Last Saturday Kath and I went to see Alfa Mist and his band play a sold-out concert at the Barbican. Based in the City, near Moorgate, the Barbican Centre is not so far away from where Alfa Mist grew up, in Newham, east London. He began, as a teenager, in hip hop and grime, but discovered jazz and taught himself piano. He is now firmly established as a jazz pianist, but remains a musician who draws on those musical roots in his compositions.
I first saw him in 2018, when he played the Sunrise Arena at Latitude. It just before six o’clock on the Friday, and I’d just had my ears pummelled by a very angry band on the Lake Stage called Lower Slaughter! I thought a bit of cool jazz would be just the thing to chill out to after that. And so it was. The music flowed. The piano was central but not dominating. There was space in the music, room for virtuosity, underpinned by a solid groove. The beats felt fresh, attuned to the sounds of modern London, while nodding to the 90s acid jazz movement. The set was based, I think, around his 2017 album Antiphon. It’s a fine album, featuring songs like Keep On, Kyoki and Breathe. Kyoki was the first song of his that I’d heard – on 6 Music, of course. I loved the combination of the mellow piano motifs, which could have come from Steely Dan’s classic album Aja, a burst of guitar out of the jazz rock songbook, and a drum sound that reflected his hip hop roots. Music to sit back and relax to, with a cold drink in your hand… but music that also commanded your attention, as it flowed in unexpected directions.
Fast forward to 2021, via 2019’s Structuralism – another excellent collection – and a new album Bring Backs, which again fused jazz, hip hop and soul, but perhaps with more of the hip hop than previously. I saw it described somewhere as a love letter to London, and the District Line even features in Mind the Gap! That song also features the voice of Lex Amor, singing in a style that reminded me a little of Martina Topley-Bird in Tricky’s 90s masterpiece Maxinquaye. What is not to like?
2021 has also allowed artists to start touring again. (Let’s not even think about the prospects of going back into lockdown, even if it is beginning to feel like it is around the corner as I write.) Alfa Mist began a UK and Ireland tour in November, with the Barbican show his biggest – as well as an extraordinary homecoming. Apparently he does all this without a conventional promoter too. The continent beckons in the New Year, regulations allowing. I can imagine him going down a storm in places like Amsterdam, Berlin, Prague and Paris.
And he went down a storm at the Barbican. I have had the good fortune to see some excellent concerts recently, Nubya Garcia, Vijay Iyer, Ishmael Ensemble and Kelly Lee Owens amongst them. This was up there with all of those, and may have been the best of all. The quality of all the playing was astonishing. Alfa Mist’s keyboards suffuses the music with an understated mellow vibe which gives the other musicians the opportunity to show what they can do. The beats were perfection – from drummer Jas Kayser and bassist and occasional singer Kaya Thomas-Dyke. A rhythm section that always had you wanting to move – even as you sat in your comfortable Barbican seat! Trumpeter Johnny Woodham, saxophonist Sam Rapley and guitarist Jamie Leeming took their turns to solo, and were clearly taking inspiration from each other. I loved the tunes that began with one of them improvising, often using echo to enhance the atmosphere, before the rest of the band came in. Bass, drums, Alfa Mist himself on a conventional piano, also had their turns. And that wasn’t all: a lot of the songs were further embellished by the wondrous sounds of the Amika String Quartet. Taking things to another level. It was such a good demonstration of the collective. No-one stole the show, not even Alfa Mist himself. He strikes me a determined but very grounded musician. Self-effacing even. His playing complements the whole, and that sets an example to everybody. They all shine, but they shine together. You could feel the respect. I really liked that.
There were thirteen songs – to use the term loosely – spread over two sets. Nine were tracks from Bring Backs – in fact the whole album was played over the evening. Keep On and Breathe made it into the set, as did a song called Door, from Structuralism, with Jordan Rakei on vocals. He was one of three guests. Before him we had, I think, Lex Amor for Mind the Gap (minus the District Line announcement!) and Barney Artist on a tune called Where’s Your Soul At? As ever, it’s thanks to Setlist FM for that information. It comes from a Barney Artist album from 2014 called Bespoke. Guest keys from… Alfa Mist.
This was my last gig of 2021. It’s been good to get a few in in the last couple of months. I’ve got a few lined up in the first few months of 2022 too, lockdowns permitting. But Alfa Mist was a great way to see out this year. Music of the highest quality, music to luxuriate in. Beats that work their way into you. Solos that evoke a sense of wonder. Sounds that flow – and all you have to do is release yourself into the current.