London’s jazz scene has been supposedly up-and-coming for around four years now, but it’s safe to say that LDN has effectively arrived. One would be hard pressed to recall a time in recent memory when a localized jazz scene such as this one resulted not only in such a wealth of great new recordings, but actually being recognized in a broader popular music context. Jazz, most listeners would acknowledge, has been regarded as a niche indulgence since the ’70s at least. But when Sons of Kemet’s Your Queen Is a Reptile was nominated for the 2018 Mercury Prize, the London scene had effectively broken through to the mainstream, with legendary labels like Impulse!—whose historical roster has included the likes of John Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders and Sun Ra—releasing new material by vibrantly creative, formerly underground, hard-working innovators from the other side of the Atlantic. The tide is a steadily rising one, and with the emergence of that scene-defining breakthrough comes a long list of scene players who have delivered their own standout recordings, including Yussef Dayes’ and Kamaal Williams (whose own collaboration was all-too short lived), Zara McFarlane, Kokoroko, Nubya Garcia and Yazz Ahmed.
Garcia, much like Kemet’s Shabaka Hutchings, is something of a ringer, her saxophone performances to be found on a couple dozen recordings ranging from Ezra Collective to Makaya McCraven. With Nérija, however, Garcia is only the most recognizable name among a super-team of standout British players—much like her contribution to the similarly dazzling Maisha—all of whom are given a platform to shine individually while contributing to a greater, mellifluous whole on debut album Blume. But where a team like Yussef Kamaal pairs their jazz-fusion approach with a dancefloor-friendly broken beat touch, and where Sons of Kemet infuses their Afro-Carribean jazz with a fiery protest message, Nérija is a more mellifluous and soulful affair that finds a more melodic sensibility amid the groove.
In the opening moments of leadoff track “Nascence,” Nérija’s harmonized brass and woodwind offer the faintest suggestion of classicism. It’s a subtle, gentle sound that feels as if it were plucked from vintage Blue Note or Atlantic LPs, but it takes on an entirely different life when drummer Lizy Exell adds a bit of Latin-Calypso funk beneath what’s ostensibly a hard-bop sound. It’s strangely refreshing if not entirely traditional; while a lot of jazz has veered from an intensely technical extremely to one concerned more with finding a new form of fusion over the past 20 years, “Nascence” simply breathes, giving each player a platform in an otherwise laid-back and easy to like composition.
Nérija is a seven-piece collective, and as such each track on Blume feels more like an all-for-one team effort than the vision of any one specific artist. Shuffle the tracklist and at any given moment a breathtaking moment will arrive: the brilliant horns that open “Partner Girlfriend Lover,” Garcia’s soaring solo on “EU (Emotionally Unavailable)”, or Exell’s dynamic drumwork on “Swift.” Yet there is a musician who stands out among the pack: Guitarist Shirley Tetteh. She’s frequently the glue that holds each piece together, her playing often as restrained as it is funky, and with a dreamy ambience that creates a blissfully pleasing listening experience throughout. Not coincidentally it’s her playing that’s showcased on the title track and its companion, “Blume II.” These are gorgeous mood pieces, at times reminiscent of the shorter snippets on Miles Davis’ Live-Evil, and their rippling, underwater beauty gives a closer look at a musician who I’m increasingly convinced would knock out an incredible solo effort.
The music that Nérija makes is exciting, but it’s not bombastic. This is jazz that feels warm and lived-in rather than bound by complicated conceptual threads or fire-breathing poetry. Rather, it sounds like a group of incredibly talented friends—all of them women except bassist Rio Kai—enjoying the shared musical space they occupy together. That kind of freewheeling, almost comforting sensibility isn’t necessarily often present in great music. But when it is—like on Blume—the feeling is infectious.