Zimbabwe-born and London-raised composer ESKA comes from a rich musical background. As a vocalist, her legendary virtuosity has attracted the attentions of a host of acclaimed artists – the likes of Tony Allen and David Sylvian, to name a few. Her vocal arrangements have credits on 3 Mercury-nominated albums that range from hip-hop to indie to jazz. For her solo project, she chose to work alongside one of her most recent collaborators, artist-producer Matthew Herbert. ESKA leads the 80-voice Goldsmiths Ensemble who have performed with Matthew Herbert’s Big Band. This summer, she conducted a 150-voice choir for Bobby McFerrin‘s improvisational performance at the Jazz a Vienne Festival, France.
ESKA is a voice already heard by millions, but until now it’s not arrived at the opportunity to shine in a space of its master’s own making. She’s taken her time for good reason: this is music that walks a fine tightrope, the slightest breath enough to unsettle the serenity it so effortlessly conjures. Though her boisterous performances of the past decorated the output of Zero 7, Matthew Herbert and The Cinematic Orchestra to great effect, here the emphasis is on tranquillity over tumult. Settle back, sink into it; surface when you’re ready, take your time.
But don’t mistake ESKA for an artist with chill-out intentions, clichéd as such a route is – her music wears its experimental tendencies on its sleeve, and proudly so. Equally, although blessed with a powerful voice, easily on a par with any chart-topping diva you’d care to mention, she doesn’t belt it out for the sake of doing so. Instead, ESKA uses her vocals in intriguing ways, layering them to form new levels in the instrumentation, complementing self-penned compositions and arrangements laid-down by means both conventional and absolutely not, invention and expression always paramount in her mind. Lyrics drift in and out of focus, meaning dissolving and ambiguity every bit as essential to the overall message as direct narratives.
If you’re after a hook to hang this music on, with its nuanced structure and inquisitive playing, the best available is perhaps that of folk. But ESKA is unlikely to be confused with traditional purveyors of the genre past or present, her assemblage of myriad elements leading to motifs that point the way forward rather than retreating into the past. Just as her friends and sometime musical partners The Invisible merged styles from across the spectrum to arrive at their Mercury-nominated sound, ESKA’s ear is tuned to composition comprised of constituent pieces that only ever complement one another. That they come from across the sonic spectrum is a moot point when the seamlessly structured end product is processed. The joins are conspicuous by their absence, scrutiny derailed by the inherent beauty on show.
Throughout her career ESKA has attracted the attentions of a host of acclaimed artists, many of whom she has later worked with – the likes of Tony Allen and David Sylvian do not associate themselves with any old vocalist who passes their creative windows. Now, though, ESKA is the one throwing the shutters open, looking out onto the world through her own eyes. That she likes what she sees is indubitable; and that all and sundry will be seduced by the sounds she brings with her, equally unequivocal.