The first thing you hear are the drums: tumbling, relentless, insisting that you move. Then comes the bass, so loud it thuds against your ribcage like a heartbeat gone feral. The lights dim to a blue fog as a man with floppy hair and smile starts to sing, over the buzz and twang of his own guitar riffs. This is jazz – but not as you know it.
At Electric Brixton on Tuesday night, Norwich-born guitarist Oscar Jerome was busy carving out a space for himself in the rich underground of the UK jazz scene. The 28-year-old, whose debut album Breathe Deep came out last year, and who has collaborated with the likes of South London soul sensation Lianne La Havas, is developing a distinctive sound, with a voice at once soulful and heavy, almost percussive, and habit of drifting trippily between lyrics and scat.
His classical jazz education, at Trinity Laban conservatoire in London, is evident in his guitar-playing (an instrument he has a peculiar way of holding – high up on his chest, left hand cradling the heel, like a besotted dad with his newborn).
The central riff of Do You Really, in particular – a kind of fiendish finger-dance that jumps, irresistibly, from string to ear to feet – shows skills with shades of John Coltrane or Miles Davis.
Somewhat surprisingly, then, it is percussion that dominates the set. Thanks to the band’s immensely talented drummer, Ayo Salawu, who Jerome plays with in up-and-coming jazz afrobeat collective Kokoroko (the influence of which is clear in the sound and their tight symbiosis) and percussionist Crispin ‘Spry’ Robinson, each and every track becomes something to dance to.
The lilting, bongo-heavy track Gravitate, for instance, had the crowd reaching for the Electric’s midnight-blue roof. (Tuesday also happened to be Salawu’s birthday, so Jerome made the crowd sing to him, then whipped out a chocolate cake; he’s the kind of frontman your mum would like to meet.)
Lyrically, Jerome has the serious and clean-shaven political sensibility typical of his generation: he tackles the environmental crisis in gentle bop-along Sun for Someone (“The earth will sigh as it watches us die/Along with our belligerence”); colonialism in up-tempo anthem Give Back What U Stole From Me (“I can’t understand this greed/How the savage have the power”); while Do You Really questions patriarchal prejudices (“I’ll gladly take a slice of humble pie/Beauty’s in the eye of the beholder of a lie”).
Every member of Tuesday night’s five-man band has played or collaborated with other major names in the UK jazz scene, including Yussef Dayes, Tom Misch, and Moses Boyd. It’s thanks to confident, energetic South Londoners like him that it’s growing and growing.