In the receding parallel universe that was once our recognizable reality, Nubya Garcia is playing right now because it’s just what she does. In a dizzying three-year stretch since assembling her first quartet, this London-bred horn player, composer, bandleader and perpetual motion machine has gone from low-key ubiquity to arguably becoming the leading light in a thrilling generation of London-centric jazz players – a musical athlete in a flow state of fast-forward evolution, delivering ecstatic musical communion and honing her craft in real time, woodshedding, hustling, creating and listening closely.
Even amidst an almost uncanny flowering of youthful jazz talent, her debut album “Source” still manages to astound – not only for its virtuosity but also for its restraint. She has assembled one of the most exciting quartets in the game – a group clearly capable of white heat that prefers to simmer, led by a tenor player who’s alchemized her influences into a voice that’s both lyrical and muscular, assured enough to merely suggest her full power and range. Together, their movement is telepathic and tidal, trunk-rattling and polyrhythmic — as steeped in club culture as it in free jazz, evoking source material as rich as Herbie Hancock, King Tubby, Radiohead or Totó La Momposina without showing the seams.
But if Nubya’s free-flowing motion is for now interrupted, she betrays no frustration. Having created a perfectly formed statement that honors every idea, emotion, geography and musical tribe she has encountered in her travels from Rotterdam to Medellin to Sao Paulo while digging deep into more personal histories and ancestral maps, she’s back where it all began, grounded and content in the knowledge that when it comes to musical growth, the journey never really ends. — Joel Biswas
Congratulations on the album and its reception. Where would you be right now in a parallel universe?
Nubya Garcia: Thank you. Yeah, gosh I don’t know. We would be halfway through our tour? It’s kind of hard to say. I’ve been touring constantly for the last couple of years so this is just another thing. I’m trying to be grateful for the break – reading, exercising. And it makes time for conversations like this and gives me a chance to explore the story and the story of this project, this journey.
How are you staying creative?
Nubya Garcia: It’s been great to have time to practice which isn’t always possible on the road because people in hotels don’t like you playing saxophone [laughs]. It’s been nice to practice and also great to take breaks on purpose from practicing, rather than travelling and not knowing if I’m going to get to my instrument in the way that I’d like to. Being able to focus on what I want to achieve over a fixed amount of time. I just got my records out of storage and I’m enjoying listening to music and working my way through like 800 records, doing radio shows, making mixes, playlists – that’s kind of a new thing I love doing. Trying to be a student of that school. Reading. That’s me. It’s not much but it’s enough to get into. For record store day, I got a couple of records by trombonist Vin Gordon records – one of which is with the Upsetters, I think. I’ve been buying Black Jazz reissues – Doug Carn, Milton Nascimento…
You guys still managed to do NPR Tiny Desk, albeit remotely.
Nubya Garcia: Yeah, that was cool. We did it in the studio where we recorded the album, Soup Studios which is on a boat on the Thames in London. It felt really great to play together.
Jazz more than many other genres of music relies on real, spontaneous connection.
Nubya Garcia: Absolutely. It was the first time we played together in six months – which is crazy. But if anything, it just makes you feel grateful for the experience and opportunity to play together, to hear things differently. At first, I wasn’t really feeling the whole streaming thing. But we’re gradually getting back out there. We’ve got a big show coming up at the Barbican. It’s a venue where they can accommodate like 300 people socially distanced and a separate audience online.
I first saw you there as part of Nerija (an all-female quintet), opening for Ernest Ranglin and Tony Allen in 2016.
Nubya Garcia: That was the first real group that I’ve been a part of – with our own ideas and compositions. It was an honour to be able to support him. We came together as part of Gary Crosby’s “Tomorrow’s Warriors” programme which mentors young jazz players. We came up with the name together – it’s a combination of words and ideas and the root word is from Hebrew originally.
So where did it start in terms of your music education?
Nubya Garcia: I’ve certainly been very lucky in my music education in that I have had a lot of access from a young age. My first instrument was the violin at like the age of five. I was also tutored on piano. The clarinet came later when I was like 11 and then sax. My parents were both musical and my house was full of music – soul, lover’s rock, jazz, classical. My mom loved Buena Vista Social Club and one of my parents’ first dates was going to see Curtis Mayfield. I still have some of their records and CD’s that I “borrowed”… Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage, Augustus Pablo’s Israel in Harmony… I think my mother’s goal was for us to be classical musicians [laughs]. My sister is a classical singer though, so that covers it. And classical training for me came in handy later in terms of being able to learn and compose through transcription.
How did you settle on becoming a jazz player?
Nubya Garcia: I was into all kinds of music and I still am but it was improvisation that got me – the idea of self-expression. My early influences were people like Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon – just how understated the phrasing was and the way it could still cut through… Wayne Shorter, so many people. I don’t really like to say I have a favorite. I’d like to think I’ve gotten something from every instrumentalist regardless if they are a saxophone player or not. I think it’s important to listen to as many musicians as you can so you don’t end up sounding like just one person. As someone who teaches music, I’m really aware of the idea of influences. When you are teaching, you often introduce a student to a musician because you think they sound like an artist or the idea that they might like that artist. You bond someone to a particular artist or influence. It’s meant to be a positive process – “Check this out, I think you will like this.” It’s that sentiment rather than “you should follow this disciple.” But I remember teachers who were like “I think you’ll really vibe with Hank Mobley because you have that Hank Mobley sound.” I think what they meant by that is that it’s soft in a good way, mellow at times but can still cut through in a tonal way. That really, really helped me get a bit deeper to be honest. When you are fourteen or fifteen and there is so much music to listen to, it’s so important to hand a student one album so they’re not completely overwhelmed by the whole discography of one artist, you know? [laughs]
Who are you a fan of today?
Nubya Garcia: Definitely my peers. I am a huge fan of so many people who I have grown up which is actually really, really beautiful. I really love Sheila Maurice-Grey. I’ve seen her live loads of times, her band doesn’t have any recordings out at the moment, but I’ve heard a few on tour with her. In the van you get to hear stuff before it’s out and I really love the way she approaches music and melody and rhythm. Definitely a big fan of Shabaka Hutchings’ music, his approach as well and all the philosophy behind it. When you sit down and have a conversation with him you can go into such really interesting topics to do with what’s he been thinking about, writing about, creating. I’m a really big fan of Theon Cross. Basically everyone who has been around me or who has come up alongside me – it’s really amazing to witness people grow into their own, like myself I guess – growing into their own musical worlds and bringing their sounds to lots of different projects which is something I enjoy doing. Being witness to that is really exciting. I really enjoy watching all of Christian Scott’s band play. I’ve seen them a lot, we ended up on the same tour circuit last year and I really enjoy their interplay. Logan Richardson is a phenomenal sax player.
How did you go from student to seemingly at the heart of a scene?
Nubya Garcia: I think the switch started to happen at university, still a student but starting to gig out in London, and then moving further afield and getting your first international gig offer. That was with a band called Polar Bear – a really great project run by Seb Rochford and a few other great musicians. And that leads to more gigs and more gigs … There is no hard and fast rule. I think it was just being around, you know? Saying yes to the things you want to be involved in and then would lead you to take the initiative to maybe do your own thing. What’s great is that we’re all going to be students forever in this music. That’s one of the exciting things, as daunting and weird as that sounds. We’re all going to be learning forever.
Talk about to recording and forming your own group and your first two releases Nubya’s 5 and When We Are (that was a little more electronic).
Nubya Garcia: I was going to this night at the Royal Albert Hall called “Good Evening Arts.” They did a jam every Sunday and a different band would host it each week. They would do one set of standards and one set they completely opened up into a jam session. I did one of those for the first time and I had to set up a band, rehearse and do all of that… and I’d kind of been used to doing it with other people. So it was just about calling musicians being like “Do you want to do this this week?” and then that turned into a few more of those and then I think I started writing my own music when … I was gigging with lots of other bands and Jazz Re:Freshed approached me and they were like “we really want to do something with you, when are you gonna start your own band?” (laughs) And I did, that led me to putting Nubya’s 5 out on that label. Those were first tunes that I’ve completed except for some Nerija tracks – it was cool. Alongside all these jazz projects and exploring the jazz side of it we had a bunch of friends in the wider musical community who we were coming up with who really great producers who wanted some live instruments on their projects. Forming relationships with musicians outside the jazz idiom so to speak led me to want to do something mixing the two worlds, hence remixing them live (for follow-up EP When We Are) would invite more people to genre and remove jazz from just being just in a couple of spaces. Because all over the world, that is happening.
The album feels like a serious step forward. Did you approach it differently?
Nubya Garcia: I think that’s just time, to be honest. The added years of listening to music in a more critical way as well appreciating it just as it is. Studying it and figuring out what composers and musicians are doing and that informing your musical vocabulary. Starting to transcribe a record for compositional purposes, just to figure out what’s going on, on a bigger scale of the tune rather than just one solo as I would have done before. Doing it in a compositional way is quite a learning curve. The time that we spent touring, time I spent playing, meeting musicians around the world, playing with them – experience, to be honest. I think it’s three years between the first EP and this album and I think that’s a lot of time spent crafting and being a student actively learning – pinpointing what you want to learn and figuring out how to achieve that. Especially when you have limited time on the road. It was quite an interesting process.
When I finished the tour last summer, I always book the studio before anything is finished so I have something to aim. towards – I guess I’m a deadline hunter as such. But it was the first break I’d had in ages and I sat down in the studio before the album session to just write, you know? To get together all the ideas that I’d written down or sketched down over the tour and everything came together… I think this had a narrative, you know? Everything needs a narrative, whether you share that with people or not, it’s up to you. I think for me, it’s very helpful to visualize exactly what I’m trying to say or visualize the body that the music is going to inhabit, where it’s gonna be, why it’s there. And then forget that and play it. I think to play it and write it, you need both sides of the coin to feel like there is substance, I do anyway. It really helped me, conceptually designing the album rather than plucking stuff out of thin air.
So what is that whole?
Nubya Garcia: I guess we start at the word and album title Source. That was the first tune that I wrote like two years ago for the EP. But it felt like a very different tune then. We rewrote it into a dub. It just felt like it sat a lot better there and hearing it in that space, that word makes me think of beginnings, a power source – what gives you power. For ages, I was thinking a lot about what is it that powers us as people and as communities. What is it that drives us, what gives people purpose, what makes people get up in the morning and give 100 percent at what they do. And I was thinking a lot about how to make that a sustainable thing. Thinking in a different way about roots – where I’ve come from, where my family is from. Digging through that a little and trying to connect. And connecting to other places I’m also from. I think in that way it kind of comes full circle back to a sense of personal power that can be gained from knowing where you’re. from and connecting to that sense. So that’s the long rambled version of what the album thematically arced around.
Where do you find that drive, that power?
Nubya Garcia: Writing this album and touring last year made me question that because I was so busy. Never at home, never had more than a day off, I was starting to wonder, what on earth is this? Everything is going well travel and music-wise but is this the level we all have to work at because of the imbalance in the music industry? So for me, through this album I discovered it was important to be at home, connected to my community and the people that I care about and the wider community – not just my family. Friends and people that know me. I found a lot of solace in exercise, especially in lockdown. I hadn’t exercised for a long time. When I was on tour I noticed I was a lot more focused. For a long time I was my own manager, I wound up doing everything. I think most musicians end up doing that for a time. I found to able to do all that, I had to have time to myself. Exercise helped me clear my head. Being outside the city. Seeing some greenery, some earth. It makes you feel small in a good way and pushes out everything else that’s not super-duper important out of your head for that second. There are so many things. There are so many things that I learned to recharge with and from and the most important has been to just rest and take time and have quality time with people that you know.
What communities are you honouring or connecting with on Source? And what communities did you rediscover?
Nubya Garcia: It was more a look at them in a new light. There was a lot of celebration of black culture in the house. Both my parents are black so it was just everywhere — whether it was food, or family gatherings or the music at family gatherings – it was a part of everything. We’re also Black British so you have these two worlds in the house. One of the things I remember from being a kid directly connected to me and my culture was spending quite a few summers going to Trinidad with my dad to stay my great aunt and just hang out there. From age ten to fourteen we used to go for a few weeks every summer and see my grandad out there. And while we were there we went to Carnival, we made sure that we would see as much of the island as possible – the food, the music, the dance. I didn’t realize at the time how important that was, that it was my dad introducing me to things that I wouldn’t haven’t been exposed to in the same way in London. We’re also Black British so you have these two worlds in the house. My parents took Carnival in London and once or twice he had a shop there. I remember all of those things. When you look back and remember those community experiences, they’re really important, they’re formative and they make you feel a sense of belonging to many communities, wherever they are. So it was definitely seeing them in a new light whilst doing this record. Trying to tell stories through this music that I remember or that I’m revisiting or that I am trying to bring to the table for discussion. Whether people know what the tunes are about doesn’t matter but to me it’s important to write about the things that I care about.
Kwes is an interesting choice of producer as a great artist in his own right. What was that like working with a producer?
Nubya Garcia: I was looking for more than an engineer. I had produced my records before and I always know the direction that I want to go in sonically so I was looking for someone to work with in that sense. We produced it together. I knew what I wanted but I couldn’t do it myself technically. I met Kwes working with Nerija, he did Nerija’s record and I loved what he did with the sound of those raw recordings. He didn’t add any crazy things, he just really embellished where the music needed, and brought everything to where it needed to be. That’s the role of producer. That’s it. It’s realizing how the music sits really well, as it’s meant to – as if you were hearing it live. It was an amazing process. He was so receptive to everything that I wanted to do. I wanted to build it from the bottom up and you can hear that. The bass is at the heart of everything because that’s how I like the music to be, I want to feel it in my chest and through the floor. I’m so happy that we were able to have such an organic process of working together.
So it’s a low end record.
Nubya Garcia: It’s more of a “thick” sound. I probably said that like fifty million times in the mixing process (laughs) without it sounding heavy and hurting your ears. I wanted it to be a wall of sound in some ways but still be able to hear all the intricacies of the music and adding all the effects that we did that were so subtle. I wanted our studio effects to meld with post-production.
There is some serious chemistry on display from your band. What does everyone bring to it?
Nubya Garcia: It used to be Femi on drums but he’s been touring the world for years and we couldn’t align sometimes, so Sam came on board to do the gigs and it’s been really incredible playing with him for these last two years or so. We’ve literally been touring that whole time until last December. Everyone is so individual and phenomenal together. And they listen, you know? That’s what I really love. It’s about what we do together. It’s a unit, we do this together and it’s not about any one person and it’s a pleasure to play with them. They bring all of their amazing musicality every single time no matter how much sleep we’ve had and that’s hard to do. People underestimate how hard it is to tour and to deliver every night because you love what you do rather than anything else, and they do it every single time. And every time it’s completely different. I couldn’t ask for anything else.
You recorded in Colombia for this album. Do you have roots there?
Nubya Garcia: Probably. My mom is from Guyana and my dad is from Trinidad and apparently my great-great grandfather somewhere down the line was from Venezuela and they obviously used to be one country. So maybe my lineage dates back to there. But when I went last year it was a really phenomenal experience. I was there for two months. I’d been for the first time a few months prior a project and I met so many amazing musicians – so much so that I decided to come back and discover more. We went to Medellin, the Amazon, Timbiqui on the Pacific coast, Cali. It was an amazing experience of going to such a culturally rich place – with so many cultures. Medellin is being in the Amazon felt completely different from being in the Medellin which felt completely different from Timbiqui. And some of the experiences of music I heard there were just amazing. I can’t put it into words. It’s electrifying. You can’t stay still which I think is a good thing.
“La Cumbia Me Esta Llamando” was recorded with La Perla there. It was the last track we did on the album, on the first day in Bogota back in Colombia we spent the afternoon in the studio and we just played and played. And we went to a gig that evening which was amazing. They were producers and DJ’s going back to back with instruments and hardware – just incredible manipulators of sound. I was contemplating being based somewhere else – not forever – just quite excited to live in another city. London isn’t going anywhere. In terms of my set-up here, I could come back at any time which is a true privilege. I’m interested in what it would be like to live somewhere else. I remain hopeful that the tour will happen when it happens and that’s when we’ll play the album. And people will maybe have had the chance to sit with the album. When we toured, the EP’s had been out for two years and so people knew the tunes. Every few months it would be awesome to see how people had bonded with those tunes and seeing musicians do them in a different way. You’re not introducing people to music. There are different energies. So I’m waiting. It would have a very different campaign and roll-out, it is what it is but I’m happy that the album is out and that we are able to do it and we weren’t completely stopped by the state of the world. But at the end of the day, music is meant to be shared.
What does it feel like in those peak moments when you’re playing live?
Nubya Garcia: It’s hard to talk about your own improvisation. I always just try to be listening to everything that is going on in the band, be as open as possible and at the same time be a driver in terms of how you can shape the music. We’re all drivers, but when you are improvising that goes up another notch or two. You’re telling a story without words but with all the meaning behind it. As much as possible I try to remove the ego. In music it can get very tangled with some people which is a normal process but it’s important to remember that its music, it has a purpose and that is different for everybody. But it’s not about me. We’re creating something in the moment that will never be created again and that’s amazing and beautiful. You have the option to go anywhere. You get to call on everything that you’ve spent time listening to or practicing or go to a completely different space that you’ve never been to before. It’s all open. It’s about being honest. Sounding like an honest musician. Sounding like me.