Alfa Mist’s Variables album: a homecoming jazz journey inspired by London “aggression” and grime loops

“I never went to music school. I make beats, that’s all I’ve ever done.”

Fabrice Bourgelle

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British jazz musician, producer and MC Alfa Mist is more in tune with his East London roots than ever before. Promising to shift the focus from himself and shine a light on UK genres in his captivating new album, Variables, Mist – real name Alfa Sekitoleko – makes loops you’d expect to form the basis for grime tracks. Then, with the help of his band, he turns them into huge, soulful, and at times intense, melancholic jazz numbers.

“I can’t help who I am,” he tells us over Zoom in a hushed, polite tone, donning a pair of gaming headphones. “We’re all a sum of the [genres] we’ve come across and that’s who we are. I’d be lying to myself if I made music from where I wasn’t from. I feel like, because of where I’m from, I’ve got a perspective that only I have.”

Image credit: Fabrice Bourgelle

Alfa’s talking about the unique genres proudly likened to the UK – such as jungle, grime, dubstep and drum and bass – all formed thanks to a melting pot of multiculturalism, he says.

On Variables, his fifth album, he felt inspired by these fast-paced electronic-leaning styles after he got to experience them live again post-pandemic. Like with many UK-born genres, the starting point was fixated around skittish drums.

“For me, the first thing I was able to process was drums and the way drums feel. They’re the first thing that hit you.

“That was grime and then later on it was hip hop, which is a bit more hypnotic. Grime is more…well, back then the context for grime was everyone in the area was doing it. There’d be loads of clashes so it was aggressive – competitive.”

This energetic, fast-paced and intense grime sound has inspired tracks like 4th Feb (Stay Away) and BC on Variables. The tempo’s higher, there’s no time to rest and it fits in lovingly with explosive jazz.

“That’s always been part of me. I was knee-deep down the harmony hole for years just trying to understand harmony and trying to rap more emotionally. Then, it just occurred to me in the last couple of years that these are my emotions as well – those drums with the competitiveness, aggression, and the hustle and bustle of London.

“There’s this melancholic feeling that London has because it always rains here. If you go to somewhere like LA and it’s always sunny, these guys are almost annoyingly happy. In London, because of the weather, it suits a lot of the music I make.

“There’s also this hustle and bustle mentality of London. Even if you’re walking, people get pissed off at you for walking slowly. That has to creep into my music somehow as well and I feel like I’m starting to accept that part of me.”

That “wired-in,” tense mentality fed into Variables through higher BPMs with beats with a grime-leaning arrangement. Alfa tells us about how, having started out making beats on FL studio as opposed to coming from a classically trained background, he proudly has his own unique flavour.

“I make ‘beat versions’ of every song that exists that I’ve ever released. I have them in beat forms where I’ve done the drums, the bass, the keys, and light melody,” he says.

“A lot of musicians will traditionally have sheet music and you bring it to the band. I don’t do that. I can’t read music. I never went to music school. I make beats, that’s all I’ve ever done.”

Image Credit: Fabrice Bourgelle

Alfa describes his process of sending a folder with a few short beats to the musicians in his band, whom he’ll also play live with. They have phone conversations to address any questions or concerns, he says, and they schedule a two or three-day session to record everything onto tape, where Alfa harnesses the skills of incredible musicians around him.

“I don’t play drums. But I’ll do finger drumming because I’m a producer. But then a drummer will come in and as long as they understand the drums and my intention, they’ll do a better job than me because they’ve played drums all their life. [It’s the] same with guitarists and basses. I’ll let everyone in the room do their own thing but based on my original beat.”

Alfa will then keep just two takes of each part, while some might toil away at ten or twenty. “If I keep thinking about it,” he says, “I’ll always find something wrong. I put those limitations and restrictions on myself to cut away alternatives and be like, ‘this is what we’ve got to work with’. It makes it easier to release stuff that way.”

In terms of equipment, his go-to keyboard is a Yamaha CP 73. However, being gifted with a Rhodes piano on the road always makes the live experience that bit more exciting. A Farfisa is also a hit and one of the most interesting instruments he’s ever played, he says. He also says that “synths are wasted on him” because, with a synth, he’ll create one sound he likes and stick with that sound and instrument.

Elsewhere, Alfa keeps things fairly simple in his setup. He’s fairly new to the world of effects pedals, but has become inspired by his guitarist, Jamie Leeming, and his bulging pedal board. To Alfa, the combination of Rhodes and a Pigtronix Echolution pedal can’t be underestimated.

“What I like about effects is you can build who you are, like everyone that you meet, will probably have a different combination of effects that they use. Most people will gravitate towards the pedals they like, and then that shapes their sound and who they are.”

Understanding oneself and the way your unique personality can shape your sound has become a key part of Alfa Mist’s ethos on this album. It’s refreshing to see. The album is spellbinding and showcases the musician’s own perspective on jazz. The results are there for all to listen to on Variables.

Stream or buy Variables via Bandcamp. Also, be sure to check out Alfa Mist’s upcoming tour dates, which include a set at London’s Cross The Tracks festival at the end of May.

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