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Shabaka Hutchings: Black to the Future

Chris May BY

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Hutchings' music is the junction of the conservatoire and the shaman. There is an edge to it, a sense of drama, of danger, and of healing, too, all of which are absent from so much jazz in 2021, and which have increasingly been missing since the times of first generation bop, hard bop and spiritual jazz, leaving a vacuum into which other musics have moved.
Though he is far too modest to make any such claim himself, most observers agree that saxophonist and clarinetist Shabaka Hutchings is the standard-bearer for the new wave of jazz musicians who have emerged in London since around 2015. Hutchings is a few years older than most of the cohort. He made his debut recording in 2007 while still a student at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, on keyboard player Funsho Ogundipe's The Afrobeat Chronicles Vol. 2 (Flying Monkeys). Next up was the Zed-U trio with bassist Neil Charles and drummer Tom Skinner, who released Night Time On The Middle Passage (Babel) in 2009. Fast forward to 2018 and Hutchings was the curator of and studio supervisor for the album We Out Here (Brownswood), a various-artists affair which was a snapshot of the London scene and introduced many of the city's new-wave musicians to a wider public.

Born in London, Hutchings was brought up in Birmingham, Britain's second city, and later Barbados, his parents' birthplace. Back in Britain, he studied at the Guildhall from 2004 to 2008, during which time he also attended Tomorrow's Warriors, the catalytic outreach project for young jazz musicians founded and led by bassist Gary Crosby and his partner, Janine Irons.

In 2021, Hutchings is active in multiple bands. Perhaps the most prominent of these is the quartet Sons of Kemet, which he formed in 2011 with tuba player Theon Cross and the drummers Eddie Hick and the aforementioned Tom Skinner. The band's fourth album, Black To The Future, is being released on Impulse! in May 2021. Sons Of Kemet has always had two drum chairs but the occupants have swapped around a bit over the years. The new album features the founding lineup of Hicks and Skinner, along with Cross, who has been a constant presence in the band.

Hutchings also records with the South African-based group Shabaka & the Ancestors , who debuted in 2016 with Wisdom Of Elders (Brownswood). The connection came about because Hutchings' girlfriend from around 2013 to 2016 lived in South Africa and twice a year he would spend two or three months in the country. The group's most recent album, We Are Sent Here By History, was released on Impulse! in 2020. Among Hutchings' other projects is the plugged-in cosmic-fusion trio The Comet Is Coming, which released its first album, Channel The Spirits, on Britain's Leaf label in 2016 and then moved to Impulse! for its second and third discs, Trust In The Lifeforce Of The Deep Mystery and The Afterlife (both 2019).

One of the qualities shared by Sons Of Kemet, Shabaka & The Ancestors and The Comet Is Coming is that, however sophisticated the music is on one level, it also resonates with the lived experiences of its audience. It is the junction of the conservatoire and the shaman. There is an edge to it, a sense of drama, of danger, and of healing, too, which are absent from so much jazz in 2021, and which have increasingly been missing since the times of first generation bop, hard bop and spiritual jazz, leaving a vacuum into which hip hop and other musics have moved.

Hutchings is happy that all three bands are associated with Impulse!, because in the 1960s and 1970s the label was home to many of the artists who were early influences on him, among them John Coltrane, Archie Shepp and Pharoah Sanders.

"It's also a point of contact between British jazz and the American stream," says Hutchings. "Sometimes these streams happen without any tangible intersections. So I'm really pleased that our connections bring a historical relationship that cannot be broken." It is worth observing in passing that, while many commentators have assumed it is Hutchings who benefits most from the liaison with Impulse!, the label may in fact be the bigger beneficiary. After losing its mojo in the mid 1970s, Impulse! has struggled to regain the respect it once engendered and, under its current owners, Universal Music, its lack of engagement with the grass-roots jazz ecology which sustained it during its heyday is doing it no favours. To have an artist of Hutchings' calibre on the books does much for Impulse!'s credibility.

All About Jazz was planning to interview Hutchings in February 2020 about the multi-media, multi-stage, multi-artist, three-day festival Propaganda, which he had programmed for London's Barbican Centre and which was scheduled for the following month. The pandemic scuppered that at the eleventh hour and the interview was put on hold until life returned to some semblance of normal. Propaganda may or may not be rescheduled: the logistics are complex, requiring a large number of non-British performers being available at the same time and free to travel to London. In the meantime, it was agreed that Black To The Future provides plenty to talk about.

Like all Hutchings' albums, Black To The Future comes with a manifesto-cum-sleeve note which he penned. In the note for Sons Of Kemet's previous album, Your Queen Is A Reptile (Impulse!, 2018), Hutchings questioned the relevance of the British monarchy, in particular as regards Britain's black population, and suggested an alternative honour roll. Each of the nine tracks was named after a woman of historical significance from the African diaspora, from America's Harriet Tubman to Britain's Doreen Lawrence, and Hutchings concluded his note thus: "Our Queens are just like us, and we are human. We need new royalty. Your Queen Is A Reptile." The title refers to the surprisingly widespread belief that the British royal family is composed of shape-shifting lizards from another planet. (The jury is still out on this).

The key section of Hutchings' Black To The Future manifesto reads: "The meaning [of the album] is not universal and the cultural context of the listener will shape their understanding...[but] the overarching message remains the same: for humanity to progress we must consider what it means to be Black To The Future."

Does Hutchings mean that, broadly speaking, he expects black and non-black listeners to take away different meanings? "Yes," he says. "But it's not so much about whether you're black or non-black, it's about where you are coming from culturally. If you're coming from a place of really understanding black culture then you'll get something specific out of it. If you're not acclimatised to the nuances of black culture then you'll get something else out of it, and maybe it will give you a bridge to understanding more about black culture than you did previously."

The album's narrative is laid out in its sequence of track titles: 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. Should there be any doubt about the message, it is removed by the words of the performance poets, MCs and rappers who are guest artists. These include Chicago's Angel Bat Dawid, Philadelphia's Moor Mother and London's MC D Double E, Kojey Radical and Joshua Idehen (who featured on some of the tracks on Your Queen Is A Reptile).

Hutchings writes the manifestos-cum-sleeve notes himself because he feels that albums are often inaccurately portrayed when people other than the musicians concerned attempt to contextualise them. "It would be a lot easier if I just made the music and put it out," says Hutchings. "But I think it's important to put the effort in. The more information I can give about the music, and the more context and background I can give about what I'm trying to express, the better that will be for the listener." For an egregious example of the inaccuracy of a sleeve note written by someone other than the artist who created the music, in this case Sonny Rollins, see * below.

"I'm trying to create a situation where the message resonates inside the person who is listening to the music," continues Hutchings. "I think that if you simply dictate the message, people react in a binary way: do they agree or not agree. Whereas if you're putting out kind of bullet points and asking people to formulate their own idea of what's going on, I think that's a lot more useful. I've thought about this a lot. I want the message to be something that grows with the listener as they consider the album and how it fits into the narrative of all the other albums. That way a bigger, broader picture starts to emerge, a deeper understanding."

When All About Jazz interviewed alto saxophonist Logan Richardson about his album AfroFuturism (WAX Industry) in March 2021, Richardson was keen to stress that in his opinion all black artistic expression needed to be futurist in order to accelerate progress towards a more equitable society. Does Hutchings agree?

"I can see where he's coming from," says Hutchings. "I'm coming from a slightly different point. You can look towards progressing to the future in a linear fashion, but for me it's about trying to think in a circular headspace. It's about being in the present and seeing how the past has constructed the present, and also thinking that the engagement between the past and present creates the future. The future doesn't emerge just because you go towards it. The future emerges from how you relate the past to the present."

Humanity began in East Africa's Rift Valley and only later diversifed into different races. Given that perspective, does Hutchings think that, moving forward, circularist Afrofuturism could be the road map for us all, regardless of our individual present-day ethnicities?

"That's the idea behind Black To The Future," says Hutchings. "As a collective human race we all need to consider the cosmologies that have been forgotten or demolished because of colonisation. By that I mean the thoughts and belief systems that were ignored or discarded during or in the aftermath of the colonial period. We're at a point now where we need to start learning from people and belief systems that were looked down upon during the colonial era and have been undervalued ever since. The tragedy so often is that people think that the only way to take society forward is to forget the knowledge that has been there all along because it's not the answer that has been put forward by the mainstream of European thought."

Spoken word figures extensively on Black To The Future, and it permits a more detailed exposition of the album's narrative than would be possible through instrumental-only music. One of the first British jazz musicians to use spoken word was saxophonist and rapper Soweto Kinch who, like Hutchings, grew up in Birmingham. "Soweto has been a big mentor for me for a long time," says Hutchings. "When I returned from Barbados and started playing jazz he took me under his wing. I practiced with him a lot. He ran a jam session that I went to every week for about three years, before I went to Guildhall, when I was doing my A Levels and then having a gap year. I formed my earliest experiences with the music by watching Soweto and actually being able to play with him."

As well as performance poets and rappers, the guest artists on Black To The Future include upcoming London stars alto saxophonist and composer Cassie Kinoshi, trumpeter Ife Ogunjobi and trombonist Nathaniel Cross. Another, particularly welcome, guest is the pioneering tenor saxophonist and composer Steve Williamson, who pre-pandemic was making a tentative return to the stage following a decade and more out of the public eye battling depression. One of 2019's live highlights was Williamson fronting his alma mater, the Guildhall School's, student Jazz Orchestra in a one-night-only performance titled Celebrating Coltrane. "I'm so happy to have him on the album," says Hutchings. "He is one of my absolute heroes."

When Hutchings went to the Guildhall in 2004 (some twenty years after Williamson had studied there), he took a classical music degree rather than a jazz one. How come? "It was because I went there primarily to study the clarinet," says Hutchings. "I remember I had a big conversation with Courtney Pine about it. He said, 'You can learn jazz simply by dedicating yourself to it. But if you want to learn the clarinet, you have to get on the course that has the biggest clarinet tradition, and that's classical music. If you want to play an instrument, you have to understand the context that instrument developed in, if you want to learn it at the highest level.' Which is what I wanted to do."

A decade and more on from graduating from the Guildhall, Hutchings is frequently described as a "saviour of jazz." What does he think about that? "I think it's a good marketing technique to sell some papers or get some clicks," he says. "But I'm just doing my thing. Actually I don't think jazz was ever in a compromising position, it never really needed saviours. But, you know, sometimes forms have to die: you don't want zombified cultural artifacts being paraded around as though they're still vital and relevant. If the music which is known as jazz is ever seen as being in a state of decline then maybe that's the way it needs to go for a while, before there is a reinvigoration. Things have a natural propensity to be born, to flourish and then to give way to something new."

How does Hutchings summarise his approach to jazz? "When I perform jazz part of it is just expressing the fact that the joy of music is very tangible to me," says Hutchings. "I'm trying to express that joy and enthusiasm and energy to the audience. I think you can lose that if you get caught up in the mechanics of the music. When you say you play spiritual music, it's not a genre, it's an approach. It's about raising your spiritual energy, your activation, on a deep personal level. Music can be healing. It can be more than just a series of notes."

* In 1958, Sonny Rollins recorded the album Freedom Suite for Riverside, the first side of which was devoted to his twenty-minute "The Freedom Suite." In the sleeve note, Rollins was quoted as saying that, "America is deeply rooted in Negro culture...[but] the Negro, who has exemplified the humanities in his very existence, is being rewarded with inhumanity." The statement created such a furore that Riverside took the album off the market and reissued it as Shadow Waltz, the title of the second shortest track. In addition, Orrin Keepnews, co-owner of the label, wrote new liner notes in which he went into linguistic contortions maintaining that in the title "The Freedom Suite," Rollins was referring to freedom "in general," not the ongoing struggle for civil rights for black Americans.

SHABAKA HUTCHINGS: SIX ALBUMS OF DEEP IMPACT

It is assumed that John Coltrane's A Love Supreme (Impulse!, 1965) and Miles Davis' A Kind Of Blue (Columbia, 1959) will figure in many interviewees' six albums of particular importance. So both albums are taken as deus ex machina inclusions. Hutchings does not include a Davis album but he does select a Coltrane disc. He kicks off with Sonny Rollins...

Sonny Rollins
A Night At The Village Vanguard
Blue Note, 1958

I've been coming back to this album for about fifteen years. I keep on learning more and more from it—in terms of Sonny Rollins' rhythmic concept, the bite in his sound and the energies he uses when attacking notes or caressing them. Drama is the word that comes into my head when I listen to it. All Rollins' expositions are dramatic. I guess he gets that from Coleman Hawkins.

Andy Sheppard Quartet
Romaria
ECM, 2018

If I was to think in an abstract way I wouldn't necessarily put this among my top six greatest albums. But if I think about the albums I have gone back to many times and continued to learn from, this one is special. I think it's a masterpiece actually. I even wrote Andy a message, saying thank you so much, I listen to the album every day. It links with the tradition that comes from John Surman and some of the early works of Jan Garbarek in the way there is a poetic quality to the statements that are made on the saxophone. When I first heard it I remember thinking, how do I make my music sound more poetic, like Andy does? As far as I can see, it's an approach, an atmosphere, it's not about the specific language he uses. It comes through the relationship between that language and the other players.

Hermeto Pascoal
Zabumbê-bum-á
Warner Bros., 1979

I was listening to this album a lot during lockdown, especially when writing the horn parts for Black To The Future. It's deep music in that it has many, many layers that can only be uncovered through multiple listens. More is revealed every time you hear it. It taught me a lesson in the importance of layering, making music that can have a deeper meaning than might be apparent on the first go.

Cecil Taylor
Silent Tongues: Live At Montreux '74
Freedom, 1975

This album really opened me up to hearing music outside the parametres of time. I remember listening to it at first and not understanding anything about it. The first point of not understanding was how to relate to time. You don't realize how much your relationship to time depends on knowing how events are going to be placed within it—like in general in jazz you know that there is going to be some kind of climax point, some kind of tension and release. Whereas this album, it was all tension, or all release, so it was kind of disorientating. I would close my eyes and listen and I wouldn't know whether I was at the beginning, the end or the middle of the music, just that I was in a timespace close to infinity.

John Coltrane Quartet
Crescent
Impulse!, 1964

This album is a gem for me. It connects with what I said about the Andy Sheppard album in that I really hear the poetry in the music. And also the way the whole album is shaped as one document. It feels like a very complete, very cohesive piece of work. There are a lot of jazz albums that, while I feel they are great documents of people exploring music, they don't hang together as complete albums. Whereas this album feels like it's a carefully considered arc from the beginning to the end.

Wayne Shorter
Footprints Live!
Verve, 2002

This is such a mysterious album. I used to have a band with the late, great drummer Tony Marsh and one day he told me that this was among his favourite albums. That made me go back and listen to it again. Tony said there was a lot of mystery in the album and that things within it weren't as they appeared to be. It's an idea that has really stuck with me—making music where there are a lot of shadows, where there are places which are not really intelligible on first listen, where you can really get lost in the music and find your own conclusions.

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