From Rhodes to Yamaha: Modern jazz artist Alfa Mist explains how keyboards shaped his new album
Detailing his analog recording process for Bring Backs.
Arguably, the crop of contemporary jazz artists from the UK in recent years ranks among the best musicians in the world today.
A diverse melting pot of culture, style, history and sound, the scene sees artists like Yussef Dayes, Henry Wu, Jordan Rakei and Mansur Brown draw on hip-hop, neo-soul, alternative and electronic styles. to create their lucid assortment of vibrant jams, breathing new life into jazz and setting the model for how the genre is perceived by the masses today.
At the center of this scene is Alfa Mist; the east London-based pianist, producer and rapper who may well be one of the most influential bands to have taken place in recent years.
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His style – a bizarre fusion of liquid Rhodes licks and clever chord inversions, spread over the offbeat contemporary grooves of a set of seasoned session cats – is one that has resonated strongly with listeners in recent years.
After releasing his first record in 2015 with Nocturnal, Alfa Mist has become a locally renowned beacon of the British jazz community.
This debut was followed by his internationally renowned second year Antiphon – a stunning showcase of its sonic fundamentals – while 2019 Structuralism has only further solidified his status as a rising titan as producer, arranger and performer of his stage.
Oddly enough, Alfa didn’t have to pursue jazz until his late teens, spending most of his teenage years doing grime beats on Fruity Loops and honing his beat-smith craft.
It may not seem immediately obvious when listening to his new album. Report, which is brimming with impressive technique and tasteful instrumental sensibility and portrays Alfa as a performer with at least a decade of jazz noodles under his belt.
Perhaps even more unique, however, is that the album is entirely pieced together with a poem by Hillary Thomas exploring the notion of diaspora; a sentiment also reflected in Alfa’s own lyrical content throughout Report.
“My mother came from Uganda to London, then I was born in London,” says Alfa. “I’m the one who asks myself what my background is and I understand what my mother’s journey is, because my mother had her own thing to go through, but our experiences intertwine with each other.
“(On the album) I talk about myself through a lot of raps, but I think Hillary talks more about the parents’ journey, because one wouldn’t have happened without the other.”
Mist says he started digging deep into jazz after hearing J Dilla and Madlib sample the genre in their productions, detailing how much he practiced the piano to refine his chops as a teenager.
“All I did from the start was learn a song that my fingers couldn’t physically play, and once I did that I learned another song that my fingers couldn’t. couldn’t play physically, so you’re always improving, ”he explains. .
“Literally when I was in college it was only hours every day to do this. Then you come to a place where you can put some of the things you learn into your own music. I just wanted to refine these tools for my own music, not really to show anything else.
Recorded in analog paradise Gizzard recording in London during a slight delay between the closures of last year, Report was entirely written and produced by Alfa, who recruited Jamie Leeming, Kaya Thomas-Dyke and Johnny Woodham to appear on the record.
The record was largely followed over a single week, with Alfa also leading additional sessions around the same time with cellist Peggy Nolan and bassist Rocco Palladino – Pino’s son, and just as good as his old man.
As if he wasn’t busy enough working on Report, last year also saw Alfa release a slew of other recorded projects, including an album of solo piano compositions and a reissue of a collaborative effort alongside R&B singer Emmavie.
“I just make new ideas almost every day to stay creative,” he says. “I was brainstorming with an album in mind, and just as that first little lockdown was starting to lift, I spent a week in the studio, and then I recorded it to tape and that was it.”
Behind the scenes of Report also marked Alfa’s first recording straight to tape without any digital backup, and it seems the Londoner enjoyed the experience of working with the fragile (but undeniably brilliant) format.
“I feel like it gives you the performance of when you’re on tour and doing a live show, because you want to put on the best show for the audience,” Alfa said of the method. ‘recording. “It just gives you that extra pressure.”
Although it has opted for a single performance-based analog recording process, Alfa notes that every song that appears on Report exists as a form of MIDI rhythm stored on Logic Pro, these demos then being sent to each member of the group to learn and vamp.
It might seem like an unorthodox method of transcription to the average jazz session artist, but Alfa says it’s his prowess as a producer – both in and out of the box – that really helps bring about stellar performances. from these skeletal digital sketches.
“I just gave it all up and I’m like, ‘this is the groove and this is the feel that I’m looking for,” Mist says of his writing process. “Learn that groove first, then if you can improve it, do your own thing and grow from it, but that’s the intention ”.
“I bring this to the group and let them do whatever they want. But as long as the intention for an idea exists up front, I think it’s a pretty easy way to get my point across, if that makes sense.
While the whole ensemble on stage Report Feeding equally on each other’s musicality and exchanging solos in synchronous harmony, it is hard not to marvel at Alfa’s performances through the record.
His knowledge of inversions creates some of the album’s most striking moments, and his dexterous feel on the keys is sublime to hear in action.
More importantly, however, is the clarity of Alfa’s recordings and its choice of sound equipment, which are each crucial to the overall feel of the record.
Alfa notes that although it once had almost daily access to a genuine old-school Rhodes, there are many keyboard sounds ringing on it. Report came courtesy of the Yamaha line of keyboards.
“I used to share a studio with Jordan Rakei and used his Rhodes and my Montage, but Yamaha released the Yamaha CP-88,” he says.
“It has a really good Rhodes sound and it’s a lot lighter than the Montage, so I tend to use it for everything. Montage is good when you want other types of synths, but there’s also the Yamaha Reface, which makes great synths too.
Having made themselves known organically and released all of their previous projects independently, Alfa took the plunge last year and signed with the famous independent label ANTI- before the release of Report.
While the match might seem a bit peculiar on paper, it’s clear that the brand’s corporate ethic fits perfectly with Alfa’s creative needs, and both sides have both benefited from each other’s company.
“It’s been interesting,” says Alfa, reflecting on the process of signing the deal. “It obviously happened via lockdown so there was a bunch of emails, but you see them running on a much larger scale than usual, because I’m used to doing the emails. things myself.
“Now we have to erase everything with four or five different people before it comes out, but they’re all good people. This is what I was looking for: this is the only reason I signed, because there were good people. It’s a pretty short contract, to be honest, but I think this album went really well.
Alfa Mist, like many of its contemporaries, first rose to prominence on SoundCloud during the platform’s heyday in the mid-2010s, where artists like Tom Misch, Clams Casino, Kaytranada and Chance The Rapper all cultivated the communities that would help them thrive. today.
However, a lot has changed in the music industry since those heyday, and Alfa is only too aware of how digital music consumption has evolved since then.
“There was something there at that time, man. There should be documentaries on what was going on there, ”he said.
“But yes, it’s definitely a given now. They put ads on it and everything, and the majors got involved, but it was a good time. I think it made a lot of people want to finish a project and release stuff, instead of just practicing your instrument all day.
“I think that’s what helped me more than anything, you know, the DIY way of doing things: Internet, YouTube, whatever there is. I think that’s what helped me more than anything else.