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Soweto Kinch: A Singular Jazz Odyssey

David Burke By

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You have to have absorbed all of the sounds, the tone, the stories, the solos of your forebears, and put them together and scramble them in a way that’s unique and personal to you. —Soweto Kinch
Soweto Kinch was a curious teenager when an encounter with Wynton Marsalis impelled him on his own jazz odyssey. An odyssey characterised by the creation of dynamic new soundscapes in the spirit of the music's great innovators, on landmark albums such as A Life in the Day of B19: Tales of the Tower Block, The Legend of Mike Smith and Nonogram.

"There is a point at which you can hear the music and not really be switched onto it," he tells me in the café of the post-modern high tech Birmingham Library, the flagship project for the redevelopment of the UK's second city.

"I had two encounters that made me want to get every single jazz cassette I could get my hands on. When I was thirteen, going to see Wynton Marsalis at Birmingham Symphony Hall, and getting to meet him after the gig, which was transformative. Myself and a young drummer, we snuck backstage—well, we didn't have to sneak, that was the great thing. We just sort of peered over the window and some of the cats invited us back and we hacked with them. That was really special."

Marsalis had only recently become the first artist to win Grammy Awards for both jazz and classical records, and was, according to Kinch, "a guy of some repute." He carried his legend lightly though on that formative meeting.

"He didn't have any of that grandiosity at all. He just addressed me like an uncle. I think that was one of the great ways in terms of trying to discover what my pathway into jazz was. The question he asked was, 'What do your parents listen to? Do they listen to calypso? Tell me some calypso names I should listen to.' So it was almost parity on a human level. That was quite ennobling and inspiring at the same time. Then we had the opportunity to scat a little bit for him and play a bit of piano. I shudder to think what we sounded like. But it was the endorsement of, 'I know what you're trying to do—keep going, kid.' He passed on a baton there, and he has done to countless musicians."

The second encounter that shaped Kinch's sonic future was with the late American jazz tap dancer, Will Gaines, who spent the last fifty years of his life in Britain before his death in 2017.

"He basically lived in my dad's house for two months, and left a bunch of assorted jazz cassettes. He allowed me to rife through them and discover stuff to my heart's content. That was when I got the jazz bug."

Kinch started out tinkering around on piano and organ, before settling on the saxophone after seeing South African multi-instrumentalist Bheki Mseleku. It wasn't long until he discovered John Coltrane.

"Most jazz musicians, if you scratch beneath the surface, we're weary of making a saint out of one musician, but it's impossible to deny Coltrane's influence. This is my point—every time you go back to the recorded material, to his philosophy behind the music, to his journey through it as a man and as a musician, you can't ignore one of the greatest contributions to the world, let alone jazz.

"But I'm always cautious of deifying people who aren't with us. What they left is a body of really honest work, and maybe you could see 'Alabama' in the context of race politics.

"And also, I don't want to belittle the great contribution his peers have made who are still with us—Sonny Rollins, Wayne Shorter—and those who came before and the shoulders he stood on. I'm always cautious of idolising or taking out of context musicians, given that they always arise out of a social context and historical tradition. Coltrane was a very notable example of that."

The reference to race politics is pointed. Kinch, whether he cares to admit it or not, has become a figurehead in the awakening of a black British consciousness. His annual Flyover Show in Birmingham—which takes place beneath an actual motorway flyover—celebrates black culture and how it has redefined the whole idea of Britishness.

"I lived in a tower block next to the area and I was aware of 50 Cent posters in the 'hood. This is what they market at us—get rich or die trying. It seems quite a low bar given the rich history in my block. There were jazz musicians, poets, doctors, artists—a vibrant community, in other words. I felt, why am I going to Singapore and touring in America, when people in my backyard don't know what I do? So that was partly a motivation.

"I realised we're not celebrating Steel Pulse as a legacy, or Andy Hamilton, the great things that we have as a community. And then it was about generations—making the space inhabitable, but just recognising that you don't have a position of strength unless you recognise the context and the tradition that you've arisen out of.

"For me, going to Handsworth carnivals as a teenager, getting into hip hop then, as early as thirteen, and just spitting bars even before I had my skills together, hearing soundsystem reggae—all of that, they're all constituent parts into making me sound the way I do. Let come and people see the music for free, recognise what they have in common with it, and how inspiring it is to have this in your community."

Kinch, a Modern History graduate from Oxford University, feels that acknowledgement of the Diaspora, even sub-consciously, is a crucial component in nailing down a black British identity.

"Because the version of Britain that you're given, the collective one, isn't supposed to include you," he reasons. "But then I've come to the conclusion there wouldn't be no Great Britain without the contribution of my ancestors. There'd just be Britain, a place on the edge of Europe.

"So it's important for me to connect to longer veins of African identity, longer traditions, and also to investigate and see how long an African presence has had a determining shape on what we call British culture and Britishness. So that's been a source of inspiration, musically and in all sorts of ways.

"Going forward it's very important, I think, for the descendants of African Britons to interrogate what this idea of Britishness is, and to crowbar their way into a new one. And one that, I think, that's historically accurate—we've always been here and there'd be no Britain with us.

"If I think about, what is my tradition, I look to Gary Crosby, Denys Baptiste, I look to Joe Harriott, Bertie King. So for me, a black Briton today is somebody who should understand and recognise the tradition that precedes them, and recognise that that's now a lineage. It's not just a couple of choice names. You don't just exist in a vacuum. But actually there are some very powerful shoulders to stand upon."

Crosby is another important figure in Kinch's musical evolution. In 1991, he established Tomorrow's Warriors, providing a platform for talented young jazz players. Among those who cut their teeth in this forum were drummer Tom Skinner, pianist Andrew McCormack and guitarist David Okumu. The opportunity "to dig in the wellspring of knowledge around in the previous incarnations of the Warriors, including Gary himself, it absolutely helped me to cement my own concepts."

Central to those concepts has been the integration of hip hop into Kinch's oeuvre. He is an accomplished MC and has produced the likes of KRS ONE, Dwele and Ty, as well as being championed by Mos Def, Rodney P and Twin B.

"Jazz and hip hop share a common root, in that you can trace the ancestry of African diasporic music and improvisation in both. They're not the same tradition but have common roots.

"Maybe the biggest commonality is that to be authentic in either genre you have to have found yourself—be yourself more than anybody else. Authenticity, I think, is the goal. If you're an MC, you want to make sure nobody bites your lines and you've written everything yourself. That's Shangri-la—having a style that everybody wants to imitate but nobody can quite pull off.

"In jazz terms you have to have absorbed all of the sounds, the tone, the stories, the solos of your forebears, and put them together and scramble them in a way that's unique and personal to you. I'd say the differences are interesting too.

"I've used the different components of both and put them together in a certain way -to have the consistency of meter in hip hop, but then to have saxophone over the top, to blend them together. That's something I'm still keen to push the boundaries on, really, find a way to unite improvised saxophone and improvisation with the voice, tonality, and expressing things that you can with words that you can't quite with saxophone, and vice versa."

Kinch refutes the notion that his jazz-hip hop fusion is a new thing, insisting that he is part of a genealogy that can also be heard in The Pharcyde, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest and fellow British saxophonist Steve Williamson.

"I went into a record shop in Oxford in 1997 and bought a Steve Williamson album ("Journey To Truth") with Black Thought from The Roots on it. Mind-blowing hip hop and jazz collaboration—a combination of freestyle lyrics and saxophone, very forward thinking. And twentysomething years later they're still considered to be strange bedfellows. I think these differences exist more for commercial reasons."

Differences, in Kinch's way of thinking, would seem to exist only as opportunities to discover common ground—a theme he explored on "Nonogram."

"I like to think of the approach to this as like jazz from a different angle. You should be able to just look at a pretty picture and go, 'That's cool. There are some pretty patterns on the album artwork. I like this, for some reason.'

"And then another level at which you can just be like, 'I've seen the interaction between what the bass is doing there and the fact the song's called "Seven"—that's interesting.'

"And it might just lead to the sorts of reflections that lead to—I don't want to sound too grandiose—expand our consciousness at some level, make us think of broader shapes and trends beyond the binary.

"If there's a political intention behind the album, it's that being organised into such binary worlds and looking ourselves in the world—white versus black, good versus evil, man versus woman—I really think it's important to zoom out and consider meditation, shape and geometry, things that connect all humans when they hear and see them.

"It also spun out of reflections I was having after The Legend of Mike Smith. If there's a dark side of the record industry, and they know how to manipulate sounds, to keep you on edge, to keep you consuming or buying, what's the obverse of that? If I'm a jazz musician, or just an explorer of sound, then how can I find the things that heal if there is division? Can I find the things that inspire people?"

And it's fair to say that, thus far in his jazz odyssey, Kinch remains an inspirational tour de force very much in the vein of his early mentors Marsalis, Gaines and Crosby.

Photo credit: Dylan Burke

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