Jazz is most often a collegial endeavour, but it has a star system too. It’s hard to overstate the significance of Sons of Kemet’s Shabaka Hutchings, a saxophonist whose relentless energy and pioneering spirit have been key to the development of the British jazz scene over the past decade.
Dividing his youth between London, Birmingham and Barbados, Hutchings played with the Ethiopian jazz great Mulatu Astatke, among other more routine jazz apprenticeships. Currently, Hutchings has three bands – Kemet, the South African-leaning Shabaka and the Ancestors, and the Comet Is Coming. Tomorrow’s Warriors, the forward-thinking London jazz incubator that schooled so much of the current crop of musicians in their teens, have become Today’s Warriors. They could hardly have a more urbane, bold and deep-thinking field marshal than Hutchings.
Sons of Kemet’s fourth album is his most outgoing and evangelical yet, but it carries no trace of compromise. There are tenor sax melodies here that could be chanted on terraces, Seven Nation Army-style; motifs that milkmen could whistle. Although committed to extemporisation, Sons of Kemet’s music is as rooted in the brass-laden carnivals of the Caribbean and London garage raves as it is in the more established American traditions.
This is, to a degree, party music: two eloquent percussionists, Edward Wakili-Hick and Tom Skinner, and the low-slung tuba of Theon Cross anchor a rhythmic mission targeting the feet and hips. Although Hutchings can blow exultant free jazz gales and sinuous, Ethiopian-infused melodies, he just as often emits staccato blares.
Undercurrents of hip-hop have often fed into Sons of Kemet’s music, mostly as phrasings and tempos. If saxophones are often the de facto singers in jazz bands, Hutchings’s sax (or clarinet) can often double as a reggae toaster or a rapper. Here, on the magnificent Think of Home, the horns are like storytelling calypsonians. By contrast, the album is rarely more “jazz” than on the polyphonic flute fantasia that opens In Remembrance of Those Fallen.
As a marker of the urgency on Black to the Future, however, Hutchings has ceded ground to actual vocalists, more so than ever before. Among them are the rapper Kojey Radical, who fronts the album’s lead single Hustle, accompanied by the soft tones of Lianne La Havas, and on For the Culture, veteran grime MC D Double E.
Because for all that Sons of Kemet prioritise energetic physicality, psychic resistance has always been at the heart of what they do. Their party is a party because, as the British-Nigerian poet Joshua Idehen puts it on the closing track, Black: “This Black sorrow is dance/ This Black praise is dance/ This Black struggle is dance.” Fans will recognise Idehen from Sons of Kemet’s previous album, the Mercury prize-nominated Your Queen Is a Reptile (2018), which contrasted a series of black female historical icons with the nation’s hereditary figurehead.
The first SOK album was titled, simply, Burn (2013), a word that recurs here on Field Negus. Incensed at “the audacity, the Caucacity of it all”, Idehen declaims: “Just burn it all.” The second SOK LP was called Lest We Forget What We Came Here to Do (2015). That sense of purpose is renewed on Black to the Future, whose 11 song titles form a poem and mission statement. Its themes are no less lively for being familiar: harnessing anger, expressing joy, acknowledging sorrow and committing to a future that is different from the past. Much of this album came together in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the BLM protests that followed; Hutchings refined the recordings during lockdown.
Jazz tempos have always posed an implicit challenge to the 4/4 order, but this is an album that really wants its transmissions to be received. Key to the pop outreach is Hustle, in which hustling – making something of nothing – is recast as a source of pride. The rest of the exposition falls mainly to Idehen, who sets the tone at the start, and provides the album’s gut-wrenching finale. “You already have the world/ Just leave Black be,” he pleads, “Leave us alone!”
Even more eloquent, perhaps, is the instrumental Let the Circle Be Unbroken. It begins, as many Sons of Kemet tracks do, with some Latin-adjacent percussion and a tuba melody from Cross. All proceeds with customary fluidity – Cross underscoring Hutchings’s melodies – until suddenly it doesn’t. The eloquence of Hutchings’s playing is reduced to a series of increasingly disjointed parps, pops and grunts. It doesn’t sound “free”; it sounds like a violent struggle. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the reedist is fighting for breath.
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