By Fiona Ross
The artistry of saxophonist and composer Camilla George inspires and motivates. Referred to as the ‘Golden Girl of Jazz’ she is quite rightly one of the stars of new UK Jazz scene. Having worked with award winning collectives - Jazz Jamaica, Tomorrow Warriors and Nu Civilisation Orchestra - Camilla has been nominated for a MOBO award and her two albums have been widely adored and critically acclaimed and firmly placed her in the Jazz world.
Camilla’s work captivates all that is inspiring and powerful about Jazz. She combines her style and influences beautifully and communicates her artistry with elegance. We hear Jazz, of course, but we also feel her heritage and her history through Afrofuturism grooves and politically infused explorations of slavery. Her music makes you feel awake and alive – and we need that. When Camilla supported the mighty Dee Dee Bridgewater, the legend said, ‘The world is safe because we have Camilla’.
It was wonderful to speak to Camilla about her work and we explored many different fascinating topics. Her father was a Saville Row Tailor and her mother a psychotherapist, so to begin with, I asked her about her Nigerian roots and how Jazz and the saxophone, came into her life.
CG: My grandad on my Dads side was a Jazz musician in Grenada, but I never met him. My Dad had a huge love of jazz, so from a really early age, he used to just sit me down on Sundays, and we used to listen to his extensive vinyl collection. He’d tell me about Jackie McClean, Cannonball Adderley and all his favorites and that’s how I got into it. I had a good head start. And then actually, I saw a sax when I was 8 - a friend of my Mums had a tenor sax and nobody had been able to get a sound out of it, so I tried it and got a sound out and was hooked! It wasn’t until I went to secondary school that I actually got to play the sax because there was a competition and you could get sax lessons as one of the prizes – and that’s how it started. I do remember sitting around in the living room with my parents – when we opened the case. It did always feel that it was a special instrument and it had kind of chosen me.
Camilla has created a sound that is unique and distinctive through combining different ingredients including Hip Hop and Afrofuturism, all under the heading of Jazz. As always, new music brings in discussions about what is and what isn’t Jazz. As Charlie Parker famously said ‘They teach you there's a boundary line to music. But, man, there's no boundary line to art’
CG: Jazz - well it’s what I trained to be, and it is the music I love the most. I think my music is definitely African inspired because I was born in Nigeria and I have that whole part of my lineage and my family that have influenced me. My parents actually saw Fela Kuti perform in Nigeria in the 70s, so I always heard stories about afro beats, so that's definitely a big thing. At the end of it, it has to be your sound. But I think I definitely come up through this new wave of Jazz and exciting as it is and open to all, more diversity, obviously, there are some people that believe it is not Jazz to which I would just say, well Jazz evolves. It can’t always stay the same. I wonder if in years to come they will be looking back at this wave and say ok, well that was the beginning of this kind of Jazz etc.? I mean with someone like Miles, Dizzy or Charlie Parker, they had a vision and that's where they saw their music going and eventually, well that was it! The development of your artistry.
Camilla’s career to date has seen her collaborate and perform with a stunning array of artists. In 2009, she joined the award-winning Jazz Jamaica, which has the reputation of being one the best ‘good times’ bands in the UK. A few years later, she joined Courtney Pine’s Venus Warriors, an all-female super group. We talked about ‘women in Jazz’ and the lack of gender equality in Jazz and its development.
CG: I’ve known Courtney since I was quite young and I support his vision and I know that he is coming from a similar place to the Warriors who have always fostered female players - always created a space where we can develop, which is huge reason why we have more female players on the scene now. So that part, I think is great and so I did that because I believed in the project but in general, female led projects as a thing, is something I feel a bit weird about. I hate being described as a female sax player and I think there’s a lot of people that feel that way and I kind of feel like we should be now getting to the stage where it’s just a project. I mean the other day for my new project, I looked around and realized that half the band were female, and half the band were male. That wasn’t from a design, it’s just that's the players I wanted. And that I think is more important.
And talking of warriors, Camilla supported the ultimate warrior, Dee Dee Bridgewater at the London Jazz Festival and I had to ask her about that experience.
CG: She’s so cool and so supportive. I have been very fortunate as I also play with her daughter China Moses – I love her, loved doing that gig and just speaking to the both of them. You get this idea of a lineage and it’s so important and fascinating. I really enjoyed that gig and it was a great experience.
Camilla has recently been awarded PPL momentum funding to support the development of her next album. The funding came through the UK based, Performing Rights Society (PRS) who are the leading funding organisation for new music and development. Camilla’s new album ‘Ibio-Ibio’ will be exploring her roots and her tribe, the Ibibio people of South Eastern Nigeria. The music of the Ibibio tribe is a crucial part of community life and when explaining the importance of their language, the Rev. E. Smith, said ‘Every language is a temple in which the soul of the people who speak it is enshrined’. I asked Camilla why she felt that now was the right time to share this with the world.
CG: That's the thing, I mean, I can only speak for my tribe in that small part of in Nigeria, but I think in African culture, as a whole, music is so integral to everything that's important. It’s way of telling stories and a way of setting agendas. I always did want to do an album about my particular tribe, but I think I just got to a point now when the writing is more defined, and it feels right to do it now. Yes of course, the Black Lives Matter movement has made it more poignant – never has there been a better time to celebrate your differences and my culture than now, I think. Also in reflection, I think I am hoping it will be received in a time when people are more enlightened about different cultures and in particular the African diaspora, so I think it does feel like this is the right time to tell the story about my tribe and all the things that make it special. My music is political, but I think there are people that have it more in your face. It’s an important time to express what you feel – I feel like this is the time when it’s actually ok to say and to use your music for that.
Camilla sees her next album as a significant step in her development and we talked about this progression and what it means to her.
CG: I was very lucky to have been awarded the ppl momentum fund towards my next album which I really do see as a next step for me professionally. I was happy with the reception of my first two albums, and now is the time for a bigger project. The writing is more adventurous, the instrumentation is more adventurous – I’m excited. We’re recording in December, having had some setbacks due to Covid, but the studio is now booked!
Thank goodness. I cannot wait for her next album.
Camilla George is an artist leading the way. Her music is full of truth and explores tradition with respect while richly giving us the new. Her music is seeping with energy and positivity – and of course, talent. This is what the world needs.
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About Fiona Ross