Pick a record at random from any of Shabaka Hutchings’ many and varied projects — Sons of Kemet, The Comet Is Coming, Shabaka and the Ancestors — and you’ll find music that is powerful, insistent, complex — but none of it particularly muted. Practising at home in south London throughout the pandemic, however, has forced an unexpected calm on the saxophonist’s playing.“I have to practise really quietly, super super quietly,” he says, “to the point where I think none of my neighbours have ever heard me play.”The past year has been a learning experience, though, even for a classically trained artist who is an expert in improvisation and has played with some of the leading figures in jazz, including Mulatu Astatke, Soweto Kinch and Kamasi Washington.“It’s a different level of concentration and bodily strength to play really quietly but play throughout the whole range of the horn,” the 36-year-old tells me over Zoom.
Lockdown hasn’t just affected the dynamics of Hutchings’ performance, but his ability to do so at all. He has gone from a frenetic 140 live gigs in 2019 to next to none during the pandemic, and has felt the impact on both his body and his schedule.“Imagine if you do an aerobic workout every day for years and years, and then you stop all of a sudden,” he says. “If I stop playing music for a couple of days, I really feel that physical yearning.”
Assuming the UK’s road map out of lockdown stays on course, however, Hutchings could be back to playing concerts and festivals by mid-May — perfectly coinciding with the latest release from Sons of Kemet, titled Black to the Future.Written in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and throughout the resulting Black Lives Matter protests, the album speaks to a frustration with societal complacency and inequality, albeit one tempered with optimism and aimed at widening the discourse around the black experience. It encourages a process of listening and reflection that Hutchings likens to Egyptian hieroglyphs: he wants the album’s meaning to be symbolic rather than direct, with too direct a translation from the artist risking diluting the message.
“You present the public with a symbol or something that can provoke their own inquiries into a subject,” he says. “As opposed to saying: ‘Here is my idea, you either agree with it or you do not.’”Nevertheless, the use of spoken word in the album allows for a more clearly defined framing of its ideology: Black to the Future boasts more tracks with vocals than all three of Sons of Kemet’s previous releases combined, while the track listing spells out a poetic statement reflecting on black history and status: “Field Negus” / “Pick Up your Burning Cross” / “Think of Home” / “Hustle” / “For the Culture” / “To Never Forget the Source” / “In Remembrance of Those Fallen” / “Let the Circle Be Unbroken” / “Envision Yourself Levitating” / “Throughout the Madness, Stay Strong” / “Black”.As such, it is an album with global relevance, but very much shaped by Hutchings’ particular musical education. Born in the UK, he moved to Barbados at age six before returning to the West Midlands as a teenager. There he played 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 Guildhall in London, he balanced his classical curriculum with the influential jazz programme Tomorrow’s Warriors, which has fostered many among the city’s newest wave of jazz musicians, including Moses Boyd, Nubya Garcia and Ezra Collective’s Femi Koleoso.It is a range of study that has lent a unique quality to his sound within Sons of Kemet. Alongside tuba player Theon Cross and drummers Tom Skinner and Eddie Hick, Hutchings’ reed playing has at times taken on the role of a vocalist or MC, offering what he describes as a “rhythmic relentlessness” that guides the music. In Black to the Future, though, the album starts and finishes with the words of Joshua Idehen, poet, musician and collaborator with Hutchings since the pair met at London’s Poetry Café.
“There’s only so much you can do with instruments that don’t have words,” says Hutchings. “If you start the album with words, it sets a tone for how people perceive the coming instrumental tunes.”
The album also sees collaborations with artists including 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 that have arisen from successful jam sessions. Sons of Kemet, for example, started as a one-off gig back in 2011, but the response from the audience quickly showed the potential for more.“I wasn’t thinking in terms of regular formations,” he says. “If something worked really, really well, then we’d do it again. And Sons of Kemet worked really, really well.”
So too did Shabaka and the Ancestors, a project born of trips to South Africa. The group’s last release, We Are Sent Here By History, landed in March last year, heralding the collapse of society as we know it just as Covid-19 began to take hold.
Then there is The Comet is Coming, a jazz-rock three-piece probing space and science fiction for its punchy, experimental sound. The group takes an “anarchist” approach to performance, with band members working off instinct to compose songs on the fly, resulting in a compellingly frenetic style.Hutchings’ affinity for improvisation extends to a reluctance to set his plans for the next few months in stone, not least because of the uncertainties surrounding live concerts. Longer term, though, he is hoping not only to keep all these projects going, but to start work on solo projects too.“I know that I’m making an album a year, and that it’ll go in sequence,” 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 year after that, he’s hoping to use the recording skills he learnt during lockdown to put together an album under his own name. For an artist already spanning genres and influences, Hutchings has found himself pushed even further out of his comfort zone by the Covid-19 restrictions.“It’s not just going to pick up how it was before, and there’s going to be a need for musicians to be able to adapt to how things are,” he says.At this intersection between ambition and self-reliance, with no shortage of willing collaborators, it’s safe to say that Hutchings’ intuition will flourish. Just don’t ask his neighbours what it’s going to sound like.
‘Black to the Future’ is released May 14 on Impulse Records