Emma-Jean Thackray

Follow this artist

About this artist

Emma-Jean Thackray is one the U.K.’s genuine musical enigmas. She wears many hats: trumpeter and multi-instrumentalist, singer, composer, bandleader, producer, beat-maker, radio host, videographer, club DJ, and-Worldwide FM DJ. She also runs her own Movementt imprint under the Warp Records umbrella. Musically, she is the standard-bearer of a spiritually minded sound that readily channels the inspirations of 1970s jazz-fusion/jazz-funk and stitches it to broken beat and house in a particularly dancefloor-oriented take on modern jazz. Her creative philosophy is, “Everything I release is based around the mantra ’music to move the mind, move the body, move the soul.’” Her earliest recordings, including 2016’s Walrus EP (named for her quintet) and 2018′s Ley Lines, received enthusiastic notice from Gilles Peterson, Theo Parrish, and Jamie Cullum. The Rain Dance EP appeared in March 2020, In June, she released the live-in-studio, straight-to-vinyl Um Yang/Nightdreamer EP. After appearing on BBC Two’s Later…. With Jools Holland, she was signed by Warp. Yellow, her debut long player, appeared in July 2021 and topped the British jazz charts.
Though Thackray currently calls Catford in south east London home, she was raised in the northern rural environment of Yorkshire between Wakefield and Leeds. The region has a long tradition of music made by brass bands. As a child she learned to play cornet her parents bought her second hand from a music shop, and played in a brass band that, she asserts, taught her how to make a beautiful sound on the horn, as well as one she could make playing with others. By the time she was 13 she was principal cornetist in a local brass band. At 14 she taught herself to play trumpet and piano (guitars, bass, various samplers, synths, and keyboards came later). While downloading brass band recordings, she came across the Gil Evans arrangement of Miles Davis’ reading of Joaquín Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez” on Sketches of Spain. It not only blew her mind, it changed the direction of her life.
Though Thackray had absorbed almost any music she encountered, from the ’80s soul and pop her mother loved to Fela Kuti’s and Roy Ayers’ jazz-Afrobeat encounter on Music of Many Colours, to folk and blues. Another part of her musical aesthetic was developed from learning from her father about Taoism; he also taught her to meditate. After her encounter with Davis and Evans, she began collecting jazz voraciously.
After secondary school, Thackray studied at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama with composer/pianist Keith Tippett. She was also discovering the beat constructions of Afro-futurist hip-hop creators like J Dilla and Madlib, Detroit techno and Chicago house music alongside her studies in hard bop, improvisation, and classical music. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in music, she relocated to London and studied for a master’s in jazz orchestral composition at Trinity Laban alongside Moses Boyd and Nubya Garcia, but she still felt like an outsider. She received her advanced degree but never forgot her brass band roots. She formed her own Walrus quintet, and by 2016 she’d issued a self-titled eight-track EP (mixed by David Holmes) with brass (including tuba), B-3 organ, Wurlitzer, synths, and drums. The group played rapturously well-received shows across London.
As much as Thackray loved making music with others, she discovered her core sound alone in an instrument-packed home studio in a South London flat. She recorded 2018′s Ley Lines EP by playing all the parts herself, including a clarinet she’d picked up for the first time just ten minutes before recording. The set was received enthusiastically and she was presented with an opportunity to perform with and conduct the London Symphony Orchestra at the London Jazz Festival. She also performed at Winter Jazz Fest in New York and multiple times at Glastonbury. She worked alongside Junius Paul, Angel Bat Dawid, Nubya Garcia, and Theon Cross in Makaya McCraven’s London workshop bands and contributed the track “Too Shy” to his Where We Come From (Chicago x London Mixtape) and in 2019 issued a 12” of the track with a B-side remix by Gilles Peterson. She toured Africa and South America, where she got to meet and work with Hermeto Paschoal in Sao Paolo.
In early 2020. Thackray founded her Movementt label and in March issued the four-track Rain Dance EP, which included a pair of videos. It sold out instantly and was selected by NME as one of the year’s best recordings. She followed it in June with the cassette single Um Yang/Nightdreamer. That fall, after being pursued by many labels, Thackray decided on Warp, which allowed her to retain Movementt as an imprint. In July 2021, Thackray released the self-produced Yellow, her debut long-player. Intended to sound like a “psychedelic trip,” it wed the jazz-funk fusion of George Duke, Donald Byrd and Ayers to Parliament Funkadelic, the spiritual jazz of Alice Coltrane and Sun Ra, and the gorgeous orchestration of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds to house music. The album went to number one on the U.K. jazz albums list a week after its release. ~ Thom Jurek