Interview: Moses Boyd on London's Jazz Diaspora

Moses Boyd. Photo by Dan Medhurst. Used with permission from the artist.

"The way I work, having that freedom to be independent and do my own thing, I'd probably struggle if I was signed to a major and there was A&R breathing down my neck," says Moses Boyd. "Not to knock labels, but that's the vibe."

The London drummer and composer has followed his own singular path over the last six years, from winning the 2015 MOBO Award for Best Jazz Act alongside saxophonist Binker Golding with their Binker & Moses project, to being shortlisted for the 2020 Mercury Prize for his genre-hopping solo album Dark Matter. The record draws sounds and ideas from London's grime scene, electronic dance music, and Jamaican grooves just as much as jazz.

Moses Boyd. Photo by Dan Medhurst, used courtesy of the artist.

Boyd started drumming in secondary school, where his drum teacher introduced him to Max Roach, Buddy Rich, and Philly Joe Jones. He soon discovered John Bonham, Vinnie Colaiuta, and Steve Gadd, and honed his craft with help from Tomorrow's Warriors, the London-based jazz education organisation. There he met many of the musicians who became regular collaborators, including Binker Golding.

Alongside his solo works and three duo albums with Binker & Moses, the drummer leads the Moses Boyd Exodus band, he's played in Peter Edwards piano trio, recorded with the likes of Nubya Garcia, Zara MacFarlane, and Sons Of Kemet, and branched out into producing. As if all that wasn't enough, he's crossed over into fashion, collaborating with the Dunhill label and Paris Fashion Week.

"I just like doing cool stuff," says Boyd. "I don't like doing the same thing for too long. Whatever I'm doing, I'm going to shake it up eventually, whether that's a piano trio, Exodus, solo, production, I'm always trying something new. That's just my personality. It's definitely fun to keep putting on different hats and trying different things."

To learn more about Moses Boyd, check out his website here.

Moses Boyd - "Stranger Than Fiction"

How did you approach being in a duo with Binker Golding on sax, with no bass or piano?

He's probably the musician I've played with the most in different ensembles. We were playing with Zara MacFarlane, who's a singer, and in soundchecks we would play duo, just practice together. That's how that band was formed. We just developed a musical rapport and went from there.

There are still songs that have their own structures and their own form. Then there's also stuff that's quite free that might rely on very short musical riffs or rhythmic cells or ideas. You have to be more imaginative with a duo. There's less people so you need more ideas that can propel you into a different place.

The Moses Boyd Exodus has another unusual lineup with guitar, tuba, sax, trombone, but no bassist. How did that come about?

The tuba player and the trombone player were two musicians I grew up with, they lived nearby, and we used to hang out. We got into bands together at the same time, so Theon [Cross], who plays tuba, would be the bass player because he was learning basslines and covering that job, so when the time came for me to do my own music, it was a really natural progression.

I've played all of this music with Theon holding down the bass, it just didn't feel weird. Looking back at it now I can see why people were like, that's an odd choice, but it was more social than it was musical, really. He's a good friend of mine and we have a good musical chemistry. It worked really naturally.

Moses Boyd's Exodus - Boiler Room In Stereo

The London jazz revival has its own distinct sound. How does Jamaican soundsystem culture inform your music?

Very simply, half of my family is from Jamaica and I've been influenced by not only the music but the whole culture. I think London in particular, but also in other parts of the UK, Manchester, Birmingham—where there are huge diasporas of not only West Indians and Jamaicans, but West Africans, East Africans—the culture here in the UK has benefitted so much from soundsystem culture.

If you look at carnival, at lovers rock, at garage, drum 'n' bass, jungle, grime, dubstep, when you listen to "UK jazz," we're all drawing from that history, whereas in other parts of the world they don't have that. That's not to say they can't listen to it but here it's a lot more ingrained, when you go out to a club or carnival, or you're just chilling in your neighbourhood and you're hearing the music playing out of speakers or shop fronts, at the barber shop.

It's not hard for us to draw from those soundsystem elements because we've been surrounded by it for so long and it's in the tapestry of what's happening. I think that's why it does sound different; we're drawing from that continuum more so than other parts of the world would be.

How does that impact your role as a drummer?

I have to have a deeper grasp of rhythm. If you're looking at jazz in the US, a lot of the lynchpin rhythm would have been the ride cymbal swing pattern that we know, people would base a lot of it on that, whereas I guess what we're doing here is drawing from different rhythms, whether that's Nyabinghi, jungle, garage, drum 'n' bass, the "Amen" break or the one drop, more grimy, sampler-based rhythms that we're used to hearing. I'm using that as a framework to house song compositions and improvisation.

It's not to say that all of the music that has come out of the States is based on the ride cymbal, but for a long time and a long part of the history, it was. That was the framework, the skeleton. Our skeleton is a bit different.

Does this affect the sound you want from your drum kit?

Yeah, definitely. I'm looking for it to cut through like if you're listening to soundsystem speakers. I want it to rattle the bass as well as the tops. It's probably closer to a '70s drum sound than it would be to a bebop drum sound. I like it to sound crisp, fat, and punchy but also it has the colour. If you listen to my stuff, I'm using jazz cymbals, really dark, colourful expressive rides, the kick is less resonant, it's more punchy, the snares are more crisp and tight. It's a hybridisation of the two.

You have a Roland SPD-S in your setup?

Sometimes, not always. Depending on what I'm doing, I'll use it to trigger pads or samples, sometimes I'll feed it into other effects units like Kaoss pads, modular synthesisers. It all depends on the context of the music I'm playing, what kind of gig, if I'm playing solo, if I'm playing with a band.

How do you approach your solo performances?

My approach is I take all the stems, all the elements of the song, and I split it via the SPD-S. You might have a channel that has bass loops, you might have a channel that has melodic samples, I get them all independent as if I was a dub mixer on a desk, they're all running to different things. One might run to a delay, one might run to a computer, I might have a drum machine, my idea is that I can freely improvise with the individual stems as if I was on a gig and that was the standard I was playing. Here's the bass line, here's the melody, here are your elements, take it further. That's my approach and then on top of that I've got the actual drum kit, which is acoustic, and I can do what I want with it."

Has the spread of sampling and loops led to drummers imitating samples?

I've grown up on loops and breaks, the "Amen" break, the "Funky Drummer" break. It's not unusual for drummers of my era, and even older, to emulate machines. A lot of people have a fear and disdain for drum machines. I love them. They can't do what a drummer does.

How does all this feed into Dark Matter?

It was just the freedom, the idea that I wasn't limited in any direction. I was open to the electronic as much as the acoustic and to blur the lines as extremely as I wanted to, that's what Dark Matter is really on a musical level. It was very open-ended and free to go in whichever direction it needed to go.

Many of the acts in the London jazz revival play venues that are not part of the jazz club circuit. Why is that?

I guess for a long time, I wasn't really into the format. I love jazz clubs, don't get me wrong, but I think for the music I was trying to do, actually playing in a club made more sense. Playing somewhere that has subs, a really good PA, a DJ booth, and people don't have to sit down, they can stand up.

All of those things attract a different crowd, a different audience, a different reception, a different relationship with the performance, it's more reciprocal. I think a stereotypical jazz club reinforces that you sit down, you watch, you clap, you buy your drinks, you be entertained. I'm much more into the communal aspect, the audience is also a part of this, we're both sharing everything together.

Is it comparable to the early days of jazz, when it was music for dancing?

Yeah, exactly. Just that whole concept, the history, the evolution. You've got musicians that are known for bebop but if you look at the cabaret laws that were introduced, there's a reason why it went from big band to bebop. It was all about money, really.

If you didn't have a bigger band and people dancing, then you didn't have to pay certain taxes, so the music developed that way, but as a result you lost that dance culture.

The musicians were very aware, this is dance music, people should be able to let loose. Over time, it may have been distilled a little bit. With what I'm trying to do, and others, we're trying to bring that element back.

Music as a communal experience?

Yeah, the person dancing is just as important as the person laying down the records.

Where did you work on Dark Matter?

I did it all over, different studios, different home studios, there was no one space. I followed what the music needed. Some tracks needed less, some tracks needed more, it was a process of deciding what was best for each song. I like Soup Studios, which is in a boat on the Thames.

At the time I did a lot at Red Bull Studios, but I don't know if they're still active since Covid. I did a lot of this in Tramways Studio in Camden. I had a friend who worked in music supervision and he's the studio engineer. I would do stuff there because they had a great desk and a good little room.

I'm not too dead set on things. It's more about the performance and getting the sound right. I'm not like, it has to be this place, this way, or even this particular gear. If it sounds right for the song, I'm cool to go with that. That's the way I like to flex.

You played on Nubya's 5ive with Nubya Garcia. That album balances groove-based, loop-style drumming and jazz comping ideas.

Nubya loves the rawness, she loves to build the framework and let you be you. From what I remember from that session, she came with the tunes—there wasn't much rehearsal—she likes to capture that spontaneity. Her music is very improvised although it's rooted in that groove and soundsystem ideas, she's very much about the musicians making magic together. I'm not trying to speak for her, but that's how I feel every time I've played with her.

Binker and Moses - "Fete by the River," live at Total Refreshment Centre

Your drum solo opens the Alive in the East record by Binker & Moses. When you solo do you have anything pre-planned?

Nah, I don't really pre-plan it. You always have your ideas and licks that you worked out but to be honest I'm trying to be as open as possible, I'm trying to clear my head as much as I can and just start and see where it goes. Literally, I'm trying to really improvise. Sometimes it works really well, sometimes it doesn't. But that's what you get. I don't like to pre-plan things too much because I get bored.

How do you become a confident improviser?

Listen to a lot of music that inspires you, I would say you've got to practice your technique so your technique can take you where your brain does at the same time. Particularly with drums it's really important to listen to melody and using melody within your drumming, a lot of people overlook that. It's just another tool that can really aid in improvisation if you think melodically as opposed to rhythmically all the time. And it's practice. The more you do it, the more you get used to not being afraid to take risks, not trying to do things that you've overly rehearsed.

What's in the pipeline?

Covid has taken a lot of my plans out of the equation, so we'll see. I'm always working on music, I'm always up to something. Keep your eyes peeled and I won't disappoint.

About the author: David West is a London-based writer who has covered everything from East Asian cinema to MMA, and from jazz to death metal. His work has appeared in Rhythm, Jazz Journal, Prog, Metal Hammer, and many more. He’s the author of Chasing Dragons: An Introduction To The Martial Arts Film.

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