One of the most exciting artists to emerge from the English music scene in recent years is London-based pianist and composer Alfa Mist. Combining a sturdy but improvisational jazz foundation with a hip hop sensibility, Mist’s music is both heady and delicate, expansive and intimate—a pleasing sonic atmosphere that soothes as it provokes deeper thought.
Born and raised in the London borough of Newham, Mist originally had aspirations of playing professional football. But music always finds a way. By age 15, Mist was cultivating his own harmonic sense through teaching himself how to sample tracks. Originally inspired by hip hop production, he soon turned to jazz, teaching himself how to play the piano. That resulted in a uniquely off-kilter playing style that is as much rooted in a timeless sonic experience as it is in the immediacy of jazz improvisation.
“A lot of things influence me music-wise, mostly modern jazz, film soundtracks and hip hop,” Mist says.
His first full album, 2015’s Nocturne, highlighted his intuitive melodic sense as well as his capacity as a bandleader. The album’s introspective and versatile sound is partly the result of its collaborative spirit. Featuring a variety of contemporary London musicians like Tom Misch, Emmavie and Jordan Rakei, Nocturne incorporates a wide range of collaborators to create a certain tonal gestalt, combining beat-making sensibilities and jazz atmosphere for a sum that is greater than its parts.
Since 2015, the prolific musician and composer has released several albums and EPs on his own label, Sekito. Each continues his exploration of the synthesis of jazz, hip hop and groove in delightful, striking ways. Mist often evokes a pensive mood neither sorrowful nor jubilant, a resonate sound backed by soft rhythm that allows the listener to fall into his layers of harmony without getting lost.
“I’m mostly trying to draw out emotions that take longer to draw out in real life,” Mist says.
A refreshing thread of Mist’s music is his refusal to recognize any dividing lines between the genres which influence him. Some songs are straight jazz cuts. Others—especially on 2019’s “Tangent” EP—feature Mist as MC, highlighting his lyrical ability and beat-making acumen.
Mist’s newest album, 2021’s Bring Backs, is his first release for ANTI-. A very self-referential work, Bring Backs takes a deep dive into the interplay between straight hip hop and contemplative jazz—the music with which Mist first developed his talent.
“Bring Backs is an additional rule in a card game we played in the UK called Blackjack, it’s different to blackjack everyone else knows—it’s more like Uno,” Mist explains. Though mostly an instrumental work, to Alfa Mist, “it’s an album about questioning the idea of success,” he says.
Coasting through nine tracks that delve into head-bumping grooves as much as melancholic refrains, the album ultimately anchors around a poem written by Hilary Thomas, which gives Bring Backs a deeper poignancy that becomes apparent on multiple listens. An impressive and layered feat, considering the record is markedly off-the-cuff, being conceived of and created in less than a fortnight.
“I recorded the album in a week or so with my band, we just record and keep the best takes.”
To showcase his newest album, Mist is hitting the road for a brief and targeted world tour. Having started in Chicago on Friday the 13th, Mist and his band stop in Los Angeles mid-week before arriving in San Jose for a show at the SJZ Break Room downtown. In that comfortable, intimate environment, Mist and crew will perform works from his newest album.
“[My work is recorded live] so it’s not too hard to translate,” Mist says. “It’s quite free because the nature of the music is built on improvising, so every night is a different show.”
While it might seem like jazz reached its heyday decades ago, a whole generation of rising stars like Alfa Mist have been injecting the genre with their own homespun sensibilities. Mist in particular brings the genre an ear for UK hip hop and grime—while still honoring the classic canon. He characterizes his music as a journey, traveling across genre and beyond and bringing listeners along wherever it goes.
“Every project is its own thing on the journey,” he says. “I try and treat it as just another piece of the puzzle.”
Fri, 9pm, $25–35
SJZ Break Room, San Jose