ALBUM IN A SENTENCE: Producer, pianist, band leader and MC Alfa Mist holds the conflicts between rough and smooth, present and past, to create an individual sound within the London Jazz scene.
This week in Britain as local election results are counted, there is a narrative being sold that London is other, different to the rest of the Kingdom. As parts of the country behave politically in ways different to what has been expected for the past 50 years, they are painted by some as being in reaction to a liberal metropolitan elite, namely Londoners. From here in Plymouth, our relationship to our capital can often feel double-edged, a mixture of awe and prejudice. London is what you want to be like and what you want to prove you can do without. It is a playground and a cautionary tale.
Growing over the last decade, the London jazz scene is arguably the most exciting and powerful musical movement in this country. Artists such as Ezra Collective, Nubiya Garcia, Jordan Rakei, Shabaka Hutchings and Poppy Ajudha are making an indelible mark on music culture. East London’s Alfa Mist, who has just released his fourth album Bring Backs, is another influential jazz producer, pianist, band leader and MC. His status as an artist was demonstrated by his inclusion last year on the powerful compilation album Blue Note Re:imagined with a version of ‘Galaxy’ by Eddie Henderson.
With Bring Backs, Alfa Mist makes an important contribution to breaking down unhelpful stereotypes of what is happening in London. The new jazz sound is not the imposition of a metropolitian elite, dictating that modal harmony beats melodic. It’s the sound of self-contained communities of artists playing the music that they love for each other that happened to get big. It’s about ordinary people sharing their stories of where they come from and how they see the world. It’s Londoners doing exactly the same things as everybody else.
Alfa Mist shares the sources, stories and influences that made him. He places a high value on integrity on tracks like ‘Organic Rust’ and ‘Mind the Gap’. In his own words, he is talking about situations where ‘everyone is performing and no one is being themselves’. Tracks like ‘Run Outs’ connect back to his grime roots, drawing also on inspiration from producers like Madlib or DJ Shadow, as Alfa’s piano playing creates a living sample. He also includes other voices and other stories, most significantly in the form of a poem by Hilary Thomas that unravels through the album but centres on Last Card (Bumper Cars). One of the most interesting things about London jazz is the way it is rooted in African and Carribean culture, not just American. Hilary Thomas traces a story of diaspora and immigration through her strong, gutsy stanzas.
Musically, where Bring Backs excels is in the holding of tension between an elegant smoothness and an urban bite. This music is not gentrified or commodified. As the title of first track ‘Teki’ suggests, there is a battle going on, with Jamie Leeming’s guitar solos unleashed as weapons. Sometimes it’s the vocals that bring the fire, sometimes it’s the raw, insistent trumpet playing from Johnny Woodham. Even on quieter, cooler tracks like Attune, the recording process limited the number of takes each player was allowed, forcing them into the honest moment, living up to Alfa Mist’s desire to prioritise feeling over perfectionism.
Bring Backs achieves something with its combination of honest storytelling and fearless performances. It is an album that is constantly engaging, inventive and possessed of a strong point of view. Alfa Mist provides an authentic voice, not for London but rather of London; sharing again with integrity and intelligence what life in the capital actually means.