Live review: Ezra Collective @ Albert Hall, Manchester
Ezra Collective’s choice of venue to perform in Manchester juxtaposes an interesting range of emotions. The Albert Hall was built as a church in the early 20th century. Serpentine glazed tiles and dark terracotta décor create an ambience that one might expect from an ancient castle, not a forward-thinking music venue. Yet Ezra Collective’s setlist is far from regressive; with songs ranging from the smooth sensuality of Amapiano to the rhythmic whirls of Salsa, Ezra arguably represent the cutting edge of global fusion music. What makes them – and the London jazz-scene as a whole – so alluring is their refusal to be pinned to boundaries of genre.
A definite tension lies in the air as the crowd awaits the arrival of Ezra Collective. To their surprise, trumpeter Ife Ogunjobi and saxophonist James Mollison announce themselves by kicking off their set in the midst of the crowd in the upstairs section. Beginning as they intend to carry on, smooth afrobeat inspired dance tune ‘Welcome to My World’ gets the crowd moving as they make their way onto stage. The song clearly takes much inspiration from the likes of Fela Kuti; though Ezra Collective met in a youth club and began by playing jazz standards together, they knew from the outset that London’s cosmopolitan blend of cultures would weave its way into their music. Frontman Femi Koleoso reveals to the crowd that the band had fluctuated through existential periods of wondering what they actually stood for. The elite jazz game of men in suits and ties fizzing through complex melodies and polyrhythms had them feeling like impostors. Yet through their decades spent growing and playing together as friends and family, their self-assurance as a group finally shines through.
The band takes us through several high-energy cuts from their most recent album, Where I’m Meant to Be, before Femi reveals that the first gig Ezra Collective played in Manchester was at the Deaf Institute, a venue which prides itself on platforming the best up-and-coming talents. A moment of elegant charm lights up the room half-way through the gig as James begins to perform their delicate version of Sun Ra’s ‘Space is the Place’ to a room of transfixed faces, the very song they played in their first ever Manchester gig. They evidently take much inspiration from the likes of Sun Ra, particularly his progressive, forward-thinking musical catalogue and his appeal to philosophies of hope.
Ezra’s ethic clearly appreciates positivity and joy, though they recognize both emotions are temperamental and contingent on good fortune. Hence, a nostalgic moment can never last long in an Ezra gig; as they immediately launch into Amapiano banger ‘Life Goes On’ to get the crowd swinging again. As the band grooves ever closer to the apex of energy for the set, Ife and James dive into a crowd-surf toward the middle of the crowd, where they dismount and begin to dance and perform from within. The irresistibly catchy salsa-inspired ‘Victory Dance’ plays next, sending the crowd roaring along to a trumpet intro, almost reminiscent of a football chant. By this point, even the typically ‘seated’ upstairs area of the venue is on their feet.
As the band begin to wind-down for the night, Ezra’s final message to the crowd relates to the struggles both they and the music industry as a whole have suffered during the pandemic. They ask us to extend our duty of care beyond our favourite bands, to support the ‘in-betweens’; bands who aren’t playing in their parents’ garage but also not selling out Wembley arena. Touring is becoming less financially viable, especially for those without supporting incomes to rely on. So support your independent venues, gig-goers! Take a risk and watch a band you’ve barely heard of in one of Manchester’s many options; YES, Band on the Wall, Deaf Institute or wherever it may be. Ezra Collective give the crowd closure with their most famous song, Chapter 7 featuring the late rapper Ty, an important figure in the band’s history. The sold-out crowd slowly peters out of the venue with both a physical and emotional feeling of warmth and joy, exactly as Ezra Collective intended.
The one criticism that could be levelled at the band is that sometimes their sets feel too clean. There doesn’t appear to be much room for improvisation or unplanned, organic moments. Yet even if the eclectic, energy-charged vibes they create are mechanically produced, I’d personally still like to be there every time they are.