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Nubiyan Twist: Real Life Stories

British multi-instrumentalist Tom Excell leads his eclectic ensemble into new territory

Nubiyan Twist
Nubiyan Twist (left to right): Joe Henwood, Luke Wynter, Nick Richards, Cherise, Denis Scully, Tom Excell, Finn Booth, Pilo Adami, Jonny Ense, and Oliver Cadman (photo: Gregory D’Wode)

There are things that Great Britain’s Nubiyan Twist is, and there are things that the Leeds-born nonet-plus decidedly isn’t, according to its founder, co-composer, producer, and multi-instrumentalist Tom Excell. What Nubiyan Twist isn’t is stodgy, boring, or simple. It also isn’t strictly jazz.

Together for 10 years at the top of 2021, and on the cusp of releasing its most vocal-oriented album, Freedom Fables (Strut), this large-scale, cinematic, multi-genre outfit is, now, “absolutely everything I wanted it to be when I started studying music production at Leeds College [of Music]—from what I heard in my dad’s jazz album collection to Pan-African, trance, hip-hop, highlife, electronica, and dub.” 

Calibrate such genre-jumping with Excell’s childhood classical guitar studies, and you could justifiably say that his creative output was destined to be restless and vibrantly improvisational. “Combining all of these musics, seamlessly, was always the goal,” he says. “That and finding a family of friends that I could do all of this with.”

That Excell and fellow Leeds students/current Twisters such as trumpeter Jonny Ense and saxophonists Joe Henwood, Denis Scully, and Nick Richards happen when together to sound like Creed Taylor-era George Benson, latter-day Wes Montgomery, and Donald Byrd’s A New Perspective makes for one jazzy family unit. Additional influence from Jamaican Studio One session guitarist Ernest Ranglin (“a great melodic crossover between reggae and jazz without being too technical”) only sweetens the pot. 

“It happened quite naturally as Leeds College’s jazz courses and its production studios were so close, and I was so inspired by what they were doing there,” Excell says. “We jammed together often. We developed our musical tastes together.”

Starting off with self-produced tracks co-written by Excell and Henwood, Nubiyan Twist didn’t jump into a recording scenario as Excell wanted to woodshed the band’s process and enhance its onstage prowess. In live DJ sets, he added propulsive beats to the tracks, then eventually recruited drummer and childhood friend Finn Booth when the stickman began his tutelage at Leeds, along with roommate/percussionist Pilo Adami, with whom Excell shared a Brazilian-based ensemble. 

Capturing the band’s live sound in a studio setting has been an ongoing challenge for Excell, one he’s come closer to nailing on Freedom Fables. “How do you best represent the atmosphere and the energy of this band’s show, especially at a time when it is so expensive to get the whole band in one space?” he says with a laugh about a nonet whose members’ homes range from the greens of Dublin to the greys of Sheffield. “Having built our own studio … helps us to have a middle ground, represent the band’s textures and the interactivity among musicians.”

Vocals from band outsiders like Ego Ella May that became a soulful part of earlier records such as 2015’s eponymous album—“primal and instinctive” as they might have been, according to the producer—were but a layer of sound, another tone in the mix. No more; on Freedom Fables, singing guests and Twist members alike came across with stories of diversity, danger, love, hate, and romance.

The loungey African acid-jazz track “Ma Wonka” was written with “just enough spaciousness” for Ghanaian vocalist and songwriter Pat Thomas to rant about the ruinous effects of gossip. “And not be stressed out by it all,” Excell adds with a laugh, acknowledging his lack of love for social media’s spread. Saxophonist Richards jumps over to vocals on the deeply grooving “Buckle Up” and sings of breaking psychic chains, while British reeds legend Soweto Kinch contributes a searing solo. “He’s a real pioneer, as a player and as a conceptualist,” Excell says of Kinch. “And Nick? Quite frankly, none of us realized how beautiful a voice he had. Where and how he was hiding this from us his whole life was an amazing surprise. We’ll be nurturing that skill of his.” As a lyricist too, on “Buckle Up” and “Wipe Away Tears,” Richards—a child therapist in training—impresses as he portrays diverse aspects of empathy, helping others to find their way through positive mental health exercises.

True-life tales such as these set Freedom Fables above any past Nubiyan Twist album, giving the music a purpose beyond dancing, grooving, and simmering. “We’re now telling each person’s unique story and celebrating their differences, their cultures,” Excell says. “By bringing those rich stories together, we hope that Freedom Fables serves as a metaphor for the life we’re all living.”