If you’re looking to learn about foreign music scenes, compilation albums are a pretty good place to start. If you’re looking to learn about the London jazz scene, then listen to “We Out Here” from Brownswood Recordings.
Compilation albums serve a pretty clear purpose as primers. Genres can feel like landscapes easy to get lost in. That compilation album can be your map.
Compilations aren’t perfect. The biggest flaw tends to be that songs don’t fit together. Because every band made a song specifically for “We Out Here” the album mostly avoids this. “We Out Here” introduces you to nine good jazz bands with one pretty great Jazz album. “We Out Here” excels because it introduced a lot of different styles of jazz but most tracks still flow through to the next and complement each other.
The two songs that open the album show what I mean. Maisha’s “Inside The Acorn” opens the album with a brilliant, 6-minute long song that leans toward the Miles Davis side of jazz. Ezra Collective’s “Pure Shade” follows “Inside The Acorn” up with a track that sounded so much like Snarky Puppy that I checked to see if they shared producers or band members. (They don’t, but compare the trumpet swell in “Pure Shade” to the one in Snarky Puppy’s “Flight” – – the similarity is uncanny).
For comparison purposes, both styles (Miles Davis vs. Snarky Puppy) have traditional jazz elements: improvisation, breakdowns, fluid rhythms that change easily, and that brass. For me, the key difference is Snarky Puppy’s style has a much clearer driving rhythm and a point it’s heading toward. Miles Davis is content to wander, to drop a melody and fall into another one, and to have multiple instruments breakdown in competing ways.
“Inside The Acorn” feels improvisational and like it doesn’t follow one core rhythm, though it builds very well. A lot of the instrumentation has that squirrely, hyper-technical style that seems more common to old jazz, too. That combination, along with a ton of patience from the band and a low, calm mix on the instruments makes “Inside The Acorn” feel tougher to grasp (though it’s a favorite of mine).
“Pure Shade” orients the listener a lot more than “Inside The Acorn” does. When Ezra Collective’s pianist Joe Armon-Jones has an awesome breakdown in the middle of the song the bass plays one beat so that you can focus on the piano. When Femi Koleoso explodes on the drums at the end Dylan Jones follows with a loud but simple and repeated trumpet melody.
Which song sounds better comes down to stylistic preference but the styles bring out the best in each other and help the album flow because they’re so different. It’s refreshing to have a strong driving rhythm after not having one.
“We Out Here” generally matches up tracks well with each other so that there’s a great through-line you can follow. “The Balance” by Moses Boyd has an even stronger driving rhythm than “Pure Shade” so “Pure Shade” makes for a great segue between it and “Inside The Acorn.” Moses Boyd goes past Snarky Puppy and into BADBADNOTGOOD territory where the structure’s almost closer to hip-hop than jazz.
Theon Cross follows up with “Brockley,” which has a fun, aggressive Too Many Zooz- style with less punch and more groove. It absolutely blends with “The Balance” and with “Once,” Nubya Garcia’s track that follows it. “Once” has similar aggressive moments and the intensity of “Once” and “Brockley” comes from a saxophone. “Once” easily bleeds into “Black Skin, Black Masks” by Shabaka Hutchings because both songs fit more toward the wandering, Miles Davis-end of jazz.
The biggest break in the through-line is “Walls” by Triforce. “Walls” is too smooth and the electric guitars are don’t blend with “Black Skin, Black Masks” but I love “Walls” in general. Its reverb-loaded electric guitars are a nice change of pace and the chillwave synthesizers at the end fit the atmosphere so well.
“We Out Here” ends on a very mellow note as Joe Armon-Jones’s “Go See” is another smooth jazz track that’s very strong though more traditional. Kokoroko closes the album with “Abusey Junction” – – a rhythmic fusion of Afrobeat and jazz. “Abusey Junction” might be the most pleasant track on the album, with light bongos, clean keys, and perfectly fuzzy guitar.
The transitions definitely become less seamless at the end and I wonder if “Go See” shouldn’t have switched places with “Walls” since I think “Walls” has a structure closer to “Abusey Junction” and “Go See,” a structure closer to “Black Skin, Black Masks.” I also wonder if the ending gets too mellow and similar-sounding as the first half of the album feels more dynamic.
Still, “We Out There” felt to me like what a compilation album should be. I’m impressed with how well the tracks flowed into one another. It is no small task to get nine songs from nine bands to flow together so well. On top of that, I’m primed and interested in London jazz now.