When Nubya Garcia plays the tenor saxophone, the first things you notice are her sound and phrasing. She wields a luminous tone, and her languid melodies ride undulating rhythms. She streamlines her improvisations, making economical embellishments to her singable melodies. But when the undercurrents build momentum, Garcia’s tone brays into dissonant wails that soon give way to incisive jabs. That kinetic musicality made for a spectacular New York debut at (Le) Poisson Rouge during this year’s Winter Jazzfest.
As part of Giles Peterson’s British Jazz Showcase, the 26-year-old Garcia fronted a crackling quartet that included keyboardist Joe Armon-Jones, bassist Daniel Casimir and drummer Femi Koleoso. Garcia’s forceful set focused on the music from her 2017 debut EP, 5ive (Jazz re:freshed). Blasting off with an enchanting reading of McCoy Tyner’s modal-jazz gem “Contemplation,” she buttressed her performance in the post-Coltrane spiritual jazz tradition. But thanks to Koleoso’s deft jostling of rhythms that referenced multiple Antillean pulses, Nigerian Afrobeat and American hard-bop swing, the music conveyed a vibe that was undeniably black U.K. The venue’s sold-out crowd showered Garcia with enthusiasm, which she and the band absorbed, recycled and then released with joyous velocity.
The following afternoon, while sipping tea inside the Walker Hotel Greenwich Village, Garcia was still basking in the afterglow of her radiant performance. “It feels so surreal,” she beamed. “I was surprised just how accepting everyone was. They were with us throughout the whole gig.”
Born to Trinidadian and Guyanese parents, Garcia is part of the platoon of young British artists who are taking the jazz world by storm. Like her contemporaries Shabaka Hutchings (saxophone), Moses Boyd (drums) and Theon Cross (tuba), Garcia’s stomping grounds include Jazz re:freshed’s Thursday night sessions at the Mau Mau Bar in Notting Hill and South London’s STEEZ—venues that usually cater to young, dancing crowds. Those gigs inform the intricate syncopations that sweep her scorching improvisations. Such was the case with the engrossing “When We Are,” the title track of her forthcoming sophomore EP.
“I want to encapsulate dance-floor music’s energy,” Garcia explained. “The stuff that I’ve been writing recently is focused on working more with electronics and imagining us playing in places that aren’t jazz clubs. I love jazz clubs. But I don’t want to only play in jazz clubs for the rest of my life. I want both. There’s nothing like a crowd dancing to your music, especially being an instrumentalist. I think it takes the music to what it originally was meant to be, which is dance music.”
According to Armon-Jones, Garcia’s music has never been just about jazz. “She writes tunes that we can stretch, play around and explore,” he said. “They don’t have too many rigid parts to them. That allows Femi to be able to put different kinds of beats underneath her songs at any given performance, and it gives the rest of us all kinds of room to really improvise and have fun.”
Through music, Garcia explores her West Indian heritage—an excursion that’s encouraged by London’s mighty Tomorrow Warriors, which she joined before enrolling at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, where she earned a degree in jazz performance. “I think it’s about finding a connection to where you come from or where your parents come from,” she said of those ethnomusicological explorations. “Music is one of the most important ways in which you can do that. The way that music develops from one generation to the next—it’s incredible to delve into that journey. I didn’t have the opportunity to grow up in Guyana or Trinidad. But those musical journeys just lead me to other avenues like black American swing, which was the first music that I pursued. I think people in London’s black music scene are really searching for their cultures. And it’s coming out in various ways.”
Out of the Tomorrow Warriors arose Nérija, a dynamic ensemble that Garcia co-leads. Consisting of female instrumentalists, Nérija last year received the U.K.’s Parliamentary Jazz Award for “Newcomer of the Year.” As in the States, renewed discussions about gender issues in jazz are boiling up in the U.K.
“This year, I want to bring more female musicians together just to have a community,” Garcia said. “Someone asked me, ‘Who did I look up to as a kid? Was it a black, female saxophonist?’ I didn’t have anything to say because at the time when I was 13, I wasn’t listening to any black, female saxophonists. I think it’s crazy not having someone who looks like you to look up to as a kid. It doesn’t mean that that’s the only focus. But it’s great being able to see oneself in someone else. It says, ‘I can do that.’” DB