love Supreme and Jazz Re:fest this year and it was killing!
I also really digged Miles Mosley’s performance in London this year. He gives off such a great vibe on stage and the band were tight. Kamasi turned up as a special guest and played his ass off!
Let's talk briefly about the upcoming Chicago x London shows you're going to be a central part of. How aware of the contemporary Chicago jazz scene were you before the events were announced?
That's interesting because I listened to a lot of Lefto's mixes last year and came across Jeff Parker's music and his album The New Breed, but had no idea at the time that he was from Chicago. I loved the sound and how unique it was. Shortly after that, Errol Anderson put out an article on FADER about some of the UK jazz artists on the scene at the moment and their impact.
Next to each artist's name they listed a few American artists that people would relate to, and next to my name they mentioned Makaya McCraven. So I looked up his music and discovered International Anthem and other artists such as Jaimie Branch. From then it all clicked! When I was asked to be a part of this project, it was a no brainer for me.
It seems like musicians from both cities are finding really creative ways to go beyond traditional jazz forms, through collaborations with like minded players. Are there any other similarities you can you draw between the London jazz scene and Chicago's that might make these shows so special?
To be honest, I'm yet to experience Chicago first hand. And to answer that question I would need to do so... So I'll get back to you after the gig! Would love to go out to Chicago soon though. The beauty of being a jazz musician is that your music is a reflection of your environment and society. From what we've been hearing, London sounds pretty incredible. I'm excited to hear what Chicago sounds like!
EZH presents Chicago x London takes part at the Total Refreshment Centre on 18 and 19 October. Don't miss it!
Tickets and more info here.