Since the SEED Ensemble’s Mercury Prize-nominated Driftglass is likely to be one of my albums of the year, I was keen to see Cassie Kinoshi, the group’s leader and composer, at the Roundhouse last night. This was a different kind of gig, arranged by Skin Deep, the race and culture magazine, in their Sonic Transmissions series. On these evenings, an individual musician is put under the spotlight in the venue’s small theatre: they perform live, they play selected recordings, and they are interviewed by Anu Henriques, the magazine’s founder. Shabaka Hutchings, Nubya Garcia and Moses Boyd have been previous subjects of a series clearly angled towards the new London-based jazz movement in which contemporary forms of racial and cultural diversity are brought to bear on the traditions.
Thoughtful, engaging and not afraid to express an opinion, Kinoshi was keen to acknowledge the vital role played by Gary Crosby’s Tomorrow’s Warriors in her career and those of her predecessors on the Sonic Transmissions stage. The TW workshops had not just been an education in jazz, she said, but an introduction to the idea of the music as the product of a community. The bands in which she currently plays — SEED Ensemble, the co-operative Nérija and Sheila Maurice-Grey’s Kokoroko — all provide evidence of that philosophy, which she summed up as “a sharing of minds”.
Born in 1993 to parents of Nigerian, Sierra Leonean and Caribbean origin, brought up in the less than funky surroundings of Welwyn Garden City and subsequently a graduate of the Trinity Laban Conservatoire, she is already strongly aware of the value of “representation”: the need to present herself as an example to young black females of achievement in a field that might once have seemed beyond their reach. She herself, she said, had had no such benefit early on.
She also spoke of how, when confronted by a predominantly white audience, she found herself compelled to emphasise the blackness of her music: an example of how she doesn’t want to make her listeners feel too comfortable. Her compositions might be inspired by literature and places, but also by the Grenfell Tower tragedy (Driftglass‘s “Wake”), the uncovering of the Windrush scandal, the divisions revealed by Brexit, and the need for young black women to resist the imposition of white standards of beauty.
For the live pieces she brought along a new sextet featuring two alto saxophones (herself and Tyrone Isaac-Stuart), vibes (David Mrakpor), guitar (Richie Aikman), bass guitar and synth bass (Isobella Burnham) and drums (Ayo Salawu). The music was loud and aggressive, inspired in part by Kinoshi’s fondness during her schooldays for metal and indie rock (she mentioned Pantera and Nirvana), but it also provided a platform for thoughtful solos by the expressive Aikman and Mrakpor, whose poise reminded me of Bobby Hutcherson. The two-alto front line is rare — I thought of Eric Dolphy with Ken McIntyre or Oliver Nelson — and the sweet-and-sour blend reflected Kinoshi’s admiration of Jackie McLean, Steve Lehman and Rudresh Mahanthapa.
She also played us a recording of a startling orchestral piece titled “If She Could Dance Naked under Palm Trees”, indicating the breadth of her resources and ambition. In the live set, however, the music — like so much of the new jazz emerging from south and east London — was rhythm-heavy, meant to make you move. Whatever others might think, this reunion of jazz and the body is a very good thing.
* Cassie Kinoshi’s SEED Ensemble will be at the Jazz Café on November 24 as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival. Driftglass is on the jazzre:freshed label. Nérija’s new album, Blume, is just out on the Domino label.