Q&A with Keyboardist Joe Armon-Jones: Pushing Forward

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Starting Today, keyboardist Joe Armon-Jones’ debut on Brownswood Recordings, is out May 4.

(Photo: Fabrice Bourgelle)

Keyboardist Joe Armon-Jones is sitting on a sofa in the South London house he shares with four other musicians. There’s musical evidence littered everywhere, as if the artwork for his debut EP, Starting Today, has come to life. This is no surprise given that the cover image, which shows albums and charts from his super-talented musical peers, is a visual rendering of the shared living space.

The 25-year-old is an integral part of the new London jazz wave, providing frequently-improvised, colorful and energetic keys for players like Nubya Garcia and Theon Cross to ride around. He grew up in the countryside, near Oxford, with musician parents, and studied formally at Trinity College while gaining chops under influential grassroots educators Tomorrow’s Warriors and Jazz Re:freshed.

“Everyone in this house, everyone I play with, we’re all doing music for another reason apart from money,” he said. “It might be that it helps them with their mental health or it helps them being sociable or because they really enjoy it. It’s very important that everyone got into it for the joy.”

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

You played at an event nominated for a Jazz FM award called Chicago x London, where musicians from International Anthem came over from the States for improvised sets with new London musicians. A standout moment was you and Makaya McCraven pushing each other in a set with Nubya Garcia and Theon Cross. What was happening?

That was us meeting each other, testing each other, seeing what you like to play and what works with each other. There’s a feeling of it being exciting, of everyone pushing each other, but without anyone trying to be the best.

You’ve got two drummers—Moses Boyd and Kwake Bass—on Starting Today. How did that work?

Moses and Kwake were both working on Sampha’s album [the Mercury Prize-winning (No One Knows Me) Like the Piano], so they’d built up this relationship.

They play so differently. Moses is one of the most delicate players I’ve ever seen, even in a heavy funk groove. He can also play insanely quiet, which is another mad talent. Kwake is one of the most exciting, on-the-spot drummers I’ve ever met in my life. He does the most insane things, and it pushes everyone else. It makes you think, ‘I shouldn’t worry. I should be taking risks, too.’

I think that’s a big reason the album sounds so live, because the two drummers are there, throwing their ideas into the pile.

I had a feeling the other day, that a lot of the old breaks have been used up, but that you lot are making the new breaks. Yeah, they’re going to be pretty hard to use, though. They’re not to click tracks and they’re pretty wavy.

London musicians are creating opportunities for each other to just play. There’s Steam Down in Deptford, where musicians are playing to a hot sweaty room of dancers, and drummer Jake Long’s new Tuesday jam night.

Yeah, that’s sick. I’m still looking to do those shows in a basement with a trio, just vibing and jamming. I have a few aliases, just to be able to keep going out and making music without the idea that it has to be connected to some big career thing. Just playing.

It’s pretty intergenerational, this scene.

There are a bunch of people our age who came up with us. Then there’s the older musicians who are into it, and it does feel like a nice meeting of the generations. There’s no one lost out in the middle.

Gary Crosby [who formed jazz educators Tomorrow’s Warriors] shines through as someone who’s main focus isn’t being the best. I mean, he’s sick, but his main focus is making other people shine.

The London scene’s also pretty energetic.

I feel people became a little bit tired of seeing things repeated. People want to see musicians exerting themselves, pushing themselves. I don’t know how classical musicians do it, playing the same notes every night. Finding the expression in that is a proper job. It’s like sports, if you went to see the 100 meters and everyone was jogging, it’d be mad dull to watch. DB




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November 2018
Stefon Harris
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