Saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings: “ If I stop playing, I feel this physical desire ”

Pick a random record from one of Shabaka Hutchings’ many and varied projects – Sons of Kemet, The Comet Is Coming, Shabaka and the Ancestors – and you will find powerful, insistent, complex music – but none of it is. is particularly silent. . Practicing at home in Kingston, south London, throughout the pandemic, however, forced an unexpected calm on the saxophonist’s playing.

“I have to train really quietly, super super quiet,” he said, “to the point where I don’t think any of my neighbors have ever heard me play.”

The past year has been a learning experience, even for a classically trained artist who is an expert in improvisation and who has performed with some of jazz’s leading figures including Mulatu Astatke, Soweto Kinch and Kamasi Washington.

“It’s a different level of focus and body strength to play very quietly but play the full range of the horn,” the 36-year-old tells me of Zoom.

Lockdown not only affected Hutchings’ performance dynamics, but his ability to do so. He went from 140 frenzied concerts in 2019 to almost none during the pandemic and felt the impact on his body and his schedule.

“Imagine if you do aerobic workout every day for years and years and then suddenly stop,” he says. “If I stop playing music for a few days, I really feel that physical desire.”

Shabaka Hutchings, right, and Kemet’s sons © Udoma Janssen

Assuming the UK’s roadmap out of lockdown stays on track, however, Hutchings could be back to playing gigs and festivals by mid-May – coinciding perfectly with the latest release of Sons. of Kemet, titled Black into the future.

Written in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder and throughout the ensuing Black Lives Matter protests, the album speaks of frustration with societal complacency and inequality, albeit tempered with optimism and aimed at to broaden the discourse around the black experience. He encourages a process of listening and thinking that Hutchings equates to Egyptian hieroglyphics: he wants the meaning of the album to be symbolic rather than direct, with too direct a translation by the artist risking diluting the message.

“You’re presenting the audience with a symbol or something that can cause their own investigation into a topic,” he says. “Instead of saying, ‘Here’s my idea, you agree or disagree. “”

Nevertheless, the use of speech in the album allows a more clearly defined framing of his ideology: Black into the future has more tracks with vocals than the previous three versions of Sons of Kemet combined, while the tracklist spells out a poetic statement reflecting black history and status:Field Negus “/” Pick up your burning cross “/” Think home “/” Hustle “/” For culture “/” To never forget the source “/” In remembrance of those who have fallen “/” May the circle is not interrupted ”/“ Imagine yourself levitating ”/“ Throughout the madness, stay strong ”/“ Black ”.

As such, it’s an album with global relevance, but heavily shaped by Hutchings’ particular musical education. Born in the UK, he moved to Barbados at the age of six before returning to the West Midlands as a teenager. There he performed in every ensemble he could find – the Walsall Jazz Orchestra, the Birmingham Schools Symphony Orchestra, the Midlands Youth Jazz Orchestra – which led to early international stages such as the Montreux Jazz Festival.

Later, while studying clarinet at London’s Guildhall, he balanced his classical program with the influential jazz program Tomorrow’s Warriors, which hosted many of the city’s most recent jazz musicians, including Moses Boyd. , Nubya Garcia and Femi Koleoso from Ezra Collective.

It is a range of study which has lent a unique quality to its sound within Sons of Kemet. Alongside tuba Theon Cross and drummers Tom Skinner and Eddie Hick, Hutchings’ reed playing has at times taken on the role of a singer or MC, delivering what he describes as “rhythmic relentlessness.” that guides the music. In Black into the futureHowever, the album begins and ends with lyrics from Joshua Idehen, a poet, musician and Hutchings collaborator since the duo met at the Poetry Café in London.

Shabaka Hutchings performs in the Netherlands in April 2018 © Redferns

“There’s not much you can do with instruments that don’t have words,” says Hutchings. “If you start the album with words, it sets the tone for how people perceive the instrumental tunes to come.”

The album also sees collaborations with artists such as Kojey Radical, Lianne La Havas and grime MC D Double E. The aim is to ‘connect the dots’ between different diasporas and generations within London’s jazz and hip-hop scenes. . As Hutchings acknowledges, most of his projects are extended collaborations resulting from successful jam sessions. Sons of Kemet, for example, started out as a one-off concert in 2011, but audience response quickly showed the potential for more.

“I wasn’t thinking in terms of regular training,” he says. “If something worked really, really well, we would do it again. And Sons of Kemet worked really well.

Just like Shabaka and the ancestors, a project born from trips to South Africa. The last outing of the group, We are sent here by history, landed in March of last year, heralding the collapse of society as we know it as Covid-19 began to take hold.

Then there’s The Comet is Coming, a three-piece jazz-rock that explores space and science fiction for its experimental and punchy sound. The group takes an ‘anarchist’ approach to performance, with the band members working instinctively to compose songs on the fly, resulting in an extremely frenetic style.

Hutchings’ affinity for improvisation extends to a reluctance to set his plans for the next few months in stone, especially given the uncertainties surrounding live concerts. In the longer term, however, he hopes to not only pursue all of these projects, but also to start working on solo projects.

“I know I do one album a year, and it will go in order,” he says. This year it’s the turn of Sons of Kemet, while 2022 will see the release of the album he has just finished recording with The Comet is Coming.

As for the following year, he hopes to use the recording skills he learned during the lockdown to put together an album under his own name. For an artist already spanning genres and influences, Hutchings found himself pushed even further out of his comfort zone by the restrictions of Covid-19.

“It’s not just going to pick up what it was before, and it’s going to have to be that the musicians are able to adapt to the way things are,” he says.

At this intersection of ambition and autonomy, with no shortage of willing collaborators, it is safe to say that Hutchings’ intuition will flourish. Don’t ask your neighbors what it will look like.

‘Black to the Future’ releases May 14 on Impulse Records


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