While it’s enough of an honour to be invited to perform at Glastonbury in any year, Nubya Garcia is a member of a highly exclusive club: those who can say they played Glastonbury 2020.
Amid the BBC’s June airings of past shows at the cancelled festival, the London saxophonist, Laura Marling and Arlo Parks were transported to a shuttered Worthy Farm to play a song each in front of an audience consisting of presenters Clara Amfo and Lauren Laverne, the skeleton of the unfinished Pyramid Stage and a herd of cows.
“It was kind of nuts but it was nice to be invited because this year would have been my Glastonbury debut with my band,” she says, speaking from her New Cross home in a rare lockdown outing for the Skype service. She’s releasing her debut album today, too, but In another sense, the 28-year-old from Camden is an old hand. She gets around. She has also played with the eclectic jazz band Ezra Collective, switches from sax to flute as a member of Maisha and released an album on high-profile indie label Domino last year as part of the six-sevenths female group Nérija.
In fact, Jazz FM’s UK Jazz Act of the Year 2019 is in the thick of things to such an extent that on We Out Here, the vital 2018 compilation album that celebrates the best of London’s new jazz generation, she played on five of the nine songs. She can claim a little bit of a Mercury Prize nomination this year too: she and her keyboardist bandmate Joe Armon-Jones are on several tracks on Moses Boyd’s shortlisted album Dark Matter.
“My god, I am so proud of him. He’s like a big brother to me, even though we’re the same age. He’s such an incredible innovator,” she says of Boyd’s acknowedgement, alongside the likes of Dua Lipa and Stormzy, at next month’s prizegiving. She’s also thrilled in a more general way that her closest peers are enjoying such prominent acknowledgement. Last year’s Mercury nominees SEED Ensemble contain several of her Nérija colleagues.
“I can’t really put it into words. ‘Proud’ isn’t enough and ‘happy’ isn’t enough. I’m so happy that we’re living in an age where these opportunities exist for young people playing music that has spent a few decades being completely ostracised.”
Jazz was central in Garcia’s early life. Growing up in Camden, of Guyanese and Trinidadian heritage, she was a regular in the audience at Ronnie Scott’s club, not least because her older sister worked there and could get her in for free. “My parents placed a huge focus on me going to see gigs,” she says. “We used to go there as a family and see amazing musicians from all over the world.”
She began playing the saxophone aged 10, taking lessons on Saturdays at Camden School for Girls, which she also attended. Later she studied at the Trinity Laban Conservatoire in Greenwich, where she finished in 2016. In between there were youth projects at the Roundhouse and Tomorrow’s Warriors, the hothouse for young jazz talent that has also moulded notable names including Shabaka Hutchings, Cassie Kinoshi and Soweto Kinch.
“I’m so thankful to them for existing,” she says of the Tomorrow’s Warriors organisation. “I know I’m very fortunate in terms of the opportunities I was allowed. I was never made to feel like I couldn’t do this, and there were bursaries towards music lessons. This government’s cuts to the arts in schools is actually quite heartbreaking. I had a very different experience growing up.”
Such a lengthy development has seen her end up with a sound that traverses the globe. Yes she’s good enough for the knotty technicalities of bebop, but on the album there’s dub reggae on the title track, Source, psychedelic soul with vocals from Chicago singer Akenya on Boundless Beings, and a collaboration with the Colombian cumbia trio La Perla on La Cumbia Me Está Llamando. Garcia has taken several trips to the country and recorded the percussion-heavy song over there in December.
“We didn’t talk about what we were going to do. We just played for a few hours and it was a really beautiful experience, very natural and organic,” she explains. “In a conversation, if you’re not listening to someone, then you’re not actually conversing with them – you’re just waiting to speak. I feel the same way about music. Sometimes people think jazz is just about playing as hard and fast as possible, but it’s so much more about interaction. That’s the basis of improvisation.”
Dominating the songs, of course, is her dancing saxophone – a mighty tempest on Pace, fluid and meandering on Together is a Beautiful Place to Be. It’s clearly a fifth limb for her, which is why it rubs her the wrong way if anyone suggests, as some have, that it was an unlikely instrument for her to pick. “There are still these preconceptions about certain jobs and activities based on strength. Because I’m a small woman, people do make assumptions and think maybe I should have chosen to play something else.”
It was a frustration too, with Nérija, that so much of the focus was on the group being largely female. “We’ve been in that band for about seven years and nothing has really changed with people saying, ‘My God, it’s amazing!’ Yes it is amazing but it’s so shit that they still feel it’s so out of the ordinary,” she says. “Things are improving with some festivals trying to have 50 per cent female bandleaders, but doing that quietly, without needing the pat on the back, is really important if it’s going to change people’s perceptions.”
In the meantime, she and her contemporaries have made huge strides in changing perceptions of what jazz can be and who it’s for. How did they do that? “London is a real melting pot of culture and diversity and that comes out in the music. We weren’t just playing jazz. It was jazz and bits of everything else, and people started to dance to it. It wasn’t for a sit-down crowd, so it brought younger people into this ageing demographic. I didn’t really imagine that any of this would happen. It wasn’t a goal. But I guess, just by us doing it, it became a possibility.”
Source is released today on Concord Records.