As Mercury Prize victors Ezra Collective impact Top 20, Partisan COO Zena White talks global reach

As Mercury Prize victors Ezra Collective impact Top 20, Partisan COO Zena White talks global reach

Following their victory at the Mercury Prize ceremony, Ezra Collective could earn their first Top 20 entry for winning album Where I’m Meant To Be. 

As well as being the first jazz act to win the prize in its 31-year history, the band made an impact with their performance of Victory Dance and a rousing acceptance speech by drummer and band leader Femi Koleoso.

Music Week has reported on the rise of the London-based jazz group, including an interview with a characteristically confident Femi Koleoso four years ago.

“The stigma that jazz music has will be fully broken,” he told Music Week in 2019. “People won’t be surprised that a track with no singer or no rapper has charted. One day there won’t be ‘the token jazz album’ in the Mercury Prize shortlist, it will be, ‘these four jazz records made it because they were the best records released.’ That’s what’s going to happen.”

The Mercury Prize victory has boosted sales of Ezra Collective’s winning album, according to the Official Charts Company’s Midweek chart. Where I’m Meant To Be is currently a re-entry at No.18, following the televised ceremony. The LP originally peaked at No.24 upon release in November 2022.

Ezra Collective’s Mercury Prize victory was also a first ever win for independent label Partisan Records, following a run of success for the label. 

Here, Partisan Records COO Zena White reflects on a joyful awards ceremony and outlines the label’s ambitions for Ezra Collective…

The victory for Ezra Collective was a wonderful moment – what was it like for Partisan and the team?

“The room was absolutely electric and whilst the Mercury Prize often balances competition with camaraderie, it genuinely felt like everyone in the room was behind Ezra Collective when they were announced as the winner. The response since has been truly joyful, which is exactly the emotion that the group intend to portray with their music, so I guess it is working! As for it being Partisan's first Mercury win… it's incredibly apt that it's with Ezra Collective, for all of the same reasons.”

The album came out last November, is there an opportunity to fully capitalise on the prize win?

“It came out almost a year ago, after being recorded well before that, fairly early in the pandemic, which makes the win all the more sweet. Femi was touring with Gorillaz for much of 2022, so we had to wait until he had the time to promote it. Thanks to the win, we now have a chance to reach a bigger audience. I heard Fred Again.. mixed tracks from it into his Ally Pally show on Saturday… we should probably see if he wants to do an official remix.”  

Why do you think Ezra Collective won, given that jazz is often seen, perhaps unfairly, as a token inclusion?

“I can't speak to why the judges made the choice they did, but I do think that WIMTB is a unifier in a lot of ways. Musically it brings together a lot of different genres and collaborators from Steve McQueen to Emeli Sande, Tony Allen to Sampa The Great. It was made at a time when we were all going through something collectively. It's also a purposefully uplifting record that has a lot of meaning we can all relate to.”  

Ezra Collective break the boundaries of what people think is a jazz act

Zena White

Inevitably, attention has focused on their victory as a jazz act. But what would you say about Ezra Collective and their ability to draw upon a wide range of genres and reach different audiences? 

“Ezra played six shows at the Blue Note in NYC this past spring and had everyone in the club on their feet dancing in each show. Blue Note is a traditional jazz dinner club; this doesn't happen there and everyone from the owner, to regulars who have been going for 30 years, made sure to communicate that. They are bringing jazz to a much wider audience by making it fun and inherently joyful. Just a couple of months after that they played a late afternoon set to tens of thousands of people on Glastonbury's West Holts stage followed by a late night in Shangri-La, which was so inundated they had to bring in extra security for crowd control. 

“Ezra Collective is more than jazz. Jazz is its musical foundation, but it breaks the boundaries of what people think is a jazz act, as evidenced by their ability to play to huge or intimate audiences in almost any setting and achieve the same uplifting feeling.”  

How much respect is there for them in the artist community? Is this an important moment for jazz, as Femi suggested on the night?

“I think in the UK, Ezra have been respected by other artists long before Partisan become involved. However, we hope that will grow further. I've personally really enjoyed seeing the public congratulations from other artists on socials… some have been surprising to me like Joan As Police Woman!  But that's just another sign of their broad appeal. I'm sure more collaborations will come, but I hope that this award also broadens the reach of instrumental music too, which typically gets programmed less on the radio and in playlists.”  

The album had an amazing Top 30 result for a jazz record in week one – how has it performed in the UK since then?

“It's been steadily growing as the group have been out on the road, and we've been happy with WIMTB as the first step in our partnership. That said, we have been talking a lot about what it means to be as schooled in the studio as you are on the stage as a musician, and everyone's been leaning in to make the recordings bigger and better.”

And how would you describe the working relationship with the band and manager Amy Frenchum?

“I've known Amy for a long time and we always knew we wanted to work together at some stage. But Partisan only started pursuing Ezra Collective when Tim's [Putnam, co-founder] friend Johnny Beach, from Bowery Presents in NYC, took him to a show and he lost his mind. We found a lot of synergy between the group's mission and our own, so it just made sense. We are able to be very honest with each other to find a place of trust in our working relationship, which is very important.”  

Partisan spoke about the global potential for the act last year – how have Ezra Collective taken their music to an international audience?

“The goal was always to take Ezra from the ‘top of London's jazz scene’ to global headline act. We are getting there despite a setback in global touring caused by the pandemic. I have no doubt the Mercury win is going to really help things along.” 

With the recent success of new signing PJ Harvey, a Top 10 for Grian Chatten and now a first ever Mercury, has this been a banner year for Partisan?

“We always find ourselves saying ‘it's all about the next 18 months’ and I don't think this moment in time is any different. “

What have you got in store in 2023/24 to build on these achievements?

“I wish I could tell you! But it's going to be a big year for our release schedule.”

Although Partisan is well known for Idles, Fontaines DC and now PJ Harvey, will this Mercury win for Ezra Collective underline the fact that the roster is richer and broader than some people might think?

“Ezra Collective were a very important signing for us because they bridge the musical gap on our roster between Fela Kuti and Idles, whilst carrying a message that is intrinsic to our mission as a label. We're not committed to any one genre, as much as we are committed to unique voices and points of view that need to be shared. As music fans running a label with a fairly young catalogue still, it's fun to be able to recommend records for almost every music taste as we are growing.”

Click here to read our interview with Ezra Collective.


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