When you start out as an artist, particularly if you’re associated with a scene or a movement that starts to gather some heat around it, you’ll often be pitched along with them, as if the glow of their achievements may shine so bright as to reflect back on to you. And though South London’s jazz experimentalist, Oscar Jerome, may be associated with the talents of his accomplished collaborators (Moses Boyd, Poppy Ajudha, James Massiah), his light burns intensely by itself.
As a songwriter, he sits both within the dynamism of the extemporary jazz scene while also displaying a capability for catchy choruses and lasting hooks. It’s not that he aims for one or the other, more so, his approach is relaxed and spontaneous. He allows the music he creates to develop and come to life on its own, sometimes beginning with the lyrics before anything else.
That isn’t to say his music is unplanned or without thought but inspired by the culture he’s absorbed. The idea for the title of his latest EP, Where Are Your Branches? for example, came from the semi-autobiographical James Baldwin novel ‘Go Tell It On The Mountain’, and one scene in particular. “The main character John’s aunt is asking his father what positive impact he is going to leave behind when he dies saying ‘Where are your branches? Where is your fruit?'” says Jerome. “I just thought it was quite beautiful and fitted well with a lot of the subject matter in the EP.”
The EP reflects how he feels about the world, the subjects verging from the political to the introspective. “Music is something inseparable from the political history of people. The distorted images and expectations we have of life, religion and sex,” he says of the Western culture he critiques throughout the five tracks. Even Jerome’s aesthetic feels considered, enlisting the skills of his good friend Gaurab Thakali to create the artwork for his two Eps. Thakalu is also an artist whom has projected his critical views of contemporary life into his work.
You get the feeling that music was always the path Jerome was destined for, and it’s been a part of his story since he was small. “I always wanted to be a musician ever since I was about eight years old when I first took up the guitar,” he says. “When I was young, I just wanted to rock out like Jimi Hendrix or Nirvana, but as I got into my teens, my guitar idol became George Benson. Tupac – All Eyez On Me, Steel Pulse Handsworth Revolution’ and The Clash London Calling were pretty important albums for me too when I was growing up.” Later he’d take his schooling at Trinity Label Conservatoire of Music where he began to nurture his gift for music, studying jazz guitar. But education wasn’t for him, and instead, he nourished his skills performing live at grassroots venue Dalston’s Total Refreshment Centre.
Polished and confident, his signature sound is the result of his experimental attitude to music, and live he chooses to play with artists that can readily improvise and take his music to new realms. “I also like to switch up the set, throwing in the odd reworked cover or making new arrangements of the tunes,” he says. “I’m not really about this playing the track like the record thing; I think if you see someone live the experience needs to be its own special thing otherwise you might as well stay home and listen to the track.”
Both as a frontman and bandmate, he’s spent the last half decade paying his dues on the buzzing live scene, working shoulder to shoulder with the first breakout stars of that new world. He’s also part of Afrobeat collective Kokoroko, who recently featured on the Brownswood compilation We Out Here. If the hub of South London has the spotlight on it right now, for Jerome, there’s good reason for this. “There are a lot of great artists making interesting music in London at the moment,” he says before highlighting the influential nature of these little pockets of creativity. “I think what is so good about it is the mix of people from different musical backgrounds influencing each other. Beat makers, jazz musicians, groove musicians, rappers and singers all involved in the same scene.”
His music recently led him to his first trip to New York and a pilgrimage to revered landmarks in jazz history where he also got to play. “It felt pretty special to be there” he admits enthusiastically. “The main show I did at Le Poisson Rouge used to be the Village Gate where all sorts of legends played like Miles Davis, Nina Simone, John Coltrane, Aretha Franklin, Jimi Hendrix and Duke Ellington. I also played the Blue Note.” London may be at the centre of a jazz revolution, and Johannesburg’s scene may be having a revival, but for Jerome, its home is still New York. “The jazz scene is still really strong there – the standard of musicians is so high.”
With a sold-out show at Peckham’s Ghost Notes next week, he’s now hoping for a healthy turnout to his recently announced Village Underground show later this year. “It feels amazing to be having one of my favourite venues on sale. It’s gonna be a good night; I will have the full band and lots of special guests coming down.” In the meantime, you can catch him at Love Supreme Festival next month and shows throughout Europe where he’s looking forward to sharing his music.