To pay homage to something is to show a special honour or respect. Norwich born Afro-soul-jazz musician Oscar Jerome pays homage to a limitless mixture of things important to him – all the way from other musicians, to his family, to his birthplace and to refugees, as well as the planet and its surrounding solar system (hear the imaginative ‘Gravitate’) – on his spellbinding and irresistibly classy debut record Breathe Deep. With a personality that’s a perfect balance of charisma and humbleness, dexterous melodic Gibson guitar skills that consistently grow more impressive and an effortless yet multi-paced voice – that can jump from campfire soul to rapid flow depending on the track’s mood – the talented awe-inspiring Jerome will likely become your next favourite young British musician.
Oscar Jerome has stepped in the limelight recently after being the guitarist of the London eight-piece Kokoroko. A collective of like-minded young people who wish to embrace the sounds of West Africa. Yet Breathe Deep isn’t a great departure from the group because it features touches of the African music he’s fond of and due to Jerome’s collaborative mindset, it feels less like a solo album and more of shared project, as he invites Kokoroko band members and other friends he’s made since his move to London such as Lianne La Havas on board.
The passionate ‘Your Saint’ features Sheila Maurice Grey on the trumpet and Richie Seivwright on the trombone, both from Kokoroko. The track is quite a breathtaking journey, beginning minimally with delicate guitar strokes and airy echoes, evolving with bongo-drumming, distorted backing vocals and measured saxophone, then a rapped mid-section before ending with intense chaotic brass.
The arrangement doing justice to the powerful lyrics, with Oscar Jerome paying homage to the struggles faced by refugees. The song was written in Paris and displays his shocked reaction to the lack of care by Westerners for these poverty-striken people. Jerome points about the hypocritical nature of religious people in how they treat asylum seekers: “your saint only cares for money. Don’t you touch his sense of pride“, while he brings in Brother Portrait – whom gives off a Ghostpoet vibe – to rap from the perspective of a refugee: “Arrive and cry thanks into trembling hands. How could I survive ain’t even a question of life. My passage had no ticket just a price.”
The summery-funk ‘Sun For Someone’ – a song which is hard not to sing along to because of the backing vocals – also points out about humanity’s selfishness in the face of crisis. This time it’s about climate change. Yet rather than sounding scared or judgemental, Jerome sort of suggests that a human extinction is the best option for the planet. It can heal and then move on with its existence. Humanity won’t be missed. “Melancholy evidence. Happily berate their ignorance. The earth will sigh as it watches us die. Along with our belligerence”. The track reunites Oscar Jerome with another former band mate in Joe Armon Jones, a jazz keyboardist and arranger.
Jones also performs on ‘Give Back What U Stole’. A creative display of pace precision: beginning with a sense of unease as speedy drums circle a woozy guitar that’s sounds like it’s put through an old gramophone filter, Jerome raps in a brisk yet rhythmically synchronised manner that’s reminiscent of a hero of his in Gil-Scott-Heron. He purposely repeats the key messages: “give me back what you stole from me” and “we should stand up and say no.” Oscar Jerome is advocating for the underprivileged victims (or what he calls “prisoners”) of “cutthroat businesses” that abuse their power and money, in particular bankers.
On Breathe Deep Jerome also pays homage to the importance of family in ‘Timeless’ and ‘Joy Is You’. The former is an ode to his father – who introduced him to the guitar and the genre of jazz – as well as illustrating how family stays with you emotionally even when life changes, such as during Jerome’s move from Norfolk to London. Sweet remarks include: “to remember who you are. Life in reflection. Roll of protection, timeless. We fall to pieces and move backwards and forwards. You are constant.” Duets can be sometimes be mismatched but the pairing of Oscar Jerome and Lianne La Havas is a seamless match made in heaven. Especially as Havas also puts her whole heart into her performance. Furthermore, the album closer ‘Joy Is You’ – which has a Jack Johnson-man-wearing-shorts-on-a-beach shade to it – was written after his nephew was born. Although the adoration is towards all generations of his family, from past to present. The track is proof that he can do jazz, soul and folk all equally well.
If by this point when listening to the album you haven’t already developed the urge to see him live, you will do after hearing the instrumental ‘Fkn Happy Days’. This is Oscar Jerome focuses exclusively on his guitar inspirations – in this case the rhythmic guitarist Grant Green and the Blue Note treasure Kenny Burrell – as well embracing the percussion of Latin-infused jazz. The track unusually ends with sheep noise, which is him positively citing his country upbringing.
With a debut as great as this, other musicians and folk alike will undoubtedly start paying homage to the talents of Oscar Jerome. A Mercury Prize nomination next year surely beckons.