The Songbook of Exodus - An Interview with Moses Boyd

A musician’s development is most often one rooted in their surroundings. A seemingly fatalistic balance of timing, location and people coalesce to create a breeding ground for ideas and skills to germinate, culminating in the sound that we listeners digest, as if manifested from nowhere. Catford, in South East London was one such place for drummer, bandleader and producer Moses Boyd during his formative years.

The child of first generation, London-born parents of Jamaican and Dominican descent, Moses Boyd grew up in a household filled with musical styles ranging from reggae to soul, funk, and classical. A teenager in the early 2000s, Boyd’s ears were also becoming accustomed to the frenetic sounds of pirate radio, the bass-weight of early grime and the materialistic bounce of UK garage. In the midst of this eclectic culture clash, Boyd picked up the drums whilst at secondary school and was soon influenced by his teacher’s leanings towards the jazz canon. “I was initially into rock and fusion as a young drummer because it was frilly and flashy”, Boyd explains, but once his teacher introduced him to jazz drumming greats such as “Buddy Rich, Tony Williams and Elvin Jones, it opened up my awareness to music”.

This discovery of jazz whilst the majority of his peers were mainly focused on the likes of Wiley and Dizzee Rascal was not an isolated experience for Moses Boyd though. “There was something going on at the time where there were other people in my neighbourhood getting into jazz whilst I was”, Boyd says, “[tuba player] Theon Cross, for example, who plays in my band now and who I’d known since I was a kid was getting into jazz at the same time, [saxophonist] Nubya Garcia and [guitarist] Shirley Tetteh also — something was in the water!”.

This generational bubbling up of a ‘scene’ is something that occurs so rarely it’s tied to a pre-digital romanticism surrounding music creation, something that Moses Boyd still sees as “almost pre-destined” or “mystical and out of my control”. Boyd and his musician-friends were going through “boot camp”, as he calls it, “playing jam sessions four or five times a week, doing gigs, and then going to see the masters play whilst sitting at the back of Ronnie Scott’s behind the bar”. Wherever they went they were the youngest people in the room, but, undeterred by their relative inexperience, their passion for the craft saw introductions to legends such as Wynton Marsalis, James Moody and Roy Haynes. It wasn’t just their age that made them stand out from the crowd though, as Boyd remarks, “when was the last time anyone saw ten young black kids from South London watching Wynton Marsalis?”. In that respect, a London upbringing was crucial; it allowed for cross-culturalism without overt segregation, a defining principle of jazz itself, and something that Boyd still does not see in the US: “you go to places like New York and even though it’s multicultural it’s still pretty segregated with places like Spanish Harlem and the Bronx. I, however, am not afraid to mix things up”.

Such a scene, one that has now produced groups like Yussef Kamaal and United Vibrations, as well as Moses Boyd’s own Exodus group and project with the saxophonist Binker Golding, does not grow without nurturing and mentorship. One such mentor was the jazz pianist and educator Leon Michener. Boyd first attended Michener’s workshops every Sunday at the Camden Roundhouse when he was 16 and it was there that Michener introduced him to the wider range of influence that jazz holds. “Leon put me onto a lot of music”, Boyd states, “artists like Fela Kuti, which was one of the first times I had heard or played afrobeat. I didn’t know much about who [Kuti’s drummer] Tony Allen was but I just knew when I listened his playing that it was amazing”. The afrobeat influence has stayed with Boyd and can be clearly heard in the eponymous shuffle rhythm of his breakout debut 12”, Rye Lane Shuffle. Now performing avant-garde electro-classical works under the moniker Klavikon, Michener’s influence on Boyd is clear: “I’ve still got the CDs that he played me and notes he gave me explaining how to play polyrhythms”.

One of the key tenets of Moses Boyd’s evolving sound is the incorporation of electronic elements into the traditionally acoustic environment of jazz. Last year’s Time and Space EP blends the improvisatory core of jazz with funk backings, futuristic synths and gated electronic drum programming. Boyd creates a body of work that explores the interdisciplinary potential of jazz now, following in the footsteps of contemporaries Robert Glasperwith his Experiment project and pioneers like Gary Bartz. Necessity breeds invention though, and the choice to learn production techniques was one initially prompted by Boyd’s status as an independent artist and his lack of financial backing. “I didn’t have a lot of money starting out”, Boyd explains, “so when it came to mixing stuff I’d recorded I had to learn and use my existing skill-set. I was really into experimenting, so I decided to try and make acoustic jazz have that balance between composition and production”.

The laptop-based democratisation of music production has allowed Moses Boyd to pick up techniques not only from friends and mentors but also from YouTube tutorials, facilitating his exploration of the porous boundaries between the acoustic and electronic. Speaking of this type of experimentation, Boyd says, “maybe five or so years ago people would be against it but now there seems to be a movement towards openness and musicality in general”.

Spurred on by the record-diggers’ endless quest for new knowledge and the exposure of obscure artists, Moses Boyd is “always hunting” through liner notes “to see who made the beats and trying to figure out the technicality of how it was recorded”. Such studio craft may seem anathema to jazz, a genre founded on live improvisation, and it is in fact a trait expressed more by the greats of Hip-Hop production, artists like Madlib, J Dilla and Pete Rock. This desire to mix disciplines is something that Boyd sees as honouring tradition, rather than moving away from it. He states, “all my favourite artists are my favourites because they were brave enough to do their own thing: Thelonius Monk, Charlie Parker, Wayne Shorter, Duke Ellington, Elvin Jones.” Jazz may be where Boyd honed his craft but “at the same time I can only be Moses from Catford and that’s it’s own unique thing. I’ve taken all those influences from jazz to reggae to gospel to whatever and put in my own gumbo and I think that is honouring tradition”.

Such influences find their outlet not just in Moses Boyd’s solo, electronically-influenced work but also in his group Moses Boyd’s Exodus, his production work for other artists such as Theon Cross and the singer Zara Macfarlane, as well as his duo Binker & Moses. Binker & Moses’ 2015 debut record, Dem Ones, earned both artists a MOBO for Best Jazz Act, beating UK jazz stalwart Courtney Pine in the process, and was recorded in only a single day, mostly on single takes. Speaking of his working relationship with Binker, Boyd says, “when I’m working with Binker, because we’ve known each other for a long time and have a great relationship outside of music, our process in the studio mirrors that, it’s about having fun and not thinking about it too much”. This studio freedom results in the open improvisations that characterise the sounds of the Dem Ones LP, evoking mood and emotion in minimalism. Their second album comes out later this year on London label Gearbox Records.

Recording with his five-piece group Exodus, though, Moses Boyd has to be structured and organised in charting the tracks before the studio. ‘I have to be concise with how I distribute my ideas, melodically, harmonically and even production-wise’, Boyd states, and similarly with his solo work Boyd takes this discipline further: “I was a lot more conscious from even before I recorded it of the sounds I wanted to get and how I would achieve that going into the studio. You have to make sure everything works on a macro level before you can be free and improvise”.

Juggling so many different projects at once, Moses Boyd took up the Exodus moniker as a not just a band name but brand name, an umbrella under which listeners could expect a certain quality of sound, whether it is an instrumental, a production or a live show. “It’s putting what I do and what I represent under one banner”, Boyd says, “it’s easier for me and gives me more freedom. Take a group like Parliament-Funkadelic, or labels like Warpor Eglo Records; there’s a diversity of sound to their outputs but when you see the name you trust the consistency and the quality of what will be played”. The term ‘exodus’ also has resonance in terms of charting a journey or movement, one that is displayed in the successive releases under the moniker.

Moses Boyd’s journey is not only confined to his own projects though as he has spent years touring with artists such as Soweto Kinch, Ed Motta, and most recently Sampha. His experience on the road throughout Europe and the US last year with Sampha was clearly one that has affected Boyd’s approach to building a live show. Hearing the admiration for Sampha in his voice, Boyd states that owing to his great musicianship, Sampha moved away from conventional set-ups of in-ears and click tracks for the live shows and instead “everybody in the band was doing three jobs at once — I was playing drums but had electronic pads too, so it really expanded the way that I thought about performing. I wasn’t just a drummer. I was sometimes a bass player or a keys player and it all had to groove in time”. Such an attitude towards combining electronic elements with the improvisatory musicianship of an acoustic live show is something that will be showcased by Boyd in his forthcoming live shows later this year at Dimensions Festival, Sunfall, and as part of a showcase of British jazz at SXSW next month.

In association with Jazz Standard, Jazz re:Freshed and British Underground, the SXSW Outernational Stagewill showcase the best of contemporary British jazz and will see Boyd accompanied by a weighty line-up that includes Yussef Kamaal, Sarathy Korwar, GoGo Penguin, Native Dancer, and United Vibrations. Speaking of the differences between the US and UK jazz scene, Boyd states how in America, “jazz has a different accent; historically that’s where it was born, but we have a history of jazz here in the UK since the ‘50s. Musicians like Ronnie Scott and Tubby Hayes are well-known for their influence but there’s also a rich history of jazz amongst the black British community with people like Joe Harriott. Our playing has always gone alongside the American tradition but it hasn’t necessarily been acknowledged”. Again referencing the effects of London’s greater cultural integration, Boyd expresses his excitement to perform in Austin, since “in America they view jazz very differently, whereas here the barriers and ideas of what jazz is are being broken down thanks to people like Yussef Kamaal, United Vibrations and Jazz re:Freshed, so it’ll be interesting to see how the American audience reacts to what we do. We have our own story, our own accent, and our own flavour”.

Once he’s back from the US, Moses Boyd has his largest headline Exodus show to date planned for the 23 March at Corsica Studios, and then he’s straight back in the studio with an EP and LP slated for release under his name, as well as the next Binker & Moses LP already in the can. For someone still so young, Boyd has already carved out a formidable space for himself in the various genres that he chooses to work in. There’s no sign of him slowing down or getting complacent either – variety is vital, it fuels his creative process and keeps him fiercely independent: “I don’t like to repeat myself, in life or musically – once I’ve done something I try something new. I just do my own thing and people latch onto it if they want to”.

[This piece was first published on 25/2/17]