Launched in 1992, the Mercury has done a huge amount to elevate homegrown jazz over the decades, commonly placing a jazz album on supposed level pegging beside commercial heavyweights among the 12 British and Irish releases it nominates as the year’s finest music. But surely nobody believed the jazz one would actually win it one day, including the London quintet themselves, who appeared so resigned to going unnoticed that they turned up in matching camouflage.
“If a jazz band winning the Mercury Prize doesn’t make you believe in God, I don’t know what will,” said the effusive bandleader, drummer Femi Koleoso. As a longstanding key member of London’s thriving jazz scene, he would have been perfectly aware that his group’s role here should have been similar to a team from the Isthmian League Division One South East hosting Manchester City for an FA Cup game: be grateful for your 90 minutes of fame and scuttle away again. Ezra Collective’s most popular song on Spotify, What Am I to Do?, currently has 14,000 streams next to Do I Wanna Know?, by their fellow nominees Arctic Monkeys, on 1.8 billion.
Yet to present this act of giant killing as any kind of fluke would do the band a huge disservice. Their performance during the ceremony of their presciently named song Victory Dance, bringing sweltering Latin energy to the Eventim Apollo, showed that they can all play almost anyone in the room under the table. They are also closer to the mainstream world than they might initially appear. Koleoso drums for Gorillaz and used to play in Jorja Smith’s band. Big seller Emeli Sandé sings on their winning album, Oscar-winning director Steve McQueen speaks on it, and that most-streamed song also features this year’s Mercury favourite, Loyle Carner.
This year’s shortlist was a surprisingly fun one, avoiding the occasional take-your-medicine feel of a Mercury-approved dozen. Other victories could have made for good stories. Carner’s album is a deeply personal exploration of growing up mixed race with an absent father. Raye’s rise after being stymied by her former record label has been wonderful to watch. Fred Again best captured our reemergence after the pandemic in his intimate take on dance music, while a second Arctic Monkeys win could have made nice bookends – a before and after picture of the hottest young band in the country making an unexpected journey into sumptuous, mystifying lounge rock.
But Ezra Collective’s story is vitally important. The win “represents something very special because we met in a youth club,” Koleoso said. He means Tomorrow’s Warriors, the not-for-profit music development programme that was founded around the same time as the Mercury and has consistently produced nominees including Nubya Garcia, Moses Boyd, SEED Ensemble and Sons of Kemet. Koleoso was also encouraged by the south London music charity Kinetica Bloco, and has previously called the decline of music education in schools “heartbreaking”.
In contrast, the joy on display on the Apollo stage showed how important these organisations are, helping underprivileged young people to believe they are winners and finally, against all the odds, showing everyone the proof.