China Moses: “I’ve Never Had So Much Love!”

Singer, broadcaster and ambassador for the artform – over the years China Moses has played many roles. Fitting then, that on her newest album and run of gigs, she finally gets to cut loose. Mike McGrath-Bryan talks to jazz royalty about family, songwriting and the Great American Songbook.

From a young rapper, to a broadcaster and custodian of the arts, to a versatile singer and social commentator, it’s been quite the journey for singer China Moses. Born into jazz royalty, the daughter of the legendary Dee Dee Bridgewater and pioneering African-American theatre director Gilbert Moses was always going to have massive boots to fill, but rather than try and follow where they lead, Moses has simply done what she’s wanted to do, leading her to become a headline jazz singer in her own right, by way of European hip-hop and the Great American Songbook.

This journey has brought her to the release last year of newest album ‘Nightintales’, a mature piece of work that sees Moses fuse soul, jazz and r’n’b into cogent, compact pop, dealing with modern issues like alienation and anxiety. Though it released last year to critical acclaim, Moses has been living with the record for a lot longer. “The album was finished in 2015. It took me two years to find a label that wanted to release it! I met the lovely people at MPS Records in Germany, and they’re a small label, so their release calendar was really backed up, so they asked ‘would you mind waiting a bit?’. That was in 2016, and I asked ‘how long?’, ‘cause I’d been touring this project already, trying to keep my live work going. And they said ‘if you can wait until March of 2017, we’ll be all yours.’ And I’m very, very glad that I waited. ”

In keeping the record to short bursts of accessible, whip-smart pop, Moses has invested ‘Nightintales’ with the kind of brevity that is the soul of wit to modern-day, streaming-centric audiences. That immediacy was at every level of the album’s creation, from writing, all the way into working with collaborators in studio. “I’m very proud of the way the album sounds. It was recorded in the jazz tradition of keeping everything to one take. The musicians are one-take, I re-recorded my vocals as there was a lot going on, and we had way too little time. So, what you  hear, piano, bass, drums, are all one take. Them boys, they can play. I still love it. The reason I can still love it, is the songs are still very short, on purpose, on the album format, so in concert we can stretch them out. It’s an opportunity for the musicians to play, to interpret the song the way they’re feeling it that night. I find that as a vocalist, we often have a tendency to concentrate on the voice, but for me, and this is what my mom taught me, you are nothing without your band.”

Over the years, Moses has also worked comprehensively with the accepted Great American Songbook, across numerous stage shows and heritage projects. No great surprise, of course, considering her roots, but an important and distinct influence on her creativity and frame of reference. “I didn’t graduate high school. My deal with my mother was I would get a GED (Leaving Cert-equivalent diploma for school leavers in America) after my first album. I’ve always lived with two ‘burdens’. Having Dee Dee Bridgewater as your mom is definitely not a burden, I can attest to that. She’s a great mom and an amazing artist. But that’s one thing, trying to live up to what she’s done, and on the other side, I had the burden of not knowing who I was musically. So, when I did two (blues-influenced albums), it was like I went back to school, and ‘Nightintales’ was my thesis. It was like, ‘how do I take my heritage, my Black American musical heritage, and tell my story, my testimony, respecting the past while staying in the present?’. I didn’t want it to sound like something that could be mistaken for being recorded earlier in time.”

In 2012, Moses performed for UNESCO’s first annual International Jazz Day in Paris, alongside her mother and numerous other jazz luminaries, among other performances for the organisation over the years. It was a landmark performance for Moses, and it all came together on the day, while also tending to her duties as a broadcaster and interviewer at the event. “UNESCO are awesome! I went to Mexico this year, for UNESCO Mexico, for Culture Week in the region of Guadalajara. On the Jazz Day, at first I was just supposed to co-present the evening, then they came around and asked me to sing a song. I was like ‘whaaaaat?’ (laughs). It was crazy. I remember being scared, completely freaking out for the first song I did, and I think it really sounds like that. When it got to the finale, we did ‘On Broadway’, which was crazy, because I didn’t rehearse. I was co-hosting and interviewing everybody. I didn’t have time to rehearse the finale! I thought I was just singing background vocals, and right before we go on stage, my mom says ‘you have the third verse’. And ‘On Broadway’ keeps going up in key, the last verse is the highest, and I have a lower voice than my mom. I’ll never forget seeing George Benson’s face when I started singing. I had Uncle George’s approval! I was over the moon. It was so much fun, so laid-back, hanging with all these greats.”

As an aside to her music career, Moses has worked comprehensively as a broadcaster in France, including time with Canal Plus’ ‘Le Grand Journal’ music show, radio shows on JazzFM and TSFJazz, and documentaries with arts broadcaster ARTE. Music and broadcast media are odd yet complementary bedfellows for creative types, and Moses is quick to discuss her experiences on the ‘other’ side of that equation. “TV made me a better stage performer. It taught me to speak to a group of people at once. A lot of artists aren’t trained for that. I have no problem hyping up a song like Nancy Wilson or Frank Sinatra, who could set up a song. It’s also kept me extremely humble. There ain’t nothing special about me. I’m just doing what I do, the best that I can, and having a lot of joy doing it, and if it makes someone else happy for the space of a concert, or if I can make ‘em feel different kinds of emotions, take ‘em on a journey, shit, man, I’m happy. My job is done. Radio keeps me connected to music, to my love of what I do. Without music I would be a crazy person. It’s not just my passion, it’s my anchor.”

Moses is coming to Cork for her first Jazz Festival excursion this year, performing on a double-bill with the Pablo Ziegler Trio at the Everyman on Saturday October 27th. The appeal and enthusiasm of Ireland’s jazz community for getting behind major events is what stands out to Moses ahead of the big event. “I was in Dublin for the Cork Jazz Festival’s press event there, and I played for twenty minutes. Last year I was in Bray, for the jazz festival there, that was my first time in Ireland. It was a beautiful day, I wanted to live here, but then I thought of all the rain I hear about (laughs). I had the most amazing time in Dublin. It was a joy, and what was funny was, I didn’t recognise any of the people there, I found out the day after that they were all these social media influencers and tastemakers, and it was neat to see them discover jazz. I’ve never had so much love!’”

China Moses plays the Everyman Palace on Saturday October 27th, in a double-bill with the Pablo Ziegler Trio at 8pm. Tickets on sale now from guinnessjazzfestival.com

Loah: Staying True to This Heart

Ahead of taking to the stage in Cyprus Avenue next week, Sallay Matu Garnett, aka Loah, speaks with Mike McGrath-Bryan about her work and her journey.

For some, music is entertainment, a safety blanket amid the mundane or the chaotic. For others, it is catharsis, a means of coming to terms with life experiences and the self. For Sallay Matu Garnett, pseudonymously known as Loah, it’s also been the summary of a lifelong journey along lines of culture, identity and the artistic process. This summer saw the crossing of a major milestone along that path, with the release of debut extended-player ‘This Heart’ via Ensemble Music, after a string of streaming songs and extensive gigging. Garnett discusses the creation of a long-awaited piece of work. “Recording the band was very simple – we all went up to Hellfire Studios, with gorgeous views of the Dublin mountains for a week and the band nailed it. The vocals took a lot longer, they were done over a few months. And there were extra sessions for grand pianos, saxophones, strings, that kind of thing. The creative process was much more complicated, I changed my mind many times about how to do it. It took me a long time to be confident enough to even record, frankly. But once I decided, we got it done fairly simply as I’m lucky to have some great musicians around me.”

With the process of studio creation demystified and a tangible body of work given to her music, time to live with the music has been taken, and Garnett is keen to progress. “I think the songs are really something, and I’m very proud. The performances by the band are stellar. I don’t think there’s much that I would change for how we treated those songs,. However, I’m also very ready to move on from that sound, phase and chapter of writing and open up to a new exploration.”

Genres and pigeonholes are something that artists more often than not simply play around with, or disinterested in overall. For Garnett, however, the idea of the mission statement is not only central, but verging on autobiographical. ‘ArtSoul’ is her self-coined, singular vision for her music, born equally of her roots and the classical training she received, as well as current influences and collaborators. It’s the sum of her journey so far, and an idea of the ambitions she holds. “I suppose it’s being mixed race, Irish/Sierra Leonean, and growing up in both places but predominantly Ireland that has given me a unique sense of self. There are parts of both heritage and both cultures that are so incredible, sometimes in flow together, sometimes in opposition, that give rise to an interesting standpoint from which to create art. Also because of moving around I’ve been exposed to so much amazing music that has seeped into my bone marrow that I struggle to settle on what sound feels most like ‘home’ to me. That’s the ongoing journey – but at its core, I make soul music.”

Hype and anticipation are all part of the cycle surrounding artists, especially in the social-media, breaking-news age. And while Garnett’s momentum emerged and spread like wildfire from blogs, uploads and videos on YouTube, ‘This Heart’ was a long time coming, as the title track infers in a daring opening gambit. Surely, there must have been impatience on her part to kinda capitalise on all the hubbub. “I wasn’t expecting the ‘hype’ at all, and I actually found that at times it flared up my insecurities if I’m totally honest. I felt a sense of impostor syndrome as most people experience starting out in something – so even though it was all very supportive and uber positive, unfortunately I didn’t initially feel a sense of confidence and experience in myself as a writer and performer to match some of the wonderful things being said. It’s sad in a way – I couldn’t always fully embrace it because it left a feeling of pressure to expand and grow really quickly rather than space to figure myself out, which I needed. I took the space and time anyway because I simply didn’t want to record until I was ready, but I felt like by doing so I was somehow disappointing people at times – ‘they’ expected more music, and faster. I also expected more from myself, in an unhealthy way. It’s a funny one.”

A standout from the record is the studio version of ‘Cortege’, finally formally released after its first airing online in 2014, featuring the little bits and flourishes a studio production allows for that a live version can’t. A beautiful, mournful piece of music, the piece is sung in two Sierra Leonean languages: Sherbro and Mende. While the title refers to solemnity and a procession, Garnett explains the emotional impetus behind a moving piece of music. “The song is about death as the title suggest, but the lyrics use the metaphor of the sun rising and setting, and how we all rise and set in kind. I wrote it for a friend whose mother passed very unexpectedly and quickly of cancer. It was my way of sending condolence to someone I care about, and trying to make sense of the great mystery of death with dignity, acceptance and love. And in doing so, infused it with an appreciation for feminine energy, also a very mysterious and subtle force we all benefit from but do not necessarily always appreciate.”

Off the hype train for a wee bit, Garnett recently mucked in with Cork-born producer Bantum’s single ‘Take It’, released last year ahead of his second full-length, ‘Move’. Garnett breaks down the process of collaboration. “Working with Ruairí was effortless. He sent me the track he thought I would vibe with, I did, and I wrote it in three sittings. He’s a very lovely, very laid back and caring person who’s become a real mate – in fact I enjoyed the process so much that we’re back in cahoots on more music! ‘Move’ is a really great album in so many ways – not least because it’s true to him but also his very organic collaborations with so many amazing artists on it is an incredible snapshot of music in Ireland right now, that I think will be looked back on as an important album of its time.”

Loah plays Cyprus Avenue on November 30th as part of the run of dates to promote ‘This Heart’. It’s not her first rodeo with Corkonians, and Garnett looks set to deliver something special. “It’s a pretty slick venue and Cork people, based on all my experiences are a very cultured crew with refined taste so I’m both excited and a bit nervous! I like these nerves though they give me an extra shot of adrenaline that always gives the shows an extra something.” Of course, in keeping with looking to progress, Garnett’s schedule is full for the winter after touring for the extended-player is over with. “Loads and loads and loads of writing! I have some really interesting collaborations on the way, not least the Bantum one. In fact one of those collaborations, a very unexpected one I would imagine, will hit your ears before Christmas. I’m super excited about them all, and I’m actually really looking forward to 2018 unfolding.”

Dee Dee Bridgewater: Yes, She’s Ready

For legendary jazz vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater, the upcoming weekend allows her to continue exploring her roots, following the release of new album ‘Memphis, Yes, I’m Ready’. She tells Mike McGrath-Bryan about her journey to date.

The body of work that Dee Dee Bridgewater has created in four decades of music and stagecraft is a daunting task to summarise in a quick explainer: Grammy-winning vocalist, Tony-winning theatre performer, United Nations dignitary, and most recently, a recognised master of her craft. Coming up in the nineteen-seventies, Bridgewater cut her jazz teeth working alongside the likes of Sonny Rollins and Dizzy Gillespie as part of the Thad Jones Big Band. Bridgewater discusses working alongside names and faces that have become part of jazz history. “It was wonderful. I was at the start of my career, and it was wonderful to have been embraced by all of these legends. It was really like my school, like music school, as I had no formal musical training, and it was exceptional to be called to do gigs with people like Dizzy and Sonny.”

As mentioned at the outset, Bridgewater pursued a parallel life in musical theatre, winning a Tony and obtaining a Laurence Olivier Nomination. Balancing the disparate artforms became part of her life, and she observes the differences there were in their respective creative processes. “There would be a common thread. In musical theatre you are working in an ensemble, and in jazz, depending on the size of your band, it would also be an ensemble situation, having to pull your weight, to make the whole as good as possible. But when you’re doing theatre, you’re dealing with specific songs, staying married to melodies, you’re not supposed to improvise, as the way you come in or out of a song can be a cue for someone else. With jazz you have much more freedom of expression as it’s based on improvisation.”

This year Bridgewater was awarded with one of America’s highest honours in the jazz genre: the National Endowment for the Arts’ Jazz Master recognition. At a time when the Endowment and public arts funding is under grave threat from the Trump administration, Bridgewater is vocal about the importance of the arts to public life. “It was wonderful to be recognised. I did speak out (in my speech) on the fact that this current administration is trying to cut back on all things cultural. So far, the NEA has been left intact, and that’s a good thing. As an individual, I feel somewhat obligated to speak out, to voice my opinion when the platform allows itself. I’m not one to use the stage to speak out politically, I don’t think that’s correct, but whenever I can, depending on the platform, I speak my mind. For example, the new show I’ll be performing in Cork, I use the song ‘Why Am I Treated So Bad?’ as an opportunity to speak about race relations, and what’s going on in the United States right now.”

New album ‘Memphis, Yes I’m Ready’ sees Bridgewater brings together songs from the Black radio of your childhood, continuing the exploration of your life in music. What was the process like this time for returning to Memphis and choosing songs? “Returning was a great experience for me. I first went back in 2014 and to see the places you lived in, the neighbourhoods are still there, is a wonderful thing. To visit the school where my father taught, that’s great. Those are just like putting puzzle pieces together in one’s life. I picked songs predominantly from when I was able to catch WDIA radio in Flint, MA when I was growing up. It became about songs that would go together, the centrepiece for me was a song called ‘Givin’ Up’ by Gladys Knight and the Pips, the very first song I heard on this station. At the time I was listening to it secretly, I didn’t know my father was one of the original DJs on WDIA when they had created the all-Black music format in 1949. He was known as “Matt the Platter Cat” and worked alongside B.B. King and Rufus Thomas.”

Bridgewater is playing the Jazz Festival as a headliner at the Everyman Palace on Sunday night. Ahead of the visit, she’s excited about reconnecting with a little piece of her ancestry, and getting into the spirit of the weekend. “I’m very excited! It’s a festival I’ve wanted to do ever since I was performing, especially when I moved to Europe, to live in France. I didn’t seem to be on the radar, I don’t know (laughs). I’ve got some Irish descent. My middle name is Eileen, and I have 17% Irish ancestry, so I’ll be coming home! It’s a great show, the melodies are very simple, I think people will really enjoy it. It’s music that makes you feel good and gets you to dancing.”

Michael Kiwanuka: Love and Hate

Mike McGrath-Bryan takes a look at the rise of soul’s newest superstar, Michael Kiwanuka, ahead of another sold-out show in Cyprus Avenue on the 13th.

Londoner Michael Kiwanuka’s star has been slowly on the ascendant in recent years, with soul-oriented debut album ‘Home Again’ leading to critical acclaim and major touring, in addition to the BBC’s Sound of 2012 award after the release of two extended-plays. But with more confident and assured follow-up longplay ‘Love & Hate’, Kiwanuka has seen unprecedented success, including topping the UK album charts and a sold out tour that stops in Cyprus Avenue on the 13th. No less of an authority than Mojo magazine recently weighed in on the record as being “as confident a second statement as you could wish for, full of strong melodies, affecting lyrics, sharp playing, immense arrangements and sympathetic production”.

Lead-off single ‘Black Man in a White World’ sees the mature young artist stepping with more certainty into the greater questions of racial identity and music, as a British-Ugandan Londoner. Describing himself as “obsessed” with guitar as a teenager in a recent press release, Kiwanuka speaks of discovering Jimi Hendrix’ racial identity on seeing footage of the guitar great at work, and reaching an epiphany. Speaking on the topic on the same presser, he articulated the experiences behind the tune. “That song is about all the sadness and frustrations of childhood, of being one of very few black kids in Muswell Hill, and never feeling like fitting in. It’s about not feeling like I could be a rock star, of always being categorised as jazz, of attending the Royal Academy of Music and seeing no black people on the course, and thinking just how much I was a black man in a white world”.

Signing for Communion Records in 2011, Kiwanuka came to the attention of the label after working as a session guitarist in London for a number of years, including work for grime artists Chipmunk and Bashy. The first fruits of this partnership emerged shortly thereafter, with extended play ‘Tell Me a Tale’ releasing on 10” and digital that April. It’s a formative effort that lends credence to comparisons with the soul greats almost immediately, albeit with stamps of sonic modernity in evidence in places throughout, in among some very warm and familar production. Ample layers of strings and woodwind flesh out some genuine soul-searching throughout its three tracks, the familiar soul tropes shot through with the impatience of youth.

Second E.P. ‘I’m Getting Ready’, released a few months later in 2011, continues in a more introspective direction, pointing the focus of questioning inward. The eponymous track is a gentle treatise on resolve and preparation, while ‘Need You By My Side’ is a gentle love song that adds soulful focus and brassy heft to a folky backbone. ‘Any Day Will Do Fine’ is more of a mover again, peeking outward and extending out, fading softly with gongs to punctuate the song’s journey.

Kiwanuka’s work ensured him a slot touring with pop titan Adele in the same year, accompanying her on the venue and hall rounds, including a set at the Royal Albert Hall that was recorded for release on iTunes as an exclusive as part of Apple’s line of iTunes Music Festival releases.

Signing with Polydor in 2012, Kiwanuka used his pair of extended plays as the basis for his debut album ‘Home Again’. Further exploring his relationship to the soul icons of his childhood, Kiwanuka nailed his colours firmly to the mast, with a Marvin Gaye-esque honesty that permeated every aspect of newly-cut material. The pressure created by the hype surrounding him, however, took its toll on the young man. “I wanted to give up making music after my first album, but this made me realise that I just needed a new approach to really reflect who I am now.”

The aforementioned earnestness of his first record, however, is its real joy, as Kiwanuka speaks openly of his internal monologues and opens up his most personal feelings throughout, albeit through the coda of soul and jazz tropes. Of the process, he’s said: “The confessional aspect is cathartic for me. You accept it, once it’s done, it’s out there. That’s the therapeutic nature of it. Now, I’m living in a way where I’m not apologising. My first album I was just worried about everything.”

Album number two saw somewhat of a dream partnership occur, as Kiwanuka was teamed with, among others like fellow Londoner Inflo, American producer/songwriter Danger Mouse, best known for producing/collaborating with MF Doom, Gnarls Barkley, Gorillaz and the Black Keys. Kiwanuka was taken with Danger Mouse’s influences and the callbacks evident in his work, which lent itself to the immediacy and ease he’d been seeking for the process of his sophomore effort. Says Kiwanuka: “The first album was way more technical. It was like, ‘OK, we need exactly the right drum sound and an old mic, and the perfect guitar sound’. I love that stuff and I always will, but Brian (Burton) changed my perspective on it. I realised it the music wasn’t just about deconstructing the instruments, it was to feel.”

Kiwanuka’s complicated relationship with religion is summarised in album track ‘Father’s Child’. Referring to improvisations on the tune as similar to “speaking in tongues” the song conjures up images from a childhood spent at church. “That song is about purpose really, it’s about walking with someone. And those ad-libs feel like tongues, lyrics that pour out from the heart before the brain has had time to process them. A lot of this album was grappling with the insecurities that I’d learned. The first album was grappling with faith. Here, I’m not so worried about that – I’ve accepted that it comes and goes, and now, I’m left with myself.”

What your writer hears in a few tracks from the record speaks to a musician continuing to grow, as the interpersonal hurdles fall under his own leaps and bounds. Title track ‘Love & Hate’ is a call to a sense of purpose, addressing the further questions of fortitude, confidence and growth. ‘One More Night’ is a deep cut, with hangdog keys soaking a tight performance in melancholy in the genre’s finest tradition, and ‘Black Man in a White World’, a co-write with producer Inflo, is a clap-along blues stomp, replete with stop-start bass that punctuates Kiwanuka’s honesty. This feel for the personal that underlies an encyclopedic array of reference points has earned him fans worldwide, but the latter will surely see him here to stay.

Michael Kiwanuka plays Cyprus Avenue on October 13th. Tickets are sold out in advance.