Alfa Mist @ The Fonda, 5/4/23
by Harry Frahn (photos by Chloe Gonzales)
In a dimly lit concert hall last Thursday night, around 11:30 pm, I watched someone standing barely two feet in front of me whip out their phone and, apropos of nothing in particular, type “Connect w people that was here – same vibe?” into their notes app. Despite the businesslike tone of the note — “connect” inevitably brings thoughts of “networking” and all the associated horrors of forced conversations and faked smiles — I couldn’t help but agree with the writer and wonder if the people here were on the “same vibe”, if such a thing could even be defined. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Where was “here”? That’s easy: I was standing in the second row of the Alfa Mist concert at the Fonda Theatre in Hollywood. And what was the “vibe” that my note-taking neighbor had been so curious about? Well, that’s going to take a little more explaining.
First, a little background. Alfa Mist is a London-based jazz pianist, producer, composer, and rapper who has helped define the sound of the exploding UK modern jazz scene. At its core, that sound is driven by a fusion of traditional jazz harmony and the drum grooves of modern rap & electronic music, leading to an always-evolving blend of luscious extended chords, smooth horn lines, and driving percussion. Alfa (his real name) burst onto the scene in 2017 with his project Antiphon, a concept album based around a conversation with his brothers. That album’s mix of jazz and experimental hip-hop, with spoken-word poetry layered on top of many tracks, cemented him as a pillar of the London scene, and his status has only grown since then with subsequent album releases and collaborations with other mainstays of the UK jazz world like Yussef Dayes and Tom Misch.
Before we can see the mist-man himself, however, we’re treated to the genre-defying duo of drums & saxophone that is Sly5thAve. Tonight’s opener fuses R&B, jazz, soul, and so much more to create a crowd-pleasing groove. The saxophonist also triggers some synth pads to flesh out their sound a little more; standing in front of a massive speaker stack, I feel the bass notes physically emanate through the air out of the speakers and pulse through my chest. The duo puts on a good show, but the audience doesn’t give them much in return, and the number of people still streaming in as they launch into their last song (“Free”, featuring a guest vocalist) makes it clear that most people here are only interested in the main attraction.
That comes soon enough. Alfa Mist takes the stage at 10:00 o’clock sharp, and he’s not alone; for this tour, he’s backed by an all-star band that’s a who’s-who of up-and-comers in the London scene. Bassist Kaya Thomas-Dyke is a regular collaborator, and provides the harmonic foundation for the band while also singing on a few tracks; the band has no traditional lead vocalist, but Thomas-Dyke’s haunting soprano periodically soars over the soundscapes created by the rest of the band. Jas Kayser, the drummer, brings the driving fusion grooves that define this specific style while guitarist Jamie Leeming and trumpet player Johnny Woodham provide lead lines to complement Alfa Mist’s keyboard harmonies. Sly5thAve’s saxophonist also joined them for the first couple songs, bringing a nice counterpoint to work with Woodham’s trumpet.
As the band settles in on stage, Alfa lays down a series of lush chords on his suitcase Fender Rhodes, easing the crowd into a mellow mood before the band suddenly launches into their first song, “Foreword”, an epic minor-key jam off of the new album Variables. Woodham’s trumpet lines soar above the layers of harmony laid down by the keys, bass, and guitar, and he gracefully outlines the melody as the band swells into a crescendo behind him before dropping out and leaving him alone with just the bass and keys providing a rhythmic backdrop. As the rest of the band gets quieter, Woodham makes extensive use of effects pedals to change the dry sound of his trumpet into a reverb-drenched, self-harmonizing thunder of notes that transfixes the audience as he closes his eyes and gives everything he has to his solo. Eventually, he gives way to the keys, as Alfa Mist lays down a chordal, almost percussive solo, eschewing a main melodic line in favor of dense harmonies that lead smoothly from one chord to the next. Finally, the band brings it all back to the beginning, following a pretty traditional jazz structure of head (the main melody of the song), solos, then head again as they end the song.
As the spell cast by the music breaks momentarily, I glance at the time and realize that we’re already around fifteen minutes into the set, but I’d have sworn that song was no longer than five minutes. That kind of euphoric time dilation, where you lose yourself so completely in the music that’s being created in front of you, is something I usually associate with a particularly strong dose of psychedelics. To experience it stone-cold sober, during the first song of what promises to be a long set, makes me almost dizzy with anticipation as Kayser’s drums propel the band headlong into their next song; I can barely wait to see where they go from here.
Thankfully, the band more than delivers on the anticipation they built in their first song. On more traditional, instrumental solo-driven tracks like “Teki” off of their 2021 album Bring Backs, they allow each instrumentalist to shine in their own role by spotlighting each member at different times throughout the song. Whether it’s the drummer’s frenetic rolls across the kit, the urgent driving rhythms of the bass, or the intricate melodic solos of Woodham on trumpet and Leeming on guitar, Alfa Mist (despite ostensibly being the leader of the band) tends to forgo the spotlight most of the time in favor of highlighting the immense talent that he’s cultivated around him. In this same vein, on more subdued tracks like “Aged Eyes”, the band works together seamlessly to highlight Thomas-Dyke’s ethereal vocals as they drift over a fluid harmonic backdrop.
Particularly special are the moments when the band suddenly drops out, leaving one instrument alone to build a solo on their own before drawing the rest of the instruments back in. Woodham excels at this, building sonic landscapes of seemingly impossible density for one musician using his delay and reverb pedals. Leeming, on guitar, takes a more melodic approach to these solos, his guitar sounding synthesizer-like as he improvises with greater and greater urgency before smoothly cueing his bandmates to come back in. Alfa Mist’s solos during these moments of independence from the rest of the band reveal two sides to his playing: he’s as comfortable laying down searing lead melodies and simultaneous accompaniment as he is playing more chordally in the style of great solo pianists like Bill Evans.
At its best moments, especially during these solos, their set feels more like a conversation between close friends than a concert in front of an audience of hundreds. The way the band converses with each other through their instruments, with members smiling at particularly awesome lead lines or laughing at their little musical in-jokes, really drives home the spontaneity of what’s happening on stage. As the set goes on, I can’t help but be reminded of a live album that the Grateful Dead put out called Without a Net; although the genres don’t exactly match, that title perfectly encapsulates the unrestricted and freewheeling nature of Alfa Mist’s set. To play at a level like that while making it seem so effortless is incredibly difficult and comes only after thousands of hours of practice, but everyone in the band pulls it off without breaking a sweat, and the audience loves it.
Although I’ll never know for sure, I like to think that that’s what the person in front of me meant by the “vibe” that she so enigmatically took note of near the end of the set. Leaving the show, I couldn’t help but want to surround myself with the kind of people that appreciated the glory of what we’d just witnessed. At it’s best, live music (especially improv-centric genres like jazz) is a creative act of sublime beauty, and Alfa Mist’s set that night was made all the more beautiful by the knowledge that nobody again in the history of the world will ever experience it exactly as we, the audience, did that night. There’s no way to recapture that feeling, even through a review like this. All we can hope is that someday soon, we’ll be back in the audience.