Alfa Mist’s “Bring Backs” Blends Jazz with Spoken Word

With his third studio album, the British producer, songwriter, and self-thought pianist Alfa Mist reflects upon his sampling and hip-hop days on the streets of London. After self-releasing his two previous albums – Antiphon and Structuralism – Alfa Mist partners with the American independent record label Anti- for his next body of work, Brings Back.

Alfa Mist is a London-based producer, rapper, and pianist. To be both a hip-hop rapper and a jazz pianist is unique on its own. Learning that both skills are self-thought makes him inspiring. Alfa Mist started to create music on the streets of East London when he was only 15 years old. Being a teenage hip-hop producer eventually led to the discovery of jazz music. ”There’s no access to jazz where I’m from,” Alfa says. “There’s no way I would have come to it without finding those hip-hop records and wanting to understand them.” Learning the piano enabled him to improvise and creatively fuse jazz with hip-hop. By 2015, he built his network and established himself as a leading figure within the vibrant and rapidly evolving London jazz scene.

Change is inevitable
The isms and schisms, questionable
The future is out there, a matter of time

Hilary Thomas

Alfa Mist’s first official release was the collaboration project with singer Emmavie titled Epoch. This independent release from 2014 is strongly influenced by avant-garde R&B and, it already blends jazz, soul, and hip-hop. His first solo release came in 2015 with the extended play Nocturne and, two years later, he released his breakthrough album titled Antiphon. In 2017, he followed up with his second full-length album, Structuralism. Bring Backs is the third in a series of recognized and welcomed Alfa Mist albums. The album captures Alfa Mist’s rap and piano skills. It blends contemporary jazz with R&B, soul, hip-hop, classical, and spoken word.

The reflective musical voyage alters between an instrumental atmosphere and vocals in the form of rap and spoken word. The lyrics, a poem by Hilary Thomas, is what binds the album together. A total of four vocalists support the album. On the opening track, “Teki,” we hear Hilary Thomas open her poem with a spoken-word piece: “Change is inevitable. The isms and schisms, questionable. The future is out there, a matter of time.” In the song “People,” Kaya Thomas-Dyke sings in what is more a guitar-driven ballad. Alfa Mist is the third vocalist we hear, and he does it the way we expect. “Mind the Gap” dives into hip-hop and rap but keeps the loungy jazz backing. Alfa Mist’s rap gets support from the rapper Lex Amor who brings a softer touch to the track.

Alfa Mist in the studio during the Bring Backs recordings

Bring Backs got recorded in London together with an ensemble consisting of close friends and longtime collaborators, which makes things more personal. For the album’s title, Alfa Mist drew inspiration from a card game he played as a child. In the game, after winning a round, you can be brought back to play again, meaning that winning is never a sure thing. With it, Alfa Mist refers to his childhood. He lived in a constant state of uncertainty and instability. “You can be doing okay for a while but, that can change. You know that’s always a possibility,” he explains. The unpredictable and inevitable future is a recurring theme on the album.

The album is a confirmation that Alfa Mist will have more to offer in the future. He shows his ability to blend various musical styles and instruments into one meaningful oeuvre. Being a leading figure in the London music scene definitely influenced the album’s creativity.

Alfa Mist – Bring Backs (Live at Metropolis)

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The Best Jazz Albums Released in 2021

How was 2021 for jazz musicians? Let’s reflect back and list out what were, according to me, the five best jazz albums released during the year.

Dear Love – Jazzmeia Horn and Her Noble Force

 September 2021 / Empress Legacy Records ELR001 / US

Dear Love is the third and most ambitious album by Jazzmeia Horn. Her previous albums, A Social Call (2017) and Love & Liberation (2019), both got nominated for Grammy Awards in the category Best Jazz Vocal AlbumDear Love is not only another demonstration of Jazzmeia Horn’s singing ability. The album also spotlights her as a composer, arranger, and bandleader. This orchestral project released on Horn’s label, Empress Legacy Records, has been Grammy nominated for Best Large Jazz Ensemble.

Jazzmeia Horn explains that Dear Love addresses three aspects of her existence: her community, her lover, and herself. She infused the album with poetry and spoken word. Her meaningful and intimate vocals have a consistent timbre, a wide range, and an outstanding timing that perfectly communicates with the big band called Her Noble Force.

Bring Backs – Alfa Mist

April 2021 / Anti- 7789-1 / EU

With his third studio album titled Bring Backs, the British producer, songwriter, and pianist Alfa Mist reflects on his sampling and hip-hop days on the streets of London. After self-releasing his two previous solo albums – Antiphon in 2017 and Structuralism in 2019 – Alfa Mist partners with the American independent record label Anti- for the release of his next body of work, Brings Back.

Brings Back blends jazz with R&B, hip-hop, classical, and wistful spoken word. The reflective musical voyage alters between an instrumental atmosphere and vocals. While the instrumental atmosphere is present in each track, the vocal-oriented parts of the album lie mainly in the songs “Mind The Gap” and “Organic Rust“.

Deciphering The Message – Makaya McCraven

November 2021 / Blue Note 00602438144730 / US

For the recording of Deciphering The Message, drummer and producer Makaya McCraven dove into the Blue Note catalog. By rearranging parts, sampling, and adding beats, he presents a contemporary take on jazz classics by among others, Horace Silver, Hank Mobley,  Kenny Dorham, and Art Blakey.

In Deciphering The Message, Makaya McCraven does not celebrate jazz by duplicating the originals. He reimagines and innovates tunes without losing their valued core characteristic. The thirteen songs on the album are an homage to the jazz subgenre from the ’50s and ’60s, hard-bop.

Daring Mind – Jihye Lee Orchestra

March 2021 / Motéma MTM-0385 / US

Daring Mind is the work of the South Korean arranger and composer Jihye Lee. Lee, who had no jazz or classical training, originally became a successful indie-pop singer-songwriter. As she began exploring her own identity, she soon discovered large-ensemble jazz to be more satisfactory. She moved to New York and transitioned into a jazz composer under the guidance of pianist Jim McNeely.

Lee’s experience in pop music gave her a creative view on jazz composition. “Jihye Lee is emerging as a strong voice in the ‘next generation of composers for large jazz ensemble. Her music is imaginative and creative,” Jim McNeely said, “And she’s not afraid to make some exciting changes in her writing.”

Tone Poem – Charles Lloyd and The Marvels

March 2021 / Blue Note – B003313501 / US

Tone Poem, the third cooperation between the 83-year-old Charles Lloyd and The Marvels, is a continuous piece of orchestral music that blends various American music styles such as jazz, blues, and country. 

Lloyd and The Marvels quintet, featuring Bill Frisell on guitar, Greg Leisz on pedal steel guitar, Reuben Rogers on bass, and Eric Harland on drums, present us a full-length album filled with adaptations from Ornette Coleman, Thelonious Monk, Ignacio Villa, Gabor Szabo, and singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen. The album is supplemented with Lloyd originals.

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A Collective of Musicians Re:imagined the Blue Note Catalogue

Ever since its birth, jazz music has continuously evolved into various subgenres. The American record label Blue Note Records, which got established in 1939, played a significant role in this evolution. The company is a landmark in jazz music and has an extensive song catalog that includes many acclaimed jazz standards. Their new release Re:imagined is a compilation of Blue Note originals brought to you by a unique selection of musicians who’ve taken on jazz, soul, hip-hop, and R&B as their musical narrative.

Blue Note describes the album as “a bridge between the ground-breaking label’s past and future“. The driving force behind this highly anticipated project is a new and vibrant scene of mostly UK-based musicians. They are a group of forward-thinking artists that innovate, even reinvent, the genre through sampling, hip-hop, afrobeat, and dance music.

The compilation album features, among others, Shabaka Hutchings, Nubya Garcia, Alfa Mist, and Jorja Smith. They perform their take on Blue Note classics, often transformed into an easy-to-absorb contemporary remake.

“This 16-track compilation finds today’s youthful, often London-based renaissance in dialogue with the revered New York label’s deep back catalogue.”

The Guardian (review by Kitty Empire)

Not all songs on the album are adaptations of historic jazz standards. Singer-songwriter Jorja Smith opens the album with an electronic and upbeat transformation of St Germain‘s hit song Rose Rouge.

Inner sleeve artwork

Noticeable are the transformations of four original compositions by Wayne Shorter. The American jazz saxophonist composed many acclaimed jazz standards and, it’s no surprise that he is listed here multiple times. He had an influential career and, his contributions to jazz were paramount. In 1959, he joined Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers, where he replaced Hank Mobley. And in 1964, he joined Miles Davis‘ second (great) quintet and co-founded jazz fusion.

His compositions spotlighted on Blue Note‘s Re:imagined are Footprints, Armageddon, Speak No Evil, and Night Dreamer.

Footprints is a composition that was originally recorded for his album Adam’s Apple. The track got reworked by the London-based Ezra Collective, who are adding beats to the original. The jazz standard Armageddon got transformed by the Norwegian group Fieh into something that best can be described as neo-soul. The last two, Speak No Evil and Night Dreamer, are cleverly fused into one by Emma- jean Thackray. The songs transform into an adventurous arrangement where, also here, beats dominate.

London Jazz News writes in their review that “for some heritage-loving jazzers this whole vault-raiding exercise will be sacrilege“. They also comment on the life expectations of these adaptations versus the originals: “Some of Blue Note Re:Imagined‘s supposed updates will vanish long before the originals fade and the results often aren’t “jazz” – but the spirit of adventure and imagination in a good number most definitely is.

All in all, despite how the album is being viewed by “heritage-loving jazzers“, and despite it being a compilation, the record is spirited and exhilarating. It’s shelved among the best albums released in 2020 as it spotlights a new wave, and helps you discover the latest in music.