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Soweto Kinch: A Singular Jazz Odyssey

David Burke By

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"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.'

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