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Nubya Garcia Stands Out on London’s Jazz Scene

The saxophonist is strong, focused, and not afraid to make music that appeals to both listeners’ brains and feet

Nubya Garcia (photo: Adama Jalloh)
Nubya Garcia (photo: Adama Jalloh)

The first thing you hear is a bright, asymmetrical, unison melody that’s repeated enough times to stay in your head. Then, suddenly, it’s tempered by a slinky hip-hop groove that grounds an equally decisive, opposing melodic line. “Lost Kingdoms,” the opening song on saxophonist and bandleader Nubya Garcia’s 2017 debut EP Nubya’s 5ive, is the rare jazz composition without words that you can still sing along to. Written, played, and recorded with superlative clarity and ease, “Kingdoms” has the punch of a pop single without any creative compromise. Its heft is obvious any time Garcia plays it live, as she did last year at New York’s (Le) Poisson Rouge while opening for Pharoah Sanders and Gary Bartz. Unlike the vast majority of contemporary jazz musicians, she could close her set with a recognizable hit that actually got the standing-room-only crowd moving.

That arresting tune is just one illustration of how Garcia has done the near-impossible: attaining international visibility as a young jazz musician with a coherent, singular point of view that endears her to both crossover-curious fans who may not be steeped in the scene and club-regular diehards. Three years after 5ive (which is, thankfully for listeners, about the length of an early jazz LP) and another EP, 2018’s self-released When We Are, Garcia put out her official debut album Source via Concord Jazz in August.

The M.O. behind her impressive run of sharp compositions and impactful improvising is, at least according to her, straightforward enough. “I take importance in really presenting what I choose to present,” says the 28-year-old, speaking with JazzTimes on the phone from her home in London. But it’s that selectiveness—an increasingly endangered quality in an era when artists can release almost anything they want instantly—that sets Garcia apart from so many of her peers. As a composer, player, and bandleader, she has a sharp editorial ear; that ability to be conscientious without being overly careful extends to how she works overall, from picking album art to working with her label on release strategy. It’s part of a holistic, progressive vision, one in which the need for systemic change is inextricably linked to the need to create new, compelling art.

“There’s a real, sad history of musicians not even having a seat at the table in terms of how they are represented,” she explains. “There’s nothing worse than it coming out and being like, ‘I would have done it differently.’ I care the way the record looks, I care the way it sounds—I care because it’s part of the whole story.”

Nubya Garcia with Josh Johnson (obscured) and Shabaka Hutchings at Makaya McCraven’s Universal Beings album release concert, (Le) Poisson Rouge, New York, December 2018 (photo: Vincent Tullo/Red Bull Content Pool)
Nubya Garcia with Josh Johnson (obscured) and Shabaka Hutchings at Makaya McCraven’s Universal Beings album release concert, (Le) Poisson Rouge, New York, December 2018 (photo: Vincent Tullo/Red Bull Content Pool)

Garcia’s story is tied, as so many stories in jazz are, to the intimate, encouraging community where she first learned the music, and met many of the same artists she still collaborates with today. Her jazz education started in a youth ensemble led by pianist Nikki Yeoh, one of a number of free and low-cost programs available to musically inclined kids in London when Garcia was growing up. “There was an inherent joy in that classroom,” she recalls of the group, which she joined about a year after she started playing saxophone at age 10. “We learned really great tunes—both standards and funk—and then we just improvised and had a lot of fun.”

Britain’s center-left Labour Party led the country during that late-’90s/early-aughts period, as Garcia notes, resulting in a relative abundance of funding for such programs—which gave any kid access to everything they needed to become a musician. “There was not as much as there should have been, but we kind of had a golden era as far as free lessons at school or holiday courses,” Garcia says. “There definitely isn’t as much now because of the Tories [Britain’s Conservative Party, which currently has the majority in Parliament]. Those spaces were so important for us to just find a passion within it. It’s irreplaceable—we’re going to see a change in the amount of musicians coming out.”

One of those resources was the Tomorrow’s Warriors jam session and ensemble, a not-for-profit group founded by Janine Irons and Jazz Warriors bassist Gary Crosby in 1991. The program (the jam has been defunct since 2010) has become a proving ground for many of the young artists who’ve helped make the London jazz scene one of the most vibrant in the world, including Shabaka Hutchings, Zara McFarlane, Moses Boyd, Theon Cross, and of course Garcia and her bandmates: keyboardist Joe Armon-Jones, bassist Daniel Casimir, and drummer Sam Jones.

It’s not hard to connect the dots between the tight-knit community fostered by the program and the collectivistic nature of the London scene. All of the above musicians (and quite a few more) play on each other’s projects and gigs; Garcia has often worked with Hutchings, Cross, and Ezra Collective (of which Armon-Jones is a member), and is a member of both drummer Jake Long’s group Maisha and the all-women ensemble Nérija. On Source, there’s even a mellow, reflective track called “Together Is a Beautiful Place to Be,” featuring fellow Nérija member Sheila Maurice-Grey (a.k.a. Ms Maurice) on trumpet.

That sense of community has also neutralized, at least according to Garcia, some of the sexism in the still (but incrementally less) male-dominated world of jazz. “I’ve known many of the musicians I work with for 10 years or more,” she says. “I don’t want to say I’m lucky, because that’s just how it should be for everyone, but there’s a different level of mutual respect when you grow up with each other. But maybe outside of that there’s sometimes an air of … people just trying to put superiorness in the room. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t exist.”

Like any artist, Garcia wants her work to be considered on its own terms; like any Black woman artist, she’s often compelled to walk a tightrope between making her work personal and answering the same repetitive questions about identity that her male, and especially white male, colleagues are rarely asked. She has responses ready about the kinds of resources and actions that could make jazz—a genre ostensibly built around progressiveness and evolution—reflect the diverse communities in which it’s made, but it’s the assumptions baked into the questions themselves that she sees as needing to be challenged.

“I think about [diversity and inclusion] all the time,” she says. “I’m expecting this question. I don’t have that privilege of not thinking about it all the time, and that is something the music industry needs to recognize. It’s not like, ‘Okay, well, we talked about this on Monday—let’s just come back to it next Monday.’ No, there has to be a shift in the way everyone is thinking about it all the time. Then we can actually make some change.”

“There’s a real, sad history of musicians not even having a seat at the table in terms of how they are represented … I care the way the record looks, I care the way it sounds—I care because it’s part of the whole story.”

There’s no explicit focus on being “political” on Source. As the title suggests, Garcia’s Trinidadian, Guyanese, and British roots are central to the music, both aesthetically and as a guiding theme. The geographic range of her own background and influences is reflected in both the album’s wide rhythmic palette, in which dub and stripped-down West African percussion co-exist seamlessly with traditional drum set, and the thoughtful, creative structure and design of each tune. Garcia’s meaty tone and evocative, concise improvisation is spotlighted, but never at the expense of the band’s flow and feel.

The album’s concept is to present a series of what Garcia calls “sonic mantras” via the album’s titles. Some are specific, like “Before Us: In Demerara & Caura,” which refers to, respectively, the name of a Dutch colony in what is now Guyana and a river that flows through it. But most are conceptual, tapping into ideas about unity and calm. “With instrumental music, people don’t often talk about what the tunes are about, because there aren’t lyrics and maybe nobody will care,” she says. “But the way I do that is with the title. Maybe it will spark a thought in someone’s mind. To me, it’s your first contact with the tune—it holds so much power.”

That methodical approach, carefully weighing the implications of each artistic choice without letting them stifle what makes her work so intuitive and immediate, has served Garcia well. She had a hand in every part of the album; each piece is an original, she co-produced it with British producer and artist Kwes (Solange, Kelela), and she even helped mix. The result is work that isn’t just considered as an aesthetic offering, but a wholly conceived statement rooted in ideas about equality and progress that never feel trite—just like its author. “This is my vision, and I’m explaining it to you so that we can get there,” she says, nominally discussing the process of recording Source, but in words that could apply to much more. “I’ve felt that I’m at the helm the whole way.”

Natalie Weiner

Natalie Weiner writes about music for a variety of publications including JazzTimes, Billboard, The New York Times, Pitchfork and Rolling Stone. She is also a staff writer at SB Nation where she covers women’s sports and the NFL. Previously, she was a staff writer at Bleacher Report, and an associate editor at Billboard magazine.