Readers of these pages caught a few words about the hip-hop-influenced progressive UK jazz artist Alfa Mist when we covered his contribution to last Fall’s double-disc Blue Note Re-imagined. Now we get a full menu with his fresh nine tracks on the full-length, Bring Backs, his debut for the U.S. label, Anti.
First teaching himself to produce beats as a schoolkid in East Ham, London, Alfa then discovered jazz through the sampling of hip-hop of producers like Hi-tek, Madlib, and J Dilla. Delving deeper, he taught himself the piano by ear to understand the harmonic complexities of these records. What followed was a period in the early 2010s spent putting some of his first developed tunes on Soundcloud and connecting with a community of like-minded musicians, including long-term collaborators Jordan Rakei, Tom Misch, and Barney Artist.
The album’s nine tracks of intricate grooves and lyrical rather existential reflections are tied together by a poem written by Hilary Thomas expressing the sensuous realities of building community in a new country. The album’s title also refers to an aspect of a card game Alfa would play as a child where the winner would only be decided after making it through an extra round without being brought back into the game. It is a feeling Alfa finds reflects his own experiences of success.
Instrumentation and configuration vary, opening with a septet including trumpet and bass clarinet, and later we have one song with just a lone cello. In most cases Alfa plays electric piano and synths, adding his vocals in some places although Hilary Thomas does on “Teki.” “People” is just guitar, bass, and cello as Kaya Thomas-Dyke sings and the leader sits out. This snippet of lyrics gives a sampling of these so-called lyrical reflections- “Nobody listens anymore, what are we talking for? /We’ve been here before, do we want more?/But if the morning waits for the sun/Well when it’s all said and done will we all become one?”
”Mind the Gap” features the spoken words of Lex Amor along with Alfa backed by a quintet without Alfa’s keys. Again the rather abstract lyrics revolve around this chorus – “Take MY time,/So they only see me in the right state of mind…We all rise and decline/I don’t want to live a life they designed…Take MY time, So they only see me in the right state of mind…We all rise and decline.” “Run Out’ has the septet again in a more rousing mode with reedist Sam Rapley on tenor sax. “Last Card (Bumper Cars) reprises the septet with Rapley on bass clarinet while Alfa and Hilary Thomas supply the vocal clips. It should be noted that sometimes a septet features a percussionist and at other times a cello. In almost all cases Alpha envelops other instruments in dense layers, as continues with “Coasting” and the spirited interplay between Johnny Woodham’s electric trumpet and Alfa’s synth leads.
“Attune” features the same cast of musicians with a vocal clip from Thomas – “’Soon come’ and “Walk Good” impart Warm Words./and into small hours, Pride rise high, like crane bird fly.” It’s another strong trumpet declaration from Woodham with no synth this time, and Alfa on the Rhodes instead with Rapley on a brief bass clarinet solo and Jamie Leeming adding scintillating guitar. “Once a Year” is the cello interlude and the album closes with “Organic Rust,” in a conventional quartet comprising different players (as it was recorded separately from the others) with Alfa on spoken word and Rhodes, going out with these words – “I’m trusting, young and dumb like I had a buzz/When it all gives way and I’ve had enough/I got a few words for the man above/When I’m Organic Rust.”
It’s only right to give credit to the supporting musicians, many of whom we have named, but here is the full list: Jamie Leeming (guitar), Kaya Thomas-Dyke (bass guitar), Junior Alli Balogun (percussion), Jamie Houghton (durms), Johnny Woodham (trumpet), Sam Rapley (tenor sax, bass clarinet), Alfa Sekitoleko (Electric piano/Synth), Peggy Nolan (cello), Rocco Palladino (bass), and Richard Spaven(drums). Although this is the ANTI debut for Alfa, he has delivered three full-length albums and three EPs just since 2015 across the genres of rap, soul, hip-hop, and contemporary avant-garde jazz like this one. Ultimately, his multi-faceted approach proves intriguing.