Mercury Music Prize: Ezra Collective become first jazz winners – BBC

  • By Mark Savage and Steven McIntosh
  • BBC News
7 September 2023, 02:43 BST

Updated 1 hour ago

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Video caption,

Ezra Collective deliver their acceptance speech after winning the Mercury Music Prize

Ezra Collective have become the first jazz act to win the Mercury Prize, with their album Where I’m Meant To Be.

The prestigious £25,000 prize celebrates the best British or Irish album of the last 12 months.

The quintet held off competition from fellow nominees Jessie Ware, J Hus, Arctic Monkeys, Fred Again and Raye.

Accepting the award, drummer Femi Koleoso said the group “represents something very special because we met in a youth club”.

“This moment that we’re celebrating right here is testament to good, special people putting time and effort into young people to play music,” he continued.

“This is not just a result for Ezra Collective, or for UK jazz, but this is a special moment for every single organisation across the country, ploughing efforts and time into young people playing music.”

Image source, Getty Images

Image caption,

Ezra Collective (Ife Ogunjobi pictured) performed at the ceremony before being announced as the winners

Ezra Collective were announced as the winners by DJ Jamz Supernova during the ceremony in Hammersmith, west London, on Thursday evening.

Accepting the prize, Koleoso thanked God, the band’s team and family who have supported them through the years.

He joked: “If a jazz band winning the Mercury Prize doesn’t make you believe in God, I don’t know what will.”

Where I’m Meant To Be, while broadly categorised as jazz, is a melting pot of genres, with elements of grime, salsa and reggae.

In a five-star review published last year, the Observer’s Kate Hutchinson called it “an exceptional album that centres joy and community, radiates positivity and youthful abandon, and could well be the one to cross over to the big league”.

Speaking to BBC News after being announced as winners, Koleoso explained: “We’re the shuffle generation of music, we listen to some Beethoven, and then 50 Cent comes on straight after, and then Little Simz comes on just after that.

“And that kind of influences the way we approach music. So there are no rules, we love jazz, but at the same time we love salsa too, so why not try and get that in there?”

Broadcaster Lauren Laverne hosted the ceremony, which featured live performances from nine of the shortlisted artists.

J Hus had been due to perform but pulled out due to illness, while Arctic Monkeys and Fred Again were not present due to touring commitments.

The Mercury shortlist was chosen by an independent judging panel including music critic Will Hodgkinson, musicians Anna Calvi and Jamie Cullum, and DJs Jamz Supernova and MistaJam.

Image caption,

Ezra Collective are the first ever jazz group to win the Mercury Music Prize, which launched in 1992

“You can always tell jazz by the way the people on the stage are having more fun than the audience,” Joy Division’s manager Rob Gretton once said.

Ezra Collective are the proof he was wrong. Their energetic live sets have been making crowds move since they met as teenagers at a youth programme founded by renowned jazz bassist Gary Crosby.

They released their debut album, You Can’t Steal My Joy, in 2019 – drawing freely on the music they grew up with: Afrobeat, jazz, reggae, salsa, hip-hop and grime.

But before they could take it on tour, the pandemic hit.

Their Mercury Prize-winner, Where I’m Meant To Be, was written and recorded in lockdown, inspired by a conversation about imposter syndrome with film director Sir Steve McQueen (12 Years A Slave, Small Axe).

Rather than reflect the isolation of the Covid era, the album is a joyous celebration of community, positivity and friendship – assisted by singers like Jorja Smith and Emeli Sande; and rappers including Kojey Radical and Sampa The Great.

Soulful and rhythmically propulsive, it became a top 40 hit – unusual for a jazz record – with the quintet booked to play the Royal Albert Hall in November.

Even more impressively, they’ve upended years of snark about the Mercury Prize’s “token jazz album”.

“Hopefully we can end that for good and just say that music is music,” said bandleader Femi Koleoso.

And his ambitions don’t end there.

“Nothing is impossible at this point. I’ll see you at the Emirates Stadium.”

The ceremony saw Raye impress the crowd with The Thrill Is Gone, a jazz and hip-hop fusion from her debut album, while rapper Loyle Carner gave a powerful performance of his track HGU.

Soul singer Olivia Dean also delivered a lively performance of her track Carmen, Scottish band and former winners Young Fathers performed an energetic rendition of I Saw and musical duo Jockstrap took to the stage to play Concrete Over Water.

Jessie Ware opened the ceremony with a performance of Free Yourself from her shortlisted album That! Feels Good!

Image source, Getty Images

Image caption,

Jessie Ware opened the ceremony with a performance of her track Free Yourself

A live performance film was shown to celebrate albums by dance producer Fred Again and indie-rock outfit Arctic Monkeys, who could not attend the ceremony.

Fred Again, who is hosting a residency at Alexandra Palace in London this week, sent a video message apologising for not being able to attend the event, adding: “I’m so so so truly grateful to be shortlisted alongside so many people I truly admire.”

Last year’s Mercury winner was London rapper Little Simz for her fourth album Sometimes I Might Be Introvert.

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