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SXSW: When there’s no room in the club, Ezra Collective fans dance in the streets

Eric Pulsifer, special to the American-Statesman
Ezra Collective electrify the crowd with their music, which blends jazz and Afrobeat, at the British Music Embassy on Tuesday, March 12, 2019. [CARLOS GARCIA/ AUSTIN AMERICAN STATESMAN]

London’s futuristic, feel-good jazz quintet Ezra Collective made a massive splash Tuesday night at their first South by Southwest showcase of the week. Outside a maxed-out Latitude 30 — as per South by South-usual transformed for the week into the British Music Embassy — fans were stacked as thick on the street as they were indoors, crowding to catching a glimpse and an earful of Ezra Collective’s body-moving Afrobeat jazz through the venue’s open windows.

Ezra Collective’s music isn’t jazz for the coffee shop set but the club — a mix of tight, uptempo grooves; jaw-dropping solos; and undeniable energy. It’s party music for the good time you weren’t even planning on having. You could almost feel the electricity from a crowd fully engaged, drawn in and letting go, a real SXSW rarity and a testament to the band’s stupefying degree of talent. Even after a day of standing in a regrettable shoe choice (I chose water resistance over comfort, and I chose … poorly), the woes of my weary feet faded just a few seconds into the set.

Drummer Femi Koleoso introduced the band — explaining their name is a nod to the biblical prophet Ezra who taught the importance of looking to the past to understand the present — and called out a list of admirable influences ranging from John Coltrane to Fela Kuti. (They would go on to drop a killer take on Sun Ra’s “Space is the Place” later in the set.) For the rest of the evening, Koleoso served as a positivity hype-man, grabbing the mic between songs to keep the crowd focused on the task at hand: celebrating a good time with great music.

The band took the stage in Nike tracksuits and sneakers, save for keyboardist Joe Armon-Jones. Maybe his luggage got lost. Maybe he’s an Adidas guy. Either way, his phenomenal playing more than made up for any minor affront to the band’s otherwise unified fashion statement. Armon-Jones flexed his prowess during fluttering keyboard solos that felt like death-defying high-wire acts, verging on the funky edge of catastrophe before falling back in lock-step with the groove. On his first go just annihilating the keys, I almost felt bad for others who would have to follow his eyebrow-raising solo.

But as each member of Ezra Collective got their turn to jam, they each raised the bar higher and higher, branching out in unexpected ways that seemed impossible to fit back into the cohesive whole before sticking the landing. Trumpet and tenor saxophone traded blows, left-handed bassist TJ Koleoso’s fingers fired independently and moved smooth as butter a mile a minute up and down the neck, and drummer Femi’s heavy-metal speed kickdrum and elaborate fills and flourishes had me peering to see behind the kit to witness his hands and feet in action.

Ezra Collective plays again Wednesday night at 1 a.m. at the Main II before continuing to New Orleans on their tour of the states. The band was previously in Austin for SXSW 2018; here’s hoping they’ll be back again next for SXSW 2020.


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