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Nubya Garcia: a full-force sound, leading a new generation of jazz players

11 Jul 2017

My first proper encounter with saxophonist Nubya Garcia was at Church of Sound, a monthly live music night that’s quickly becoming a jazz institution in Hackney. She was the only woman in an all-star line-up of UK jazz musicians – including some seasoned veterans – paying homage to the music of Bobby Hutcherson.

Having grown up playing the tenor sax, I feel an instant affinity towards women of colour wielding a horn as their sonic weapon of choice. That night at Church of Sound, it was easy to see she had no qualms about playing alongside long-established musicians, to a packed audience. She’s already been described by many as one of the forces leading the resurgence of “jazz-influenced” sound in the UK. What does she think of that? “It’s amazing that attention is strongly coming back to live music,” she tells me over a coffee in New Cross, “but I don’t want people to think that it was dead for ages and that the hype is back with a new generation.”

And yet there’s an undeniable sense of excitement for the unrestrained, unapologetic, feet-firmly-on-the-ground vibe coming out of London from rising musicians, including Nubya. We recently featured the all-female jazz septet, Nerija, which she plays in. She is part of yet another collective called Maisha, has been supported by Poppy Ajudha, and regularly performs with other collectives who’ve rapidly made a name for themselves.

Her own EP, Nubya’s 5ive, out on jazz re:freshed, came as direct result of performing at the regular jazz re:freshed event in Ladbroke Grove alongside fellow young musicians. “I had done a few gigs there and Adam [of jazz re:freshed] kept asking me ‘When are you going to put a band together? When are you gonna start writing?’ That gave me the confidence, the real push to get writing original music.”

The result is an inquisitive, thoroughly self-possessed sound that, while rooted in jazz, also draws from influences of other music she’s grown up listening to. “I’m paying homage to modal jazz as well as 6-8 grooves, which I love. And there’s hip-hop and back-beat influences too.” Her current record to get ready to in the morning is a rare Sun Ra 7-inch – one of many afro-futuristic influences, which are evident in her own music. She also tells me she found herself writing with musicians in mind – many of whom she’s played with since they were all teenagers. Peer pressure in the most enjoyable, creative and productive sense.

Before they started performing together at nights like jazz re:freshed, she met many of these fellow musicians at Tomorrow’s Warriors, an initiative that opens up music opportunities to families who can’t afford expensive lessons and instruments for their kids. “Throughout school and college, I was often the only girl or the only black person in the room. But Warriors was different. It’s where I met all the people I do music with now.” Nubya also credits Steez, another live performance event that brings together spoken word, music and DJs, for creating a platform totally free of snobbery or exclusivity.

Nubya’s been honing her performance skills since she was a teenager at these events. So it’s no wonder she can today stand shoulder-to-shoulder with homegrown greats like Orphy Robinson, Tony Kofi and Rowland Sutherland – all of whom were playing at a recent Church of Sound event. And while she insists the level of musicianship has never disappeared, you can’t help feeling that without those nights and initiatives, it would be hard to pinpoint where the next generation of musicians would be coming from.

I ask, inevitably, if she feels any sense of responsibility as a young black female instrumentalist. “Oh, you used that big ‘r’ word!” She laughs, “I still get asked all the time if I’m the singer as if I’m not valued as an instrumentalist. Those people probably don’t even realise it could offend me, but you can’t let their misgivings and expectations stop you. Value what you have to offer.” The success of Nubya’s 5ive, which sold out on vinyl the day after it was released, is proof that she has no plans to let anyone else’s insecurities or misgivings hold her back.

Nubya’s EP, Nubya’s 5ive, is out on jazz re:freshed, and available to buy digitally and on vinyl.