Interview \\ How triple-threat pianist Joe Armon-Jones keeps calm
Joe Armon-Jones and Maxwell Owin perform on the EZH stage at Roundhouse, Love Supreme on 5 May. Ahead of their appearance, Tina Edwards meets the rising star in his Lewisham home to chew over his many projects.
Pianist Joe Armon-Jones has been streamlining; first releasing with a band, then as a duo, and now, as a bandleader.
When Joe revealed the artwork for his upcoming album Starting Today, I recognised it instantly as his living room. Like the illustration suggests, it contains a mish-mash of keyboards and superfluous soft furnishings suited to a terraced house with 70s decor. It’s a cramped space. The smoke of roll-ups and incense creates a soft haze, pierced by rays of sunshine breaking through the closed curtains, all the better for illuminating the vinyl scattered across the room. I step carefully over cables to sit in a battered and cosy armchair opposite Joe; as I write this, I realise it’s the one on the album cover. It’s in this room that Joe has composed for Ezra Collective, his debut album as bandleader, and the mesmerising Idiom EP with his producer housemate Maxwell Owin who in fact, isn’t technically at home; his presence is via the Balaami radio waves as we chat.
Reflecting on meeting him for the first time, Joe explains that Maxwell broadened Joe’s already eclectic tastes. “Max listens to everything”, says Joe. “I’d be hard pressed to find something he hasn’t tried to sample or learn from at some point. So when I met Max you know, everything he liked I liked, but he also listened to all this other shit basically. It was definitely a learning curve but we had lots of crossover. Max was much more knowledgeable about dance music and even dubstep and the culture of it.”
“I met Max coming out of Trinity [College London] one time”, says Joe, ending his sentence with a toke. “Max is one of those people; as soon as you meet him, you just feel like you’ve known him ages”. Given my limited time in his company, I could say the same of Joe.
Ezra Collective have been gaining serious momentum—pinicled by their sold out show at Islington Assembly Hall, SXSW appearance and Unsigned Music Awards nomination. In September of 2017 however, Joe climbed out of the safety net to release something fresh with Maxwell. Together they released Idiom, an addictive six track EP that would further document the rich tapestry of the South London scene via YAM Records”.
Thier most prominent cross-co-ordinate though? “The jazz thing is probably the biggest and something that Max was trying to get more into at the time”, Joe shares. “He was living with Rosie [Turton of NÉRIJA] and Jake [Long of Maisha] and everyone like that making jazz music.
Joe is son to jazz musicians; his father a pianist, his mother a former singer. His parents started him early on the piano, and with high aspirations; the first piece they gave him to practice—somewhat independently—was a jazz chart of Chick Corea’s Spain. After understandably struggling with the piece, Joe told his parents that he wanted to learn the saxophone. “‘That’s an expensive instrument’” his parents would say. “‘Maybe if we get you a clarinet and if you can play that—and get good at it—then we’ll give you a saxophone’”. So that’s what Joe did. He started to practice the clarinet. “It went nowhere basically, I wasn’t good at it”, smiles Joe. “That’s what made me realise that I just wanna be a pianist—I just wanted to play piano all the time.
“—Calm, do you mind if I go find a lighter?”. Being around Joe, you soon learn that “calm” and “easy” are two words that flow in Joe’s vocab, his aura gentle. Meanwhile, Maxwell drops Sons Of Kemet on Balaami.
Returning to his seat, I ask Joe about his debut album as a bandleader, Starting Today. Learning that he toured in a choir as a child, I wanted to know if he was tempted to sing on it.
“It was something I wanted to do originally. I did actually record my vocals on it and I started to hate the sound of my own voice. I chickened out. I started to get a load of other singers that I knew to come through and sing something that I’d written”.
I couldn’t help but ask if, in hindsight, he was being hyper self-critical. “I think so, yeah”, Joe revealed. “It’s just one of those things—if you’re not used to singing you don’t necessarily like your own voice, ‘cos you’re not like a public speaker, so you’re not used to hearing your voice recorded. It’s something you have to get used to. After getting a few singers round I kind of just couldn’t quite get the right vibe for the tunes, so I went back to recording it myself and got a bit more confidence and just got it done”. There’s one vocalist however that’s made a big opening impression for the Brownswood debut; Asheber, real name Niles Hailstones.
“I met [Asheber] through a guy called Kevin Haynes, a sax player and composer, at the first Jazz re:freshed gig I ever did, like five years ago or something. I just got a call to do Kevin’s gig like out the blue—I’ll show you a bit of it later. It’s some of the best music I’ve played in london”.
Joe circles back to meeting Asheber; “It was only on my birthday last year that I had a gig with them. The end of the gig he just started singing on an improvised one. It was amazing, the whole room was lifted up. It was crazy. I asked him straight after the gig basically, I was like ‘come through, record on my album man, I’m down for it’. He came through, it was very improvised. I’d been recording this track all day and it ended up being the title track for the album”.
Understandably, there’s a lot of hype for Joe Armon-Jones this year. Starting Today is one of the most anticipated releases to drop on Gilles Peterson’s label this year. Meanwhile, he’s still gigging with Maxwell Owin, with a date coming up at Roundhouse where they’ll be performing on the EZH stage for Love Supreme alongside Soccer96 and rising MC Lava La Rue. Whilst his solo and joint projects are keeping him—and his fans—stimulated, Ezra Collective and its individual members continue to go from strength to strength.
“Tour schedules are ‘a madness’”, explains Joe. Drummer Femi Koleoso has been particularly busy, touring the States with Jorja Smith. “I didn’t see Femi for pretty much the whole summer except for Ezra gigs. I’ll go away with Mr Jukes and it’s only after that that we get to sit down and make music together.
“The most important thing—going forward with Ezra—is gonna be maintaining the vibe that we’ve always had. All this stuff is great and helpful and much appreciated, and it’s such a bless position to be in… but all of that stuff makes it harder actually to just be five people in a room, friends, and just make music. It doesn’t make it easier. That’s gonna be the challenge; moving forward, remaining really good friends and not business partners. We are technically business partners now but that’s not what we are, we’re friends. That kind of shit will show in the music really. But as long as we sit down to make music, it’s all calm.
EZH | Tina Edwards