The evening began with a jam led by singer/guitarist Jelly Cleaver, who emphasises an inclusive, encouraging atmosphere to develop musicians. Because of earlier technical issues, the jam was short, and didn’t feature the individual talents of the musicians but evolved more of an eerie sound piece defined by the enchanting, mournful vocals of Plumm (Levitation Orchestra) and complemented by the equally expressive violin strains of Rebekah Reid.
The jam’s mood was a fitting segue to harpist Nala Sinephro, who created ethereal, minor harmonies with shifting synth loops. Her rippling, floating set, delivered as one soundscape, was the product of fast-moving hands deftly working two synthesisers and her harp. Although she has collaborated with musicians in and adjacent to Steamdown, this was only her second solo gig. Ahead of a forthcoming album in late spring, she next performs on 22 February at Kings Place.
Digs expanded beyond London by welcoming hip hop trio 2U4U from Rugby, who introduced one of their songs with a harp sample of their own. MC My Rugema first got the crowd nodding along with living-room vibes in ‘Gurl’. Producers Ranbir and ATMA employed diverse samples to underscore My Rugema’s acerbic raps about the political, racial, and social troubles of ‘Drugby.’ Their songs sometimes ended a bit indecisively, but the rousing Afro-beat, Wakanda-inspired black empowerment paean ‘Vibes’, which will be released on an album this summer, more than made up for it.
Newly-formed group fronted by and named for And is Phi (above), and featuring Matt Gordon aka Pie Eye Collective (keys), Hector Plimmer (drums), Isobella Burnham (bass), and Rebekah Reid (violin) was defined by emotive soul ballads and evocative duets between Phillips’ voice and Reid’s violin. Burnham showed off her song-writing and vocal chops in ‘Hold on to Your Dreams.’ As the group develops together, hopefully their sets will expand to afford Plimmer and Gordon’s abilities to shine beyond what was glimpsed.
The live music portion was closed out by the inaugural London performance by Barcelona-based Zoe’s Shanghai, comprised of Emerik (keys), Landy (drums), Alex (bass), and Zoe (vocals, guitar). Zoe’s full, circular vocals and were underscored by clever, unexpected rhythm changes seamlessly executed in grooves like ‘Saint Vibes and Time’.
The last three hours of the night saw a full house dancing to DJ sets by Anja Ngozi and Pie Eye Collective. Brainchild founders Marina and Tilley welcomed guests at the door, and the low-ceilinged venue DIY-decorated with velvet, tinsel, a fog machine, and lights cultivated a homey, friendly atmosphere.
Brainchild announced earlier in the week that the Arts Council funding that made their award-winning festival affordable would not be renewed for this year’s event. Although the festival will still go on, the lack of funding will make ticket prices more expensive, which will jeopardise the event’s inclusivity and affordability, two of Brainchild’s defining pillars. “UK Jazz” is a much-buzzed about movement whose rising stars have gained international acclaim in the past two years.
However, as And Is Phi observed, the artistry and musicianship of those stars were developed in local collectives meeting in affordable spaces. Between 2007-2016, the Mayor’s Music Venue Taskforce found a staggering 35% of the city’s music venues had closed. Last year indicated the first time the number of venues increased, but small, independent sites remain endangered by increasing business rates and unsympathetic gentrifiers who complain about noise. Without these spaces, emerging musicians who land gigs at corporate-owned venues risk underpayment and exploitation. Brainchild’s endeavour is an antidote to this trend, and its leaders are currently engaging with their supporters to find ways to adhere to their collaborative and inclusive ethos in the face of their funding loss.