kokoroko is the afrobeat conscience of london jazz

January 9, 2019
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Of the many qualities that London’s boisterous live improvisation scene has brought to musical conversations, few seem as long-term and crucial as the new interactions between African diasporic traditions and jazz, the teasing out of connections between canons. In the city’s post-colonial culture, such connections often overlap with the relationships between the musicians’ familial heritage and the music they’re striving to make. Foremost among these local connectors is Kokoroko. Led by trumpeter Sheila Maurice-Grey, the eight-piece band is ostensibly a horns-first Afrobeat ensemble, yet with a slew of soloists who’s collective energy pulls the instrumental music away from an explicitly political context towards a deeper melodic grounding.

“Uman,” the first single from Kokoroko’s upcoming debut EP, follows up on the group’s 2018 streaming smash, “Abusey Junction” (one of the featured tracks on We Out Here, a great compilation snapshot of the London jazz community). And in many ways “Uman” mirrors that earlier composition. The primary attraction is the horn lines delivered by Maurice-Grey, saxophonist Cassie Kinoshi and trombonist Richie SeivWright, which move between tight soulful flares, call-and-responses and the occasional cacophonic disintegration. The rhythm section — bassist Mutale Chashi, percussionist Onome Ighamre and drummer Ayo Salawu — firmly but quietly propel Yohan Kebede’s soft, airy chords; while electric guitarist Oscar Jerome picks his way somewhere between a direct pulse and a fanciful flight, always in check. Occasionally, Maurice-Grey, Kinoshi and SeivWright’s voices rise to the fore as lyric-less choruses, adding yet another layer of beauty.

Kokoroko is, at once, beyond tightly wound but also relaxed to the point of aloof; like all great Afrobeat ensembles, it is a vibrating organism. Yet in the melodicism of the “Uman” and the collective softness of their playing, they also achieve a powerful melancholy that is rarely associated with this loud and direct music. But one quite familiar to jazz heads. It’s not at all a blues, but also not far from it — a creole language very few are fluent in, but almost everybody understands.

Kokoroko’s debut EP is dropping on Brownswood Recordings in March.