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Jazz Notes: Discovering the U.K. Jazz Underground With Shabaka Hutchings

By Dan Ouellette, Senior Editor ZEALnyc, August 22, 2017

In the past couple of years, there has been an excitement in the jazz underground of the U.K., finally getting recognition across the pond with its dynamic acts that have wowed the home crowd as well as intrigued various European jazz festivals. Finally the U.S. is getting an opportunity to hear what the buzz is about. Prime example: the clarinetist/saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings, who until a few short years ago was an unknown here. But in the past year alone, he has found his way into New York—first at the January Winter Jazzfest with his band of South African compatriots, playing at La Poisson Rouge, then returning with the band to the club on June 26. This week he returns again with his trio for two shows, first at a part the Afropunk Festival, with an Afropunk After Dark show at Brooklyn’s Baby’s All Right (8/26), and at Nublu (8/28) as a part of the LPR-sponsored Jazz-Re:Freshed NY Edition project.

I first met Shabaka in 2003 as in his club act, the Sons of Kemet, as a part of the Berlin Jazz Festival. It was jazz revelation. The group included tuba maestro Oren Marshall, and the whamming double drum team of Seb Rochford and Tom Skinner. The crowd let loose with shouts and whoops as the foursome charged into the deep-grooved mode, with Shabaka’s wailing and shrieking tenor saxophone supported by Marshall’s tuba beat and the two drummers brewing up a kicker rhythm. It was live-wire music, wildly free with improv-fueled pockets where the melody somehow re-emerged unscathed. While the saxophone typically takes the lead in such a setting, with the Sons of Kemet, it was the tuba pumping that matched the reed force in equal measures. It’s no wonder that the tall, thin, gap-tooted Shabaka set up facing the shorter Marshall, thus allowing them on the front line to follow each other’s cues.

The next morning after the show, the loose and amiable Shabaka, a sub-sideman for the two-saxophone British pop band Polar Bear (which also employed Rochford), said he learned how to play conducive to the setting. “If we were in an arts club, we’d play to that, but if we were in a rock club, we’d rock it out,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about in Sons of Kemet. We play completely differently if we’re outdoors or in a very sterile auditorium or in a club like last night where we had a lot of fiery energy.”

As for the band’s unlikely infrastructure, Shabaka simply said that he likes the idea of the mix. “With the two drummers, they don’t have to play rhythmically, but it’s more like they’re having a conversation with each other,” he said. “Neither drummer is actually playing the groove. One is playing patterns while the other does fills. And Oren brings a sense of irreverence to the tuba. He’s not the bass player. He plays whatever he wants, and he can go as far out as he wants. He’ll deliberately play things in the wrong context, playing avant-garde with only a tiny bit of rhythm.”

At the end of our conversation, I asked Shabaka when he was going to bring his ear-stretching music to the States? “It’s notoriously hard for British jazz groups to get there,” he said. “We’ve got to get a good agent.” He laughed and then added without going into detail, “I’ve been there only once, and that was to North Dakota. It was bizarre.”

Shabaka fell off my map until 2017 when I started to see his name pop up everywhere, from his stateside gigs to this summer’s North Sea Jazz Festival in the Netherlands city of Rotterdam. He had a new band Shabaka and the Ancestors, and he was generating a buzz in the jazz world. The music at once had a lyricism and passion, frenzy and charged sax blowing, with an undergirding that was very socially oriented.

At the North Sea festival, the bare-footed Shabaka, wearing a pork pie hat, took command of the open-air, tent-like venue Congo. (My take: He is the next important newbie for audiences, much the same way Kamasi Washington was “discovered” a few years ago after his years in South Central.) The way Shabaka’s show played out at Congo, he started the set with soulful, folkloric, jazz-fueled tunes from last year’s remarkable album Wisdom of Elders. But unlike his two shows in New York where he talked and explained the music, he segued from one song to the next without stop. At times, he took the bass role on tenor, muscular and gentle all at once, and booming forlorn shrills. He then charged into a jaunt then chased with alto saxophonist Mthunzi Mvubu with the groove deepening by way of percussionist Gontse Makhene and drummer Tumi Mogorosi (a Brian Blade-like star of the show). Spoken word vocalist Siyabonga Mthembu gave the show a hymn-like vibe with words of affirmation, premonitions and warning.

In a conversation with Shabaka after his show, he talked a bit about his life, then dove deeper into the Ancestors—a project he feels heartfully committed to. Born in London, he and his family moved to Barbados when he was six where he studied classical clarinet and became immersed into the folkloric music of the island, namely calypso. He moved back to England, landing in Birmingham in 2000 and making his way to London in 2004 where he continued his classical studies as well as started to hang out in jam sessions where he got to know a lot artists.

The Ancestors project got its start as a result of Shabaka going back and forth to South Africa over the course of four years, courting his South African girlfriend (they are now ex’s). It was there that he found a community of musicians he really liked. “My friends all had their own bands, but when we played together we developed a relationship on stage that was very special,” he said. “I found myself when I’d go back to England telling people how amazing the jazz artists were in South Africa and how they can play with a different kind of energy. I started to get the feeling that people didn’t believe what I was talking about, so I set out to document it with a band of guys I got to know.”

Shabaka wrote and compiled the music in the month before the recording. “I had planned to give myself more time,” he said. “I was planning to be on holiday, but I ended up getting nine gigs and then writing the music. I didn’t know if I had a band or an album, but I wanted to not force the material I was writing, but reflect on the elements of our society as it was happening. There are limits of semantic language. For me it’s about expression and feeling that we don’t have the linguistic capacity for. Music is the only way to distill those areas in the human psyche.”

During the recording rehearsals, Shabaka thought about his ancestors and how what he was doing with his music was passing down the live experiences, the spirit, the stories that were disseminated to him.

In the liner notes to the Wisdom of Elders album, Shabaka wrote: “The ancestors are always with us. They teach us to harness energy and see into other worlds. This is our offering.”


Cover: Shabaka Hutchings; courtesy of the artist.


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