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Extended Analysis

Soweto Kinch: Conversations With The Unseen

By Published: January 13, 2005
Soweto Kinch
Conversations With The Unseen

The journey from disdain to serious respect takes about twenty seconds. It just requires two minutes to get there.

Soweto Kinch opens Conversations With The Unseen with a hip-hop "welcome to the session" rap that might trick new listeners (guilty) into thinking a bunch of self-hyping doo-wop lies ahead. But the alto saxophonist literally blows that perception away seconds into the second track, storming his way through a set approaching the likes of Branford Marsalis and Chris Potter in king-of-the-hill prowness.

Those failing to read the linear notes first (guilty) won't learn "Britain Jazz's great hope," as the BBC calls him, is a Montreux Jazz Festival International Saxophonist Of The Year winner and recipient of other noteworthy accolades. Even so, when he gets back to rapping an "intermission" at the midpoint of his debut solo album it no longer comes across as puffery—the self-taught player has earned the right to say what he wants.

Kinch is compared to 1960s British altoist Joe Harriott—who's compared to Ornette Coleman—but Kinch's playing is more disciplined than such associations suggest (bringing "Charlie Parker and Q-Tip into the zone" is how Dune Records puts it). The Oxford graduate's quick-note runs tend toward the lyrical, not quite stretching his tone like Marsalis or going off the energetic deep end like Potter. It's actually a wise choice, keeping things from getting too overwhelming. It's also offers a flexible setting for fellow players, with drummer Troy Miller supplying background heat and guitarist Femi Temowo a laid-back Jim Hall-style electric guitar that is a surprisingly effective contrast.

Like a job interview applicant, Kinch seems determined to quickly establish standout bona fides, scarcely pausing for breath or notes lasting more than a sixteenth of a measure on "Doxology." Temowo's sparser plucking provides much-needed mental oxygen, as happens elsewhere. Kinch doesn't back off much on other speedy stuff, but enough so he avoids the mistake of young lions whose phrases contain ingenuity but no ability to separate and appreciate them.

Kinch can and does mellow out. He plays a moody unaccompanied solo to open the title track, an easy-listening ballad with a series of sifting time signatures. Miller does a nice job of breathing life into "The Flame Thrower" with a steady and complex built-up of tension, with Kinch finding a suitably emotive tone near the end.

The album's three raps, along with the playful vocal collaboration with Eska Mtungwazi on "Goodnooz," turn out to be more about jazz and self-deprecation than boasting, making it easier to appreciate them even if the out-of-place feeling doesn't go away. But to criticize it in light of his playing is to feel like he's hip and you're not. Instead, you listen for the artistry in them—adopting your thinking to his world instead of wanting him to conform to yours.

It's common to say a young player's early albums show promise, but Conversations With The Unseen proves Kinch is already fulfilling it. In his case the question is what kind of diversity he brings to an encore. A fresh-sounding album of equal quality ought to establish him as a major presence.

Tracks: Intro, Doxology, Conversations With The Unseen, Elision, Spokes And Pedals, Intermission - Split Decision, Snakehips, Mungo's Adventure, The Flame-Thrower, Equiano's Tears, Good Nyooz, Outro.

Personnel: Soweto Kinch, alto saxophone, rap vocals; Femi Temowo, guitar; Michael Olatuja, bass; Troy Miller, drums; Eska Mtungwazi, vocals; Abram Wilson, trumpet, vocals (Intermission - Split Decision)

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