Best of Boat Floaters 2020 – for Meet Bernard

“Freak storm comes.” This refrain, layered on top of the track’s sense of loss, powerlessness and restriction in Idris Ackamoor and The Pyramids’ When Will I See You Again? – which concludes the exclusive Meet Bernard mix of my Boat Floaters Best of 2020 – works neatly as a three-word summary of the most complex and chaotic year in history.

Some 1,783,100 million deaths have been attributed to coronavirus, at the time of writing. And while that’s a tiny fraction of the 7.8 billion humans alive today, the pandemic has touched every element of our lives, and choked many of them. Paradoxically, the coronavirus outbreak has set us free and opened minds. It has exposed and exploded outdated systems and antiquated mores, and triggered meaningful transformation across the globe.

Selecting just 20 songs for 2020 was always going to be challenging (and here is the 46-track, 226-minute longlist on a Spotify playlist). But having scrolled through my monthly Spotify playlists for Meet Bernard it has been fascinating to see what tunes were floating my boat at a given month, and how the sonic salve I sought to soothe my soul shifted with global events.

Music truly has been my sanctuary in the last nine months. I’ve listened to – and discovered – more music, both ancient and new, than in any other year. I’ve unearthed countless decades-old gems. And with artists locked down and not gigging it has enabled the time, space and emotion to produce a trove of fresh, enriching tracks.

This 20-track mix features artists from Africa, the Caribbean, North and South America, Scandinavia, as well as elsewhere in Europe, and much closer to home, in London. To me, all the tracks are standalone delights, and I could pen detailed blurbs on every one. But highlights of these highlights are as follows …

I simply had to begin the set with Cándido’s 1979 classic Thousand Finger Man. Yes, it is an awesome set-starter. But the unparalleled, innovative Cuban percussionist died, aged 99, in November, so this is a homage to him and his unique talent.

The secretive SAULT, supposedly fronted by London vocalist Cleo Sol, has seasoned 2020 with two incredible, tone-perfect albums, UNTITLED (Black Is) – which you can download on Bandcamp at any price – and UNTITLED (Rise). From the latter comes Free, a brilliant track about shorn independence and the need for connection and collaboration. 

I love French “Afropean” duo DjeuhDjoah & Lieutenant Nicholson, and in the April-released Caipirinha, a nod to Brazil, it’s coolness served in a cocktail glass.

The return of hip-hop collective Quakers, later in the year, was welcome, too. With South African legend Sampa The Great on rapping duty, Approach With Caution captures how many of us have felt at the tensest times this year. 

Danish singer-songwriter Astrid Engberg’s jazzy soul track Daylight, which speaks of a brighter tomorrow after a heavy night, has been an earworm ever since it was released in September. 

Elsewhere, there is succour to be found in Hamburg-based ensemble Bacao Rhythm & Steel Band’s new version of Erykah Badu’s The Healer, and more steelpan goodness in Steel Band de la Trinidad’s much-older arrangement of Coming Home.

I had to include the original and best version of Money’s Too Tight (To Mention), released in 1982 by the Valentine Brothers, for all the musicians struggling to make ends meet in 2020. It’s also a superb funk track. 

The aforementioned When Will I See You Again? ends the 87-minute mix. I am not alone in wishing to see Ackamoor and his nonpareil group live again, and sooner rather than later. 

Finally, thanks to Ryan and Dani for offering an opportunity to make sense of and showcase my monthly musical mystery touring. If we learn only one thing from 2020 it is that collaboration and supporting others is critical. Together we are stronger.

Here’s hoping for fewer freak storms in 2021. Good luck to you and your nearest and dearest.

Yours in music,

Ollie (Boat Floaters)

Matthew Halsall: the trumpet virtuoso is striving to bring jazz music into a contemporary realm

Matthew Halsall takes to the stage in the open-air amphitheatre on a blissful Mediterranean evening. It’s July in the south of France and behind the young trumpeter, whose trademark worker’s cap is pulled over his eyes, the ochre sunset oozes into the sea as fishing boats rock lazily to shore.

Armed with a plastic cup of rosé in hand, conditions are perfect to hear to one of the most pioneering jazz musicians of his generation. Halsall needs little time to float the audience away. His tunes are soulful and spiritual, deep and subtle, yet bob along pleasingly, melodically.

Twenty-three years after first blowing his favoured instrument at the age of six, he has developed a playful and haunting style which has the potency to elevate jazz back in to the public consciousness. After a spellbinding 90 minutes he takes a coy bow and grins. “It’s magical to be here, thanks for listening,” he says before we rise from our stone seats to applaud, feeling privileged to witness such precocious mastery.

After his performance at Worldwide Festival in Sète, near Montpellier, the Manchester-based maestro sips a Dark ‘n’ Stormy and tells us: “That was one of the most special gigs I’ve played. I don’t play that many, so are all important in a way, but that was something else.”

Six-year-old Matthew had decided he wanted to throw all his energy into mastering the trumpet after his parents took him to a jazz gig to watch the big band he would eventually star in, the Wigan Youth Jazz Orchestra. And after realising his calling Halsall found school a struggle – “it was a diversion for me and I got quite irritated and angry” – and became close to veering off the rails.

“I was in with a bad bunch of kids and got in to a lot of trouble. Combined with hanging around with big northerners in a brass band, it was a lethal cocktail.”

His potential was spotted early and following two years in the Wigan Youth Jazz Orchestra, aged 14 he first toured the world with the big band. He was the youngest by five years. “I had to learn how to cope with drinking, and fast,” he says.

However, through music and after moving, at 15, to the Maharishi Free School in west Lancashire, which encouraged meditation and taught Eastern philosophy, he turned his fortunes around. “After going from E and F grades, I actually gained six GCSEs.”

The northerner, who turned 29 in September and is due to release his fourth solo album in mid-October, is also an established DJ and founded his own record label in 2007. Arguably his biggest challenge, however, is making jazz accessible and popular with the current generation of listeners.

After moving to Liverpool to live alone aged 17, Halsall started to mature and studied sound engineering at Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts. By his mid-20s, now in Manchester, he had cut back on his partying and, as he says, “started to really focus on my production and the creativity side. I felt as though I needed to play music for my generation and the generations just above me. The time was right to make my own jazz music.”

Showing impressive acumen he established Gondwana Records, which he still runs from an office in his house, and did not need to compromise his sound. Calling in favours and the help of his graphic designer brother Daniel, who does all his album artwork, Halsall brought out his debut record, Sending My Love, in 2008. It immediately grabbed the attention, and was soon followed by Colour Yes and On The Go.

His latest release is Fletcher Moss Park (named after the place he spends most of his time composing), and as his star continues its impressive ascent Halsall reveals his “dream goal”. He says: “I want do an amazing album that has solo piano tunes, orchestra tunes, jazz tunes. The task will be trying to make it sound like an album. I want to take my time and put my heart, personality and soul in to it.

“The problem is saying you are a jazz trumpet player to the younger, student generation – it’s probably the kiss of death. Immediately they think of cheesy cabaret-esque quartets who are very self-indulgent. I just have to try and make it as current as possible.”

This youthful talent, in his humble way, has the potential, ambition and backing to scale new heights in the genre, and possibly become one of the standout jazz heroes of his time.

This article first appeared in Crack in October 2012

Gilles Peterson’s Worldwide Awards 2012 – as it happened

Gilles Peterson has been a tireless champion of music of a left-field bent for over twenty years now. From being the main exponent of the acid jazz scene through pirate radio in the 80’s to his weekly Worldwide show on Radio 1, Gilles has been a constant presence at the forefront of world music for over two decades.

Fittingly then, Gilles has taken it upon himself to helm the Worldwide Awards, celebrating the music he has worked so tirelessly to champion. Here we have a minute by minute, blow by blow account of how the day panned out for the man himself.

9am Pressed snooze on the alarm clock. The Worldwide Awards warm-up party at XOYO had been a bit too lively! It had featured Toronto-based jazzers BADBADNOTGOOD, local group 2Morrows Victory, out-there German Flako / Dirg Gerner and Lefto, the Brussels DJ with impeccable style. Pass the Alka-Seltzer!

Meanwhile at Koko, Gilles’s team rock up at the venue and begin sound checking – with six live performances and seven DJs to please it’s a long old day.

5pm With less than two hours before the first act, Southampton-based twiddler Gang Colours begins and Gilles arrives at Koko for a quick run-through.

6pm Wearing a Roger Federer-esque white blazer he is happy with the preparations and, with Lefto and long-time east London buddy Earl Zinger, hops into neighbouring Japanese restaurant Asakusa and tucks into some eel – but no booze. “Just green tea; I know there will be plenty of time for alcohol later. I need to pace myself,” he jokes with Mixmag.

7.30-8.15pm Peterson catches the end of Gang Colours and welcomes on stage, “a colourful Swiss lad who loves hiking”, Dimlite, whose new album Grimm Reality has received critical acclaim, largely thanks to the BBC Radio1 DJ bigging up his countryman. Later he tells Mixmag: “Dimlite was the highlight of the night, for me.” 


8.15-9.15pm DJs Zane Lowe, Hudson Mohawke and Lefto spin the crowd, which is beginning to fill the old theatre to capacity, in to a lather while Peterson cracks open a couple of beers and greets guests, introducing those that haven’t met before to one another. “This is what it is all about: the fusion of generations. Problem is it’s always the oldies who make the most of the champagne, and it was the same again this year with The Pyramids!”

9.15pm The Ohio-based psychedelic jazz quintet wow the crowd with a magical performance, and show no signs of the bubbles they have been quaffing down as they snake through the crowd. 


10.15pm After a quick set change, accompanied by DJ Kutmah showcasing his talents, the newly crowned BBC’s Sound of 2012, Michael Kiwanuka is welcomed on stage by Peterson. He slows the pace of the evening down, but his soulful lyrics and acoustic guitar are soon replaced and cranked up by another Lefto set before the Awards presentation.

11.15pm Peterson, having managed to pinch a swig or two of champers, takes centre stage announcing the winners, which included Kiwanuka (best session); SBTRKT (album); Matthew Halsall (jazz album) and Adele whose ‘Rollin’ In The Deep’ (Jamie XX remix) wins track of the year.

11.45pm Thundercat, who just missed out to SBTRKT in the best album category, was up next. By now, following the formalities, the crowd are ready to truly dance, and with Jamie XX wowing with a half-hour DJ set before SBTRKT takes to the stage the party is in full swing. 


1.15am Julio Bashmore plays a 45-minute set and by now it’s beginning to get a little messy. Just in time for the band who Peterson has been bigging up most in recent weeks, BADBADNOTGOOD, to take the stage. “It was pretty funny – they are so young and extravagantly talented that two of their group had to head back to Canada and be in school on the Monday morning,” Peterson jokes. The crowd, still nearly at capacity, gave suitable encouragement.

2.30pm Koreless ended the night’s music, and Peterson heading homeward knowing that the Worldwide Awards had been a great success once again. Game, set and match!

This article was first published in Mixmag in February 2012

‘Peanut butter and a lot of sex’ – the secret to anti-ageing, according to Roy Ayers

Everybody loves Everybody Loves the Sunshine, with its warm, sexy, feel-good vibraphone vibes, falsetto synth and uplifting piano. And the man who released it 37 years years ago, Roy Ayers, is still basking in the heat from that 1976 mega hit. 

For inquisitive listeners, though, Sunshine is simply the gateway track into Ayers’ funky world, and it’s a richly mystical and rewarding voyage. His vast back catalogue offers songs which are all sun-dappled and brimming with free love, almost without exception. He’s a happy, cool cat from Los Angeles and an evening with him live, a hand-held stroll through his sunshine paradise, is bliss.

Last week Ayers, at the grand age of 72, revisited his favourite London haunt, Camden’s Jazz Cafe, for a glowing three-night sell-out run. When we last saw him at the intimate venue – ideal for a man who loves to interact with his audience, as Ayers does – a couple of years ago, he said: “Admit it ladies, I don’t look any older than 50. You know what the secret is? Peanut butter, only the crunchy kind though. And a LOT of sex.”

Once again, he played the unscrupulous seducer, the LA Lothario, and there’s no signs of him wanting to slow down, on or off stage. It’s an utter delight to watch. Much like 007 fans leave the cinema after Skyfall feeling very Bond, all intense, darting eyes and pumping testosterone, Ayers casts his magic over the audience, though with a rather more amourous outcome.

On this occasion, wearing a black shirt, yellow pinstripe blazer, an African kufi cap and narrow sunglasses, the spiritual showman’s songs – more about love gained than lost – were punctuated by a playful, flirty narrative, with a reflective undertone. “Most of you out there are not my age, but let me tell you it’s good to be on the planet aged 72,” he beamed. “I first toured here in 1976, and now it feels like I live in the UK. I’m grateful for your acceptance. Britain is my number one market in the world.”

While you might think “I bet he says that to all the crowds” he followed it up with: “I want to thank Holiday Inn for their service over the years. Thanks for the lice! No, seriously, it’s been a wonderful trip. I’m enjoying the hell out of it!”

He then spoke about his two wives, before amusingly kicking into I Wanna Touch You Baby. And as his 90-minute set neared its end he showed off his incredibly high energy levels for a septuagenarian, performing a quick-paced medley of three of his biggest tunes: Can’t You See MeRunning Away; and Evolution.

There was the odd reminder that the world has spun a few times since the 1970s, when Ayers’ star was skyrocketed by his distinctive sound. At one point, for example, he accidentally turned off his MalletKAT Pro vibraphone midway though a song, but he had the calm charisma to breeze through, and all with a winning smile. For those lucky enough to see him live at Jazz Cafe this was a real, rare treat, made all the more precious as the shadows on this fantastic musician’s life grow longer.

This article was first published in Crack in January 2013