LJF 2019: SEED Ensemble

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SEED Ensemble – led by composer and alto saxophonist Cassie Kinoshi – released their debut album Driftglas earlier this year. Touching on themes such as heritage, identity, British politics and science fiction, it was nominated for a Mercury Prize.

Fast forward to the closing night of the 2019 EFG London Jazz Festival. The 10-piece jazz band marked their last gig of the year in the hot and tightly packed Jazz Café, performing music from the album as well as some new material.

The most striking thing about SEED Ensemble is the size of their horn section, totalling just over half of the members including Theon Cross (tuba) Joe Bristow (trombone), Sheila Maurice-Grey and Miguel Gorodi (trumpets), Chelsea Carmichael (flute and tenor sax) and Kinoshi herself. Stretching across the front of the stage, they create an impenetrable wall of brass and saxophones with a sound just as powerful as their physical presence. Through rich harmonies blaring from this front line, you can really appreciate Kinoshi’s talent as a composer, exemplified in the sinister opening theme of The Darkies or the defiant melody of Wake, the ensemble’s Grenfell protest song with lyrics taken from the Langston Hughes poem of the same name.

Solos are interweaved tightly throughout. Picking one standout player would be a difficult task, but the horn section undoubtedly took the limelight. However, this sometimes meant that Shirley Tetteh – an excellent guitarist in her own right – was occasionally drowned out.

Kinoshi is clear about the stories and messages they want to tell through the music, right from the opening number – a new composition entitled Neptune. This, Kinoshi explained, is about her heritage, traced back to a young slave working for a family in Scotland. Music has often been political, and this hasn’t changed as far as SEED Ensemble are concerned. Each track has a meaning behind it whether it be about self-acceptance, political change or the Empire Windrush reimagined as a spaceship. For Kinoshi, it is important that the audience take something away from their performances. I think they did.

SEED Ensemble, The Jazz Café, 25 November 2019, as part of the 2019 EFG London Jazz Festival