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Emma-Jean Thackray

Emma-Jean Thackray

The Yorkshire-raised, South East London based bandleader, multi-instrumentalist and producer draws glowing lines between ‘70s jazz fusion and P-funk, the cosmic invocations of Sun Ra and Alice Coltrane and the gorgeous orchestration of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds.

A standard-bearer of a spiritually-minded, dancefloor-angled take on jazz that stands at a slight remove from the broader UK scene, which feels like a step into a fresh and distinct space, blooming with brass and strings, choral segments and ecstatic chants. 

Yorkshire is famous for its brass bands, a culture with its roots in the region’s coal mining communities. Thackray started her musical journey in primary school, playing a cornet her parents had bought her from a second-hand music shop, and by the age of 13 she was principal cornet in a local brass band. One day, downloading brass band recordings, she came across the Gil Evans arrangement of Miles Davis’ take on “Concierto De Aranjuez”, and it was an instant ‘mind blown’ moment. Soon, she was voraciously collecting jazz – Miles, Coltrane, anything with a cool sleeve. Still, her time in a brass band taught Thackray the power of a communal approach to music. “Sometimes in jazz, there can be ego. And it’s, like: ‘How can I play my best stuff, how can I come off as being the winner of this?’ That was never my musical roots – it was always about making a nice sound together, as a unit.”

Thackray has always been a little bit out on her own. At the Royal Welsh College Of Music And Drama, she studied jazz under the free improviser Keith Tippett, all the while trying to turn her coursemates onto the sounds in her headphones (“Everyone wanted to like play bop – I was like, ‘Yeah, but have you heard this guy Madlib?’). After the Royal Welsh, she took a master’s in jazz orchestral composition at Trinity College alongside future names like Moses Boyd and Nubya Garcia. But she says, she still “felt like an outsider”. She formed her own band, and by 2016 she was playing rapturously received live shows across the capital. But she really found her sound alone, holed up in the instrument-packed home studio that occupies a room of her South London flat.

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