Mind, Body & Soul: Emma-Jean Thackray on New Jazz and her Love of the “Unsubtle”
Emma-Jean Thackray’s debut album proper Yellow is – as London’s respected Sounds Of The Universe store put it – “exactly like the sort of thing we’ve been longing for over the last 12 months.” As the title hints, it’s a blast of sunshine, combining the most complex of jazz with pop, disco and dance immediacy, plus lashings of rolling Afrobeat rhythm and unabashed spiritual uplift.
“I have this mantra of ‘move the body’, ‘move the mind’, ‘move the soul’ … for all my music.”
Thackray learned cornet and trumpet in the brass bands of her native Yorkshire, but quickly learned many more instruments besides as she took to jazz. She went on to study composition at Trinity Laban College in South London – the alma mater of Afrobeat forefather Fela Aníkúlápó Kuti, and over the past decade one of the epicentres of the new London jazz explosion.
Alongside the likes of Nubya Garcia, Theon Cross, Moses Boyd, Joe Armon-Jones, the 22a collective featuring Tenderlonious and Kamaal Williams and many more, Thackray has helped build a young scene that is rooted on dance floors as much as in the conservatoire.
Even as her records channel John and Alice Coltrane, Sun Ra, Stevie Wonder, Fela and many more instrumentalists of the past, her production style is rooted in hip hop and pirate radio sounds – as she demonstrated ably in her “Against the Clock” feature for FACT back in 2018 – so when we spoke to her at home in London, we were especially interested to know about her love of club sounds.
A bit of both, really. I like to work in different sound world blocks – so it'll be that I'm particularly interested in making this kind of stuff, or producing this kind of way and get this kind of effect. Then I'll put something out and feel like, "OK I'm moving on to the next sound world I want to explore."
So I had an initial over-arching sound world, and the ideas tended to be quite cosmic, trying to get across this universal truth – but that's just where I was in my head and what I was trying to embody. I was doing a lot of meditating using the colour yellow trying to embody gratitude, and that was at the forefront of my mind and something I was actively working on.
So it was partly me consciously trying to make music like that, but it was also naturally going to come out like that because it was just what was going on in my mind.
Did you make conscious choices about how to express that stylistically? The Afrobeat, disco, dance influences are strong here – did you mean it to be a dance record as such?
Again, it's both. That's the music I love to listen to, so that's going to come out. A lot of people have picked up on the broken beat influence: when I was making it I wasn't even aware of it, but it's so part of me. I showed it to people and they went "oh I can really hear that West London broken beat kind of thing" – at first I was taken aback, like "oh can you? I didn't mean that to be there”, but really it's just in me.
I think groove is one of the most important things in making music, so that was always going to be the foundation of everything – but I have this mantra of "move the body, move the mind, move the soul" that I think of for all my music. That is, have a really visceral groove, trying to have this cerebral, hopefully forward thinking harmony and melody on top, and also trying to serve the soul: trying to make music that I think matters and isn't just for music's sake.
I do all these things in music anyway and I think this [record] is just the best example of that I can do right now. It's as much of an embodiment of that mantra as I can make.
As you started releasing, and a lot of your contemporaries were coming through, were you conscious of being the generation of jazz musicians who'd grown up on garage and grime and so on – and did you feel a responsibility to represent these influences?
I think that kind of contextualisation happens afterwards. I make the music that's in my mind, it comes out organically: it's never like I'm trying to make music that sounds like this, or is for these people or that purpose. It's a very pure thing where I let my intuition lead me, then afterwards, it's "oh it's like this and that," and contextualise it that way.
Being part of this London jazz scene is an honour because of how important music is in London and how important London is on the music stage and all the history that is here. So yes, that sense of responsibility is going to weigh on the shoulders because you're going to want to represent your city and all the people who've come before you positively.
But at the time when I'm making it that's not in my mind at all: I'm just trying to be myself and trust myself, that the thing that I'm making is coming from a good place. That's how I try and live my life, I try to be a good person and be kind to others, so hopefully my music comes out that way, hopefully people can see the respect for others who've come before me, and hopefully I don't need to try to make music that does that – it should just embody that.
What are the electronic club styles most influential on you?
A lot of house, 90s Chicago / Detroit kind of house. UKG was a soundtrack to my teenage years – anything from the more cornier, more obvious side like So Solid Crew right through to more niche stuff. And quite a lot because of where I'm from, though it's not so popular here in London, bassline was important: that kind of speed garagey stuff where if you're from Huddersfield, Leeds, Birmingham, that's the kind of musical culture that's local. People like DJ Q, Jamie Duggan, all that kind of stuff – where it's very unsubtle, but as a teenager I totally adored it and I still have a soft spot for it.
Now when I hear [Yorkshire comedy / rap / rave group] Bad Boy Chiller Crew from Bradford making almost happy hardcore sort of stuff and really having fun, I've got a real soft spot for it – because they could literally be my cousins. The stuff they wear, the stuff they say, the antics they get up to, riding around town on a horse without a saddle ... they could totally be my cousins.
If you were growing up learning to play jazz, but also listening to this unsubtle rave music – did you join the dots between the two via house, soul, funk, etc?
Again it's always after the fact isn't it? As a teenager growing up experiencing stuff, it's just "I like this" – but then I'd pick apart music, transcribe stuff, work out how, OK the chords are doing this, the bassline's doing this, the groove's doing that. It was a building block thing, so I knew what the music does, I can hear what's being played, and I know whether I like it or not: the contextual stuff, the connections, have always been the last piece of the puzzle for me.
Even when I got into Miles Davis, I didn't know who he was or how important he was, I just knew I liked the music. All the other stuff came later. I think that's ... not the way it should be, but the way it can be. There's lots of great music writers who can join those dots, who can put it more eloquently than I can, and knowing that allows me to focus more on the music and on doing what I want when I want – rather than thinking could I, or should I?
Have you had any experiences where you've seen live musicians, or jazz record played by a DJ, have the same effect on a crowd as electronic dance tunes?
I've had moments in my gigs where I've tried to embody that! There have been moments in seeing people like 22a, those guys. Some great nights where people like Gilles Peterson have put on DJs and live musicians on the same billing – he was one of the first and most important people to push that thing where you see the blurring of the producer culture and the live instrumentation.
But I think the earliest example I can think of is going to see Acoustic Ladyland as a teenager in Leeds and really hearing that punk attitude, that indie-ness that I loved listening to on records, but mixed with the jazz mentality of improvisation, more jazz language coming into it than what I'd heard before ... that was one of the first instances where you're experiencing the gig, and you're feeling both that visceral "fuck yeah!" doing a bit of a mosh and clattering into people, but your brain is also really trying to get inside the notes as well. I think that's the first time I'd noticed the physical and the cerebral really matching up for me.
Do you feel like your generation is actively changing what jazz music is?
I'm so inside it, it's hard to see the context sometimes. You have to step away or experience a different scene to know how special it is here. I think hopefully in terms of leading the way in Europe, there's a lot of diversity here in people's bands which is fantastic – there are a lot of female instrumentalists especially, showing we don't have to be token musicians on the bill, it's become normalised for us here, which is great. But I almost didn't realise that. You have to go and play somewhere else in Europe to realise, "oh shit, I'm not only the only woman today, but I'm the woman in the whole festival!" It can be a shock, but it brings home how good what's happening here is. If we can change things in that way, then fantastic.
From a musical standpoint we're showing ... well, I can't speak for anyone else, but I'm showing that music comes from the same place no matter how you're communicating it. I love everything from indie to prog rock to really dense classical music, and I honestly see those as coming from the same place. When I was doing my masters in composition, I had to put up with a few teachers laughing at pop music and being "why would you listen to that, it's ridiculous, it's not real music" – and I'd always just feel incredibly sorry for them. I just think you're missing out on so much joy by dismissing something because you don't think it's as complex as something else.
So jazz now can be fused with so many things – dance producer culture, but also indie, a bit of punk mentality in the live shows ... it can be what you want it to be, because it's not a style or a genre, it's a language and it's an approach. So it's using that jazz language that's come before us, using improvisation as a tool to communicate – it's a language made up of words like any other, and like any spoken language the people using have different things they want to say or talk about. I think jazz is like that. It's just some words we can use as a tool!
Cover Image: Emma-Jean Thackray – Yellow
Writer | Joe Muggs
Joe Muggs is a writer, DJ and curator of many years standing, covering both mainstream and underground. His book 'Bass, Mids, Tops', covering decades of UK bass music, is out now via Strange Attractor / MIT Press, and you can subscribe to his newsletter at tinyletter.com/joemuggs