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Interview - Myele Manzanza: "Jazz isn’t just an academic institutional affair and is very much a social music for the people, both young and old"

By Jessica Porter-Langson |

Drummer and composer Myele Manzanza took the leap across the pond and left New Zealand to pursue a career as a full-time musician in London. With the release of his latest album "Crisis & Opportunity, Vol. 3 - Unfold", Myele speaks to Qobuz about his new life in the UK, his influences and the ever-growing jazz scene.

After moving to London, what parts of the thriving jazz scene here influenced your music and how?

There's been so much that has influenced me. A big reason that tipped the scales for me moving to London was seeing how artists like Ashley Henry (whose band I'm currently working in), Shabaka Hutchings, Yussef Kamaal etc were making really exciting and dynamic music that draws from both a deep jazz influence, yet was infused with contemporary UK club music in a way that was really fresh and had audiences turning up who'd be dancing to it rather than just sitting and chin-stroking. That really excited me... but also the UK Broken Beat movement of the 2000's / 2010's was a really massive influence on my drumming and production as well. Mark de Clive-Lowe (ex-pat New Zealander who was living in London) was the gateway to the music of Kaidi Tatham, 4Hero, Afronaut and countless other producers that were making really exciting music in a more electronic / beatmaker space. So all of that made me feel like London could be a worthwhile place to move to and try contribute to musically.

Since moving here, that music still excites and informs my work, but I've also been really inspired by musicians like saxophonist Alex Hitchcock, who's a brilliant player and a very serious composer in his own right, who makes music that's stimulating and challenging to play but is also super melodic and beautiful at the same time. I'd add guitarist Ant Law and bassist Joe Downard to that list as well. A real master of his instrument and making really interesting and exciting music right now. Younger musicians like pianists Noah Stoneman & Rupert Cox, saxophonist Emma Rawicz & trumpeter James Copus are also doing really exciting things at the moment too. I guess they would fall into a little more 'academic' end of the jazz spectrum (i.e. you definitely need to be able to read music and have a command of a wide range of time signatures and harmonic structures to be able to play it) but they've got a lot of fire, work ethic and a commitment to pushing themselves and their music to higher levels, which is really motivating for me to be around too.

How do these inspirations compare to the music that influenced you at home in New Zealand?

I'd say that London is undeniably a global & international city in a way that not many other places in the world are, and that has an undeniably positive effect on the music here. The African, Caribbean, European, Middle Eastern & Asian cultures that have found root here create a really interesting and stimulating melting pot that makes for an interesting mix of music that could only really happen here. New Zealand, whilst being perhaps the most beautiful place in the world and by no means a totally monocultural country, doesn't have that same blend and intensity of global internationalism that's just in the air in London. In saying that, that's no judgement on the quality of music coming from NZ. Musicians like Jonathan Crayford, Trinity Roots, Fat Freddy's Drop, Shapeshifter, John Psathas and several notable others that I could list here are making really interesting and genuine blend of music that could only really happen in the South Pacific, and that has a distinct sound and energetic feel that reflects the land and the time & place that they come from. I think in many ways both obvious and subtle I draw from that and my time coming up in the New Zealand scene definitely gives me a point of difference in my playing that could have only come from there too.

© IDOL

Did you plan the "Crisis & Opportunity" albums to be a series or is this something that came as you developed artistically? Moving from the inspiration you found from London on Vol. 1, to a more improvisatory/groove-style approach on Vol. 2, to now this more production lead outlook on Vol. 3…

Yeah, the plan from the conception was that "Crisis & Opportunity" would be a 5 album series. For better or worse, I've always been a very diverse and eclectic artist and at times I've been guilty of trying to fit a whole lot of genre's into one album (or even one tune) and have it not really come out all that cohesively. So splitting things off into 5 albums meant that I can bring a lot more focus and clarity to each album, sit within a mode of music making & go deeper on each project.

It is exciting to see you work more with Lewis Mood from the Zeitgeist Freedom Energy Exchange from across the pond in Australia. What was it like having him as a co-producer on Vol.3 as opposed to just his instrumental input on Vol. 2?

In many ways I couldn’t have asked for a better creative partner for this album than Lewis Moody. He brought an excellent combination of creativity & taste. When you combine that with a strong knowledge of jazz harmony, analogue & digital synthesis, mix engineering & production skills, A-Team piano chops as well as a serious work ethic, you’re left with one of the deadliest all-rounders working anywhere in the game. On top of this, he had the humility to be able to execute ideas at my direction as well as the artistic strength to bring a lot of his own ideas & sound to the composition and production process. Despite being Australian he’s been a first-rate collaborator, as well as a solid dude and a great friend. In ways great and small this album wouldn’t have taken shape in the way it has without his work, input and influence.

Myele Manzanza and Lewis Moody © IDOL

Back to the jazz of it all, the jazz scene has developed a lot, especially in the UK, in the last decade or so. Where do you think it is heading next?

That's anyone's guess, but judging by some of the younger notable musicians that I mentioned earlier, I think it's gonna be moving in really interesting directions. I'd say the young musicians coming out now have the benefit of a really strong academic education and aren't scared of playing difficult & complex music, as well as the benefit of coming up in a scene where artists like Shabaka, Ashley Henry, Yussuf Kamaal etc have proven to audiences that this jazz isn't just an academic institutional affair and is very much a social music for the people, both young and old, in a way that simply wasn't the case on this scale 10 - 15 years ago. We'll see how that manifests itself long term, but I think to say the least, the London scene has a healthy future ahead of it.

And finally, for the creatives reading this, what do you find helps you most when you are experiencing a creative block?

It can be easier said than done sometimes, but I think the best way to get through a creative block is to just continue showing up for 'work' every day. I heard a good analogy once that it's like mining for gold. Initially, you probably have no idea where the gold is, but you have to start digging somewhere to find it. Odds are you won't find it on the first day, or you have to dig through endless amounts of dirt before you get to a gold nugget. Or even worse, having to dig through endless amounts of dirt just to find out that there's no gold there and your labours on that spot were for nothing. But if you want to find the gold, you have to try. I think the creative process can be kind of similar to that. Some days you'll get lucky and strike gold and it can feel like all the best ideas in the world are just falling from the heavens and flowing effortlessly into the music you're making. However, the majority of the days will be more like maybe 1 or 2 good fragments of an idea come out for every 10+ unusable ones. Or maybe it'll seem like everything you write seems sub-par, or doesn't seem to make sense for whatever it is you were hoping to achieve and it can feel like a waste of time, but those days in many ways are the necessary labour needed to get through to the golden moments. The moral of the story, if you want to find gold, you gotta go digging. No digging, no gold.

In saying that, sometimes a period of rest and reflection is required too and can be better than just digging in the same spot hoping for new results. I recall in late 2019 / early 2020, before the coronavirus and lockdowns, I was on the back end of the run of shows supporting the A Love Requited album, and I recall feeling a sense of having no new ideas and zero sense of where to even begin looking for new ones. To continue the analogy, perhaps I had dug out all the gold in the A Love Requited mine, and was straining myself looking for gold that wasn't there anymore. When the lockdowns of 2020 came in it kind of created a forced break in the routine and effectively forced a work stoppage on the old mine. Effectively it forced me to take a break and begin looking elsewhere, and having that opportunity to zoom out on the work I had been doing and the trajectory I'd been taking up to that point was good for me too. It enabled me to start looking for new areas to begin looking for gold in a way that never could have happened had there been no lockdowns and had I just been keeping on the same trajectory.

LISTEN TO 'CRISIS & OPPORTUNITY, VOL. 3 - UNFOLD' BY MYELE MANZANZA NOW ON QOBUZ

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