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Nubya Garcia, Tapping Into the Past to Make Jazz for a New Generation

August 17, 2020 By Marcus J. Moore for the New York Times

Nubya Garcia by Adama Jalloh for The New York Times

It hasn’t taken long for the 28-year-old tenor saxophonist Nubya Garcia to make a big impression in the acclaimed British jazz sceneshe came up in, and beyond. “She can play one note and you can tell what her artistic intentions are,” said Shabaka Hutchings, the British saxophonist known as something of a godfather to the scene. “She’s not trying to find her position. She’s expressing herself within a position that she’s already defined.” On Friday, Ms. Garcia will expand that role with the release of “Source,” her debut full-length album for Concord Jazz. It’s her most ambitious project yet — a sweeping set of jazz with Afro-Caribbean influences that funnels a life’s worth of experiences into an hourlong listen.

“The focus of this record is about personal power, collective power, collectivism,” Ms. Garcia said in a recent Zoom interview, poised on a cream-colored couch in her London living room. “It’s about my heritage, my ancestry, exploring those places and those stories from my parents and my grandparents.”

Ms. Garcia’s mother is from Guyana, and her father is from Trinidad. Her own story began in the London borough of Camden, with a very musical family: parents who played reggae, rock, Latin and Cuban music around the house; a sister who sang classical music; another who played cello; and a brother who took up the trumpet. Ms. Garcia started with violin and piano as a young child, then discovered an old silver clarinet in the house.

“It was broken as hell,” she said. “But I just made it work.” She taught herself to play by reading old Abracadabra instruction books for a year.

The pianist Nikki Yeoh first met Ms. Garcia as a shy 5-year-old who came with her brother to one of Ms. Yeoh’s weekly music workshops. “She turned up one time with a clarinet,” Ms. Yeoh remembered. “She had this really beautiful fascination with music at a young age.” When Ms. Garcia was 10, her mother bought her a Yamaha saxophone; she fell in love with the instrument and never stopped playing it.

At the behest of her mother, Ms. Garcia went back to Ms. Yeoh’s class as a preteen and learned to play jazz and blues arrangements, and songs like Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage”and Bronislaw Kaper’s “On Green Dolphin Street.”

Ms. Gracia was shy, but motivated. “I just hung out in the class and I didn’t say a word and barely managed to get a note out,” she said. “But the teacher was always so full of life, so bubbly, so inviting. She would encourage us to listen to our parents’ music if we had that at home, or to listen to the tracks we’ve played in the lesson.”

“The focus of this record is about personal power, collective power, collectivism,” Ms. Garcia said.
Peter Van Breukelen/Redferns, via Getty Images

As a teenager, Ms. Garcia listened to old jazz records and played in different ensembles around Camden, where she met and became friends with other would-be leaders of the budding British jazz movement. The drummer Moses Boyd encountered her in the mid-2000s, when she was playing piano during a weekend workshop. She came into her own as a member of Tomorrow’s Warriors, the nonprofit co-founded in 1991 by the bassist Gary Crosby and the producer Janine Irons.

Mr. Boyd called her playing equally melodic and unique, informed by jazz legends like Wayne Shorter and John Coltrane, yet very much her own thing. And there isn’t much ego in it, either. “She has a way of playing where she’s not trying to show off,” said the tuba player Theon Cross. Besides Shorter and Coltrane, Ms. Garcia cited Charlie Parker’s “Now’s the Time,” Sonny Rollins’s “Saxophone Colossus” and Dexter Gordon’s “Go” as influences.

A hunger to collaborate has shaped her journey so far. Mr. Boyd recalled seeing Ms. Garcia at the Brainchild Festival in Britain several years ago, dashing frantically from one stage to the next with her saxophone in tow. “I remember seeing her running across the fields,” Mr. Boyd said with a laugh. “It felt like she was playing with 10 bands. She’s one of the busiest people in the world.” This isn’t lost on Ms. Garcia. The contemplative song “Pace,” which opens her new album, is a personal reminder to not feel so overwhelmed.

She wrote the song a year ago, when she was feeling rundown and wondering if life on the road was sustainable. “It’s weird to talk about it now, obviously, because we’re in a completely different way of living,” Ms. Garcia said. “I’m not good at resting, but I’ve learned a lot about resting during this time.”

“The album’s about what feeds us: what feeds you, what feeds me, what feeds our joy, what feeds our turmoil,”

Over Zoom, Ms. Garcia was as warm and chatty as an old acquaintance; she wore a big smile and remained incredibly chill, readily sharing anecdotes about her days as aformer gymnast andnetballplayer. “I just love to compete and win,” she said. “I guess the team thing is really important to me.”

Ms. Garcia’s name has become a fixture in album credits for works as disparate as Makaya McCraven’s communal triumph “Universal Beings” and Moses Sumney’s introspective “Grae.” As part of the women-led collective Nérija, a rarity in jazz, her music takes on a breezy, sun-drenched aura. With the sextet Maisha, Ms. Garcia billows softly in the distance, bolstering the group’s tranquil blend of spiritual jazz.

“Source” is another grand achievement for a British jazz scene that has garnered acclaim in recent years, which includes Mr. Cross, Mr. Hutchings and Mr. Boyd. Mr. Cross said they all shared a slightly different approach to making improvised music. “We all came up learning the American tradition, but we all started to embrace our own countercultural backgrounds,” he said. “When we decided we all wanted to make our own music, we drew from that. It’s a new perspective of the African diaspora.”

All of these impulses inform “Source,” a multifaceted mix of jazz, reggae, cumbia, hip-hop and soul. Featuring Sam Jones on drums, Daniel Casimir on double bass and Joe Armon-Jones on piano and organ, it’s a sketchbook record that took shape while Ms. Garcia was on the road last year. In between shows, she’d jot down ideas and flesh them out on piano.

“I’d been keeping my compositional tools sharpened on the road because you have to keep those muscles ready,” Ms. Garcia said. “You can’t just not do it for six months, then come back and expect to write a banging symphony or whatever you want to do.” The album’s creative direction was cemented last summer, then she booked two studio days — one before and one after the tour — and recorded the album in two sessions.

Through meditative singing, festive grooves and wafting rhythms, “Source” is a strong statement that speaks directly to her background. And while it was written more than a year ago, it feels very much of the moment, and Ms. Garcia has recently spoken out in the wake of global protests for racial justice. “Touring and travelling as a black woman hurts,” she wrote in a June Instagram post. “I always feel on edge, waiting for the next person to do or say something to me.”

The album captures her in both soothing and energized modes. On the mellow end there’s “Together Is a Beautiful Place to Be,” a blend of muted drums and light keys, and “Stand With Each Other,” a spare tune bolstered by delicate sighs. The title track is the album’s boldest declaration: a 12-minute song that veers into dub and quiet storm R&B, among other places.

Reaching into the past while planting itself firmly in the present, “Source” reminds listeners to slow down and reconnect with themselves, their cultural histories and those closest to them. “The album’s about what feeds us: what feeds you, what feeds me, what feeds our joy, what feeds our turmoil,” Ms. Garcia said. “All of it, our inner feelings.”

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