Jazz Re:Freshed Outernational Opens Expansive Genre Umbrella at SXSW
Steam Down, Yazmin Lacey, and more spanned Afrobeat to retro R&B
By Michael Toland,
9:36AM, Thu. Mar. 16, 2023
Alto-saxophonist Marcus Joseph was the perfect opener for the annual Jazz Re:Freshed Outernational showcase, and not just because he has pop star charisma.
With roots in hard bop and riffs you don’t need a music degree to understand, Joseph groks how to marry jazz tradition to the Afro-Cuban, Caribbean, and Afrobeat rhythms so prevalent in London. Taken from 2021’s debut album Beyond the Dome, “Arrival of the Giants” and “Challenge Day” gave the dance-eager Wednesday night audience infectious grooves, positive hip-hop (“Feel It In My Bones”), and interactive participation (“Morning Affirmation”), powered by superb musicianship.When it comes to making jazz accessible without compromising its values, Joseph’s set at Sellers Underground was a master class.
While not sounding retro, singer/songwriter Yazmin Lacey hearkened back to the days of R&B being played by folks with jazz chops. As on her new album Voice Notes, her take on neo-soul features jazz piano changes, rhythms trickier than they first appear (cf. the busy 6/8 of “Where Did You Go?”), and her Billie Holiday-meets-Jill Scott purr. That gives tunes like “Fool’s Gold,” “Bad Company,” and “Morning Matters” a rich sound that makes admiring the playing secondary to simply luxuriating in the songs. The way the crowd crushed close to the stage for her set indicated another star in the making.
Some of altoist Camilla George’s tunes leaned into smooth jazz – easily accessible, non-threatening – until they reached solo sections. Then the musicians turned up the heat, with the keyboardist and drummer bringing the thunder while the boss injected post-bop fury in her breaks. It takes acute musical minds to find veins of improvisatory inspiration in such polished sounds. Slickness aside, though, when the drummer cranked up the Afrobeat, all bets were off, the irresistible grooves pushing the band to unforeseen levels of shred. By the time George quit the stage, it had been scorched.
Led by composer/djembe player Yahael Camara Onono, Balimaya Project upped the ante on both energy level and excitement. Armed with jangling kora, shredding rock guitar, and debut LP Wolo So, the nonet added new sounds to its Afrobeat aesthetic. Arpeggiated six-string floated atop percolating percussion on opener “A Prayer For Our Parents,” sax and trumpet taking the primary riff and cosmic keyboard washes coloring the background. The band’s eponymous theme song erupted in a hurricane of percussion and a ripping kora solo. “Soninka,” “City of God,” and closing affirmation “Dakan” proved Balimaya Project is exactly the type of band that brings chattering punters from the back of the bar to the front of the stage in seconds.
Composer/keyboardist Dominic Canning has been mentored by a few figures in London jazz, including Jazz Re:Freshed MC and co-founder Adam Moses, and brings the rigors of classical training to the scene. Tunes like “Amalgamation” married knotty guitar and saxophone riffs, frenetic drumming and song structures beyond the jazz mode for pieces of unusually harmonic possibility, with Canning as music director and composer instead of solo star. Performed by himself and a four-piece backing group, DoomCannon ranged furthest away from what might be called traditional jazz, but that only highlights how expansive the umbrella is.
Jazz/hip-hop/R&B conglomeration Steam Down is one of the prime movers in the London jazz scene thanks to its legendary Wednesday jam sessions. Stripped down to a fivepiece, the crew included a virtuoso drummer and keyboardist producing the horsepower while bandleader/saxophonist Ahnansé and two co-vocalists led the charge. Steam Down raised the energy level song by song – by the time the band performed 2021 single “Free My Skin,” hip-hop anthem “Can’t Hold Me Back,” and 2022 single “Overcome,” the crowd was in the palm of their hands.
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SXSW Music 2023, Yazmin Lacey, Camilla George, Marcus Joseph, Balimaya Project, Steam Down, DoomCannon, Jazz Re:Freshed