Founder and bandleader of the Mercury-nominated afro jazz group tells us about current projects, future opportunities and jazz in the mainstream
Ahead of their first-ever UK tour date in Glasgow, the Mercury-nominated afro jazz group SEED Ensemble's founder and bandleader Cassie Kinoshi is drawn back to an unlikely stop upon the way in her journey to the upper reaches of Britain's new batch of young jazz players. For the first six months of 2019, she was awarded the post of Cameron Mackintosh Resident Composer at Dundee Rep Theatre.
'I met so many amazing Scottish creators while being based in Dundee,' she says now. 'For me, being there was really eye-opening, because – especially in jazz, but just in general in the arts – things are very London-centric. Being based in Scotland and seeing all the incredible art coming out of there, the musicals and music theatre (which Dundee Rep was producing), I was really happy to be there. It's something I want to continue being a part of.'
Kinoshi's work with Dundee Rep was more development opportunity than an exercise in creating finished work, although she did write two short score pieces ahead of the Rep Stripped festival which weren't staged. Although this area of her practise seems very separate from SEED Ensemble, it's actually the public profile of her group which is the diversion from where she started. Raised in the distant suburbs of Welwyn Garden City, she attended Trinity Laban Conservatoire in London with the intention of becoming a composer.
credit: Bluesound & MQA
I mention to her that the mainstream attention brought by the Mercury nomination – which came last year, for the elegant, Blue Note-influenced style of debut album Driftglass – has made her a kind of accidental pop star. 'Thanks, that's quite exciting!' she laughs. 'It was really great to receive [the nomination], it gave us a platform that we might not have reached outside of the jazz world. I guess, because it's not part of the tradition in this country as it is in America, jazz is still an artform that doesn't get as much attention here.
'It's developing in a different way here, though. It's been more integrated with popular artforms that the people playing the music grew up with, like grime. There are all sorts of collaborations happening between the popular world and the jazz world, but I still think we have a way to go before the UK recognises that this is an important artform which informs a lot of the music that's being pumped out of this country.'
Kinoshi's own career in bands is illustrative of this. She started piano lessons when she was six, clarinet lessons when she was eleven, and moved on to saxophone when she was thirteen; she joined the ensemble Nerija not long after moving to London at the age of eighteen, and trumpeter Sheila Maurice-Grey's KOKOROKO soon after. She, Maurice-Grey and guitarist Shirley Tetteh still play in all three groups, while SEED Ensemble's number also includes Theon Cross and Shabaka Hutchings from Sons of Kemet.
'SEED Ensemble is a band I started because I enjoy writing for a large ensemble of players,' she says, 'but also, it was about a seed of awareness of certain political issues, and expressing myself through the music that I write. A lot of the subject matter that I cover in Driftglass and what I'm writing now is both a celebration of what it means to be a black British person, but also a way to express my thoughts on the issues that exist in British society, that I feel need to be talked about.
'I feel it's a very British thing to sweep something under the carpet and not acknowledge the faults we have in society, and how they affect minorities in this country,' she continues. 'I like to write about them to make sure they're out there still. For me, writing music has always been about wanting to have an outlet, it's the best medium for me to express how I feel about things, and there's definitely a requirement for someone to be continually speaking about these things.'
This SEED Ensemble tour directly follows a Nerija tour in Europe, with a North American tour for KOKOROKO to follow. Meanwhile, Kinoshi and her ensemble have also done some score work for BalletBoyz, in a show which will soon be making its way to Dundee Rep, where her music will finally be heard on the theatre's stage. Is she, I wonder, one of those people who finds it hard to say no to any project which is presented to her?
'It's a good question,' she ponders. 'I got into music because I wanted to be a film composer and to work with theatre and dance, and I've had those opportunities presented to me now, because I've reached a certain point in my career. Maybe it is a case of not being able to say no, and having to learn how to fit things in realistically… but it's been such a learning curve since I graduated, and there's a lot I still want to do which is very collaborative, and which reaches into different artforms.'
SEED Ensemble, Blue Arrow, Glasgow, Sun 15 Mar, and touring.
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