Exploring the cosmic connection between Chicago jazz label International Anthem and London's Total Refreshment Centre
Part of the sprawling EFG London Jazz Festival’s 30th anniversary, a recent showcase at the Barbican Centre celebrated the work of Chicago label International Anthem and London venue Total Refreshment Centre in building boundary-pushing artistic connections. Sam Walton learns the story of this link up, and speaks to those involved about its resonance
Just after 11 PM on the first Saturday of the EFG London Jazz Festival, capping off the Chicago x London evening of experimental improvised music, 17 musicians shuffle onto the stage at the Barbican Centre. They begin playing together in loose unison, grooving in and out of a riff on saxophones and sousaphones, trumpets and drum kits, clarinets, guitars and pianos. All have already played at some point earlier in the night, as part of a parade of smaller groups, but now they’ve thrown themselves together after curfew for one last blast, half in celebration and half in a spirit of joyful investigation. Before tonight, the assembled troupe have never all been in the same room, let alone played together, and consequently there’s a first-date vibe to some of the interactions on display — all nervously excited glances and mutual encouragement, as they collectively pan for musical chemistry.
These aren’t just randomly compiled musicians on a disparate festival line-up. Everyone on stage is united by their association with Chicago-based, boundary-pushing jazz label International Anthem, and accordingly by a common spirit. As the players put flesh on the bones of a tune by fellow International Anthem signee Jaime Branch — the maverick trumpeter who died last summer, aged 39 — there’s a real sense of the imprint’s manifesto being presented. The players’ temperaments are as important as their chops; the emphasis is on listening and responding, and building something together. Indeed, this impromptu moment, combined with earlier sets by the bands of Alabaster dePlume, Ben LaMar Gay and Angel Bat Dawid, and the opening half-hour from guitarist Jeff Parker, leaves as strong an impression as any of International Anthem. Like Warp or Factory Records, the label’s personality is even more distinctive than its sound — something that fosters immense goodwill towards its artists, and renders the logo on the back of the sleeves as important as the names on the front.
That this is all happening in the rarefied surroundings of the Barbican, in front of 2,000 people, should be a moment to savour for the label, a marker of how far it’s come since putting out drummer Makaya McCraven’s first album proper in 2015. Not that co-founder Scottie McNiece is feeling too self-congratulatory: “The night was a celebration of a continuation,” he qualifies after the show, “rather than just a celebration of an achievement.”
And he has a point. After all, tonight isn’t his label’s first rodeo. As well as putting out records, International Anthem has become known for bringing together like-minded musicians from cities outside its own (most often London), and providing them with a space, both physically and creatively, to play. Tonight’s Barbican jamboree is just the latest and largest iteration of that concept, the plumpest fruit harvested so far from seeds that were planted five years ago somewhere a little humbler.
The Total Refreshment Centre — TRC to those who know — is about a half-hour ride on the 76 bus from the Barbican, but an ocean away in spirit. Situated on a grubby side road off Stoke Newington High Street and converted from a Jamaican social club that had petered out in the noughties, it comprises a bunch of recording studios and rehearsal rooms, as well as a live performance space. Over the past decade, it’s become a hub for music obsessives to hang out, practise, and listen, particularly those in the London jazz scene that started booming in the middle of the last decade.
“It was actually more post-punk to start with,” recalls Lex Blondin, the Paris-born adopted Londoner and founder of TRC, “but then all these people who’ve blown up now — Joe Armon-Jones, Nubya Garcia, Theon Cross — started coming in around 2017, when they were really young, and it blew my mind. I loved the music, and now we had young cats doing it and being really passionate, and it was cool because we were able to put these musicians in front of people who wouldn’t necessarily think of going to a jazz gig.”
Around the same time, the young International Anthem was looking to spread its wings, and a series of fortuitous connections led the label to this most local of local haunts. “We did a thing in New York in 2016,” remembers McNiece of the label’s initial forays beyond the Windy City, lounging on the sofas at TRC as he talks, “and realised that when we did shows outside of Chicago, they felt like a bigger deal. I’d just gotten to know [British jazz DJ and broadcaster] Tina Edwards, and I started to think that maybe London was the place we could do the next showcase. She recommended TRC, so I went to the website and was like, ‘Man, this place looks fucking awesome’. Lex seemed super cool, too, so we tried it.”
“They came over from Chicago,” Blondin remembers of his first encounter with the International Anthem crew, “and what they did was super inspiring for us: no promoter, especially from abroad, comes over and does two nights in a row, bringing their musicians and collaborating with the local ones.”
While impressive to Blondin, though, it turns out that necessity was the mother of that particular collab. “That’s nice of Lex to say, but the truth is we couldn’t really afford to bring everyone’s whole bands over,” admits McNiece, “so we ended up forming these collaborative bands when we got there, where Makaya [McCraven] played with Theon Cross and Nubya Garcia and Soweto Kinch and Kamaal Williams, and the whole thing just created a lot of relationships. It could’ve been a disaster, but it turned out just awesome.”
With mutual admiration blooming, McNiece and Blondin arranged for a second round of London gigs at TRC, with McNiece hosting TRC’s burgeoning crew of young UK jazzers in Chicago in between.
“That second International Anthem weekend at TRC — Chicago x London, they were calling it by then — was double-booked in the same space as one of my gigs,” explains saxophonist Alabaster dePlume, who had started renting a studio at TRC a couple of months earlier, after moving down from his native Manchester to pursue music full time. As a then relative unknown, realising he had to give way to the bigger attraction, dePlume had a moment of clarity. “When you’re double booked, you’ve got the option of being angry about it, but I decided to be glad,” he explains. “I didn’t know why at the time, but now I see that it connected me with International Anthem, and now I’m part of that community. That double-booking changed my life completely.”
Now, dePlume is perhaps the hottest act on International Anthem’s roster, topping the Barbican bill and attracting attention from an audience much broader than just jazz heads. It’s something that TRC’s Blondin feels justifiably proud of. “For us,” he says, beaming like a successful matchmaker, “a real win is seeing someone like Alabaster, who did a residency every month at TRC five years ago, with less than 100 people each time, slowly growing into the artist that he is now, headlining the Barbican, selling out the show.”
dePlume himself is somewhat more bashful about the scale of the gig, though. “It’s a beautiful honour to feel accepted here,” he acknowledges, a couple of hours before taking the stage, “but when you’re driving a car, you shouldn’t look at the car — you should look at where you’re really going! I could focus on this show, but I feel like it’s a part of the car. I feel like International Anthem recognises what I’m really doing, though”.
And what exactly is dePlume really doing, anyway? After all, the sort of music he makes — billowy semi-improv cosmic jazz that seems to mutate depending on the personnel, where records are just tasters for what may unfold on stage — feels slightly more hopeful and far-reaching than your standard jamming jazzers.
“The work we are doing,” he starts, earnestly, with emphasis on the ‘we’, “is a part of work being done globally that will emancipate and unify people for centuries, and will be a part of the survival of the human race.” DJ Mag raises an eyebrow. “Yes, of course that’s a really big ambition for an independent jazz label, but we are just a part of it, and it’s only centuries in the future that this will make a difference.”
He pauses to replay what he just said in his head, adding, “There will be some people reading for whom this is too high over their heads. I’m sorry I don’t have something right now that’s more in their language — I have been drinking a lot of coffee.”
For McNiece, however, the work is more straightforward, to the extent that it’s printed on every International Anthem release. “If you have any of our records,” he explains, “our mission statement is on the back of the OBI strip, and we still think about it every day.” That statement emphasises positive change and the importance of unique music, a commitment to offering “appealing packages to untapped audiences”, and putting on boundary-defying cultural events. If tonight is anything to go by — and indeed, the Chicago x London relationship that’s been built to date — his label is right on track.
McNiece cautiously agrees: “I guess when you have strong intentions, and you know what your mission is, you can’t sweat the way things come together. But yes, a lot of it has worked out so far. A lot of it is serendipity, but serendipity is made possible by everyone having a really strong overarching sense of what we’re trying to do. “Initially, that was all folks in Chicago,” he continues, “but when we started travelling around, it was still about making real human connections. All our artists are constantly touring the world, meeting people and playing with them, so we just follow them and see who they’re vibing with.”
Less about the recorded music, then, and more about the relationships, wherever in the world they may be? “I think as long as you have people who connect, have something to say, are honest, and make you feel something on stage, then it’s quite likely that it’ll work out,” McNiece agrees. “The specifics are malleable regarding the sound and where and how the things happen. As long as the intention is there, it’s all good.”
DePlume, ever the starry-eyed poet, perhaps sums it up best: “The tunes we play are like the snacks and drinks at a party,” he begins. “But the main thing at a party is the people and the interactions. What I mean is that it’s always nice to have snacks — but they should never take priority over the vibe.”
What he’s too modest to mention is that when the snacks are this delicious, it’s easy to enjoy everything else.