It’s a chilly Sunday afternoon in Lewisham, and I’m waiting outside keys player, Joe Armon-Jones’, flat as he runs up with a bag of croissants.
Joe proceeds to make coffee, and I settle into the couch which could swallow you whole while he perches on a chair with his back to an upright piano.
His latest albums have received critical acclaim; both Idiom with Maxwell Owin (and Nubya Garcia, Oscar Jerome & Jake Long) – mixing jazz-house with broken beats and electronics on YAM Records, and Juan Pablo: The Philosopher, treading more familiarly instrumental territory with the Ezra Collective. It’s not hard to see why. While the albums paint different pictures, they are equally accomplished. Both deftly conjure images of South London as the diverse music scene it is, both gritty and welcoming, familiar yet exotic – and Joe’s unique playing fits like a missing puzzle piece.
His skills on the keys are the product of a lifelong talent. With his Dad and two uncles as piano players, Joe grew up around his instrument of choice and developed his affinity through jam sessions and playing gigs alongside his Dad. It’s unsurprising that his whole family is musically gifted – his Mum sings jazz, and his brother and sisters sing and play the cello, violin, viola and flute.
Joe says his parents were of the “Yes! Vinyl is gone!” era and laughs about how his Dad is “still gassed that he can carry all his music in his car” now that his collection is on CD. He speculates that our generation’s nostalgia for vinyl has something to do with the way we appreciate records as objects. He hopes we’re returning to the days of album art, pointing to the set of four paintings used for the Idiom cover by friend and fellow creator Rago Foot, which are spread across the living room. “When you put in so much effort to make a record, suddenly you wanna hire an artist to do the artwork.”
Joe’s tentacles spread far and wide in the South London music scene, often collaborating with artists in a variety of genres. Originally introduced to the Sub Luna City crew a few years ago, he has made friends with artists like King Krule and MC Pinty and played on traditional jazz, jazz-funk, afrobeat, hip-hop, broken-beat and house records – check Joe’s keys work on Ben Hauke’s ‘I Kinda Missed It’ released on Church, or SumoChief’s ‘It Is What It Is’ feat. MadLean. He’s even been both Pharoahe Monch and Ata Kaka’s touring keys man. “London is proper freedom, meeting all these musical people, just chilling and sharing music in a bedroom is a big part of my musical knowledge growth… like having people come through and say ‘listen to this’.”
Talking of chance encounters, he reminisces on his first meeting the Ezra Collective when a field trip with jazz school Tomorrow’s Warriors led him to sit next to drummer Femi Koleoso, who’s also popping up all over the scene, and share music on the long bus ride to Wales. They had a gig at Ronnie Scott’s soon after that their pianist couldn’t make, and Joe filled in. “Be careful which gigs you miss,” he chuckles.
Recalling how ex-Ezra Collective saxophonist David Turay passed away at a young age, Joe touches on the complex relationship between mental health and music. “Good creative stuff comes with this mental burden,” he says. “It’s a bit more open to talk about nowadays. Hip-hop has had this thing for a long time where it hasn’t been something you can talk about. It’s just seen as weak.” But things are changing in the music scene, the recent Jazz revival might be seen as a sign of that, and he hopes that mental health is one affected area.
“I definitely see it man… when you’re on tour, you’re like oh… this is why people go mad.”
Joe wasn’t always as immersed in the hip-hop and jazz scenes as he is now. He tells me he was originally into heavy metal, a scene he says he appreciates, but these days he can no longer relate to the energy. Reminiscing on the old days of music sharing, Joe talks about discovering hip-hop around age 14 when a friend passed him a hard drive full of music. “It changed everything man, suddenly I had all this music to check out.”
Similarly with jazz, Joe didn’t have a sustained interest until he was a teenager. “My parents tried to get me into [it], and I humoured them for a long time,” he goes on, “the first jazz album I got into was Oscar Peterson and Stan Getz,” – accidentally included in the previously mentioned hip-hop hard drive. Since then he says his Dad has given him loads of CD’s and records, which has tuned into the collection he now owns.
Laughing about how older generations interact with technology, Joe thinks he’s becoming more like his dad in terms of being contactable. “I’m happier without it, you have to go through proper effort to let the phone be – its not only bad for your eyes but for human relationships,” he philosophises.
“It’s the worst when everyone’s at a table and they’ve all got their phones out. I can’t be the completing member of the group to make this a fully antisocial circle… like I’d quite like to check my phone now but I can’t cause we’ll be a table of twats… can’t be doing that.”
While averse to being an eloquently put social media twat, Joe’s very conscious of its power in promoting his music. “I can use my Facebook to sell my music, it’s great man.” Despite this he’s very adamant about the way in which it reduces people to their online presence. “I have Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, bare accounts but if you go on them, you can’t see my political beliefs, my religious beliefs, my sexuality – you have to meet me to find those things out, and it should be like that.”
Our hour-and-a-half conversation slowly winds down as the blue skies fade in Lewisham, and we discuss plans for the future. Without needing a second to think, Joe declares his love for American artist Georgia Anne Muldrow and hopes to do a collaboration together. “She’s always been killing it man, dropping projects left right and centre.” But for the foreseeable future, he’s got his first solo album release pencilled into the 2018 calendar. With features from a vibrant range of musicians, it’s likely to sell out nearly instantly as Idiom did earlier in the autumn. On top of that, Ezra Collective has just been put up for the Gilles Peterson Worldwide Award “Jazz Album of the Year” – certainly no easy feat.
We wrap up the interview and I make my way onward feeling fulfilled. A creative talent and a kind soul, there is no doubt that Joe’s dedication, humility and visible passion on the keys have catalysed the well-deserved success coming his way.
Words and photography by Tara Biglari
Words by HQ