Just three days after picking up her second Jazz FM award (this time for Best UK Jazz Act, voted by the British public), high-flying Camden Town saxophonist Nubya Garcia found herself playing in a Cheltenham department store. But this wasn’t in front of active shoppers during peak opening times but, rather, at night in a long basement room that had been converted to resemble a dark and dingy low-ceilinged dive bar. Packed to the rafters with a wide range of punters – from young fanatical hipsters to middle-aged broadsheet readers and curious pensioners – 28-year-old Garcia, backed by a stellar band, showed why she’s such a hot commodity right now.
Introduced by DJ and tastemaker, Gilles Peterson, Garcia played five long-form compositions that showcased her skills as a composer as well as her prowess as a saxophone player. Her tenor sound – robust and not too rich but also characterised by a dreaminess as well as a spiritual, searching, quality – has distilled some elements from Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders and Wayne Shorter, but is also, more importantly, uniquely her own. Her saxophone was framed by a lush chordal backdrop provided by the impressive Joe Armon-Jones on Fender Rhodes while the energetic Danile Casimir on double bass and Sam Jones’s drums injected her music with a powerful rhythmic impetus.
The opener, ‘Fly Free’ – taken from her 2017 debut album, ‘Nubya’s Five’ – found her saxophone gliding over a giddy maelstrom of percussive polyrhythms, with each member of the band enjoying a solo moment in the spotlight, while ‘Source’ – taken from her latest EP, 2018’s ‘When We Are’ – found its seismic rhythms tipping its hat to dub reggae, though Garcia’s saxophone gave the music a probing quality. Sam Jones’s volcanic drums began a new song, ‘Hold,’ which evolved from an orgy of percussive sounds into a pulsating Latin-style number with Garcia’s saxophone – elegant but passionate – surfing over a surging, rolling, wave of groove. Another freshly-penned new song, ‘Pace’ – inspired by the hustle and bustle of her home city, London – also showcased Garcia and her ace band to good effect. She closed her set with the title song from her EP, ‘When We Are,’ though it was re-worked in a way that almost made it unrecognisable from that version, beginning with an unaccompanied saxophone solo, which not only showed off Garcia’s technique and breathy tenor tone but also her emotionally-nuanced delivery.
Most people witnessing this enthralling concert would have recognised that the praise lavished by the press on Garcia is well-deserved and that she is most certainly a real and potent force in contemporary British jazz. Believe the hype.