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Tom Skinner: The Son Of Kemet Shines A Light

Tom Skinner: The Son Of Kemet Shines A Light

Courtesy Andre Baumecker


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This record is an attempt to put something truthful into the world at a time of rising dishonesty and disinformation. ‘Bishara’ means the bringer of good news. The musicians on the album are dear to me and together we pay homage to the idea of collectively spreading light where there is increasing darkness.
—Tom Skinner
Tom Skinner has been a vital presence on the alternative London jazz scene for close on twenty years. Yet, remarkably, only now in November 2022 is the drummer and composer releasing his first album under his own name. Voices Of Bishara features Skinner alongside four friends and fellow radicals: tenor saxophonists Nubya Garcia and Shabaka Hutchings, playing together on record for the first time, cellist Kareem Dayes and bassist Tom Herbert. As jazz supergroups go, this lineup would be hard to beat. Appearing on three labels—International Anthem and Nonesuch in America, Brownswood in the UK, EU and Japan—Voices Of Bishara has been among this year's most eagerly awaited releases. It fully rises to expectations.

Probably best known, at least in the US, as a member of the recently disbanded Sons of Kemet, Skinner graduated in 2001 from the not-for-profit Tomorrow's Warriors programme, the fountainhead of many of London's post-2000 jazz luminaries. From the start, he was in the cohort of young musicians who were pushing against the orthodoxies of British jazz. Early sightings included his inclusion on the now Brooklyn-based saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock's calling card, Some Times (Candid, 2001), and in 2004 he was a member of the quintet which recorded Laubrock's breakthrough album, Forensic (F-IRE). Around the same time, with Tom Herbert, who was bouncing between Polar Bear and Acoustic Ladyland, Skinner co-founded the highly regarded trio Jade Fox. In 2007, with Shabaka Hutchings, he was a co-founder of another ranking trio, Zed-U, which released the critically acclaimed Night Time Of The Middle Passage (Babel) in 2009.

Since then, Skinner has continued along his experimentalist path, including well received albums under the monicker Hello Skinny. His collaborative ventures have included, in 2011, co-founding Sons Of Kemet with Hutchings. In summer 2022, the band, which in 2018 became the first ever British signing to the Impulse! label, announced their break-up for "the foreseeable future" (more about that below). A less widely celebrated but typically groundbreaking project was the left of centre London/Nairobi dance band Owiny Sigoma during the 2010s, which dissolved following the passing of two Kenyan members. Most recently, in 2021, Skinner co-founded The Smile with Radiohead's Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood. On November 14, that group start a five-week tour of the US.

The album title Voices Of Bishara was inspired by the American cellist Abdul Wadud's solo album By Myself, which Wadud released on his own Bisharra label in 1978. Skinner uses the more conventional spelling of the Arabic word, but they both translate as "good news" or "bringer of good news." Sadly, Wadud passed in 2022. One hopes, and dares to guess, that he would have been tickled pink by Skinner's salute, for the news on Voices Of Bishara is as good as it gets.

Skinner talked to All About Jazz about Voices Of Bishara and the unusual process behind its creation, about why Sons Of Kemet have broken up, and more. He ends by describing seven albums he has been listening to frequently over the last couple of months (seven being the number imposed on him by AAJ).

All About Jazz: Before we talk about the new album, the inevitable question. Why have Sons Of Kemet broken up?

Tom Skinner: It's just that after ten years, it felt like it was coming to a point where it made sense to, at the very least, take an extended break, partly because of our individual ventures outside the band. We started talking about it towards the end of last year. We're all into a lot of different things and wanting to explore different aspects of the music we are playing. Shabaka for instance is really focused on playing the flute and leaning away from playing saxophone a bit, and Theon [Cross, tuba] and I also have our own things going. It felt like we'd reached a natural place to draw a line under it.

AAJ: The official announcement said it was for the "foreseeable future."

TS: Well, I don't think it's a completely closed book. Never say never. We may well get together at some point but right now I don't know when that will be.

AAJ: Meanwhile, the good news is that your first own-name album is a blinder. Having both Shabaka and Nubya on it is like Christmas coming early.

TS: Ha. It's the first time they've done that. There's a couple of Makaya McCraven's albums they're both on—[Universal Beings (2018) and Universal Beings E & F Sides (2020), both on International Anthem]—but not on the same tracks. I think it's also the only recording with Nubya playing flute as well as tenor. So that's something different.

AAJ: Having Kareem Dayes on the album is something different too.

TS: Kareem is phenomenal. I have to shout him out. The cello is something I've really got into during the past four or five years, round about when I first heard Abdul Wadud. It was [saxophonist] Tom Challenger who hipped me to By Myself. I was having a conversation with Tom about Julius Hemphill, and I'd been listening to Dogon A.D. [Freedom, 1972], which had Abdul on it. I was freaking out about how great it is. And Tom said, ok, but have you heard this solo record he did? I became obsessed with it. And since then, pretty much any record that he's on, I'll buy it.

AAJ: When did you start working on your album?

TS: It goes back to early 2018 when I did a Played Twice session at Brilliant Corners [in Hackney, East London]. The format for the gigs was to play a classic album through the sound system and then kind of reconstruct it live. I chose Tony Williams's Life Time [Blue Note, 1965]. I did it with the same personnel as you hear on Voices Of Bishara. I had this sound in my head where we had cello and double bass, and with Shabaka also doubling on bass clarinet as well as tenor saxophone and Nubya doubling on flute and tenor saxophone. So there was quite a lot of scope for orchestration. The album grew out of that gig, taking some of the ideas that we'd tried out and developing them a little bit further and, as it turned out, doing some pretty radical editing and reassembling too.

AAJ: When did you do the actual recording?

TS: Near the end of 2018. It was all done live in the studio. I wanted to record something with all of us together in one room, the classic jazz way. It was just before my son was born. I wanted to document the group before his arrival, because I knew I was going to be busy taking care of him and spending time with my family. There was a window and everyone was available. So I wrote the material and we did the recording. Then my son was born and I didn't look at the recordings for some months. Going into 2019 I'd get the sessions up and listen to them. But at that point I couldn't really see a way forward. I had to step away from it for some time. And then the pandemic hit.

I don't want to make too much of it, because everybody had to deal with it, but the pandemic gave me the time to return to the album, and that's when I had the idea of the edits. Suddenly I had six months of work disappear overnight. Once I got over the shock of that I thought, ok, what am I going to do with my time? By chance, just before it hit I'd started subletting a studio from a friend of mine who had gone away for a while. So I had this studio space and suddenly I had all this time. When I wasn't looking after my son when my wife was working, I'd go to the studio and try and be creative. That's when I thought, ok, I've got these recordings, I need to do something with them. I really went into the music and started mixing it and editing it and trying to piece it together to something that was a bit more coherent. I got it to quite a good place I think, using a big mixing desk but not really knowing what I was doing. Anyway, I took it to Gilles [Peterson, of Brownswood Records], who really liked it and said he'd like to put it out.

AAJ: Why did you bring Dilip Harris in to remix it at this point?

TS: I just felt like my mix wasn't really good enough. I was happy enough with it but there were certain discrepancies in the recording that were quite hard to manage and I wasn't skilled enough as a mix engineer to know how to deal with it. Dilip worked on all the Sons Of Kemet albums and is a good friend. So towards the end of 2020 I asked him if he'd be able to mix it and he was up for it. But he didn't have any time until the following April. So then I had another window of time, before he would work on it, and I went back into the music again. There were two tracks in particular that I wasn't totally happy with and that's when I went really hard at them with scissors and editing and tried to create something other from the material.

AAJ: Which tracks were they?

TS: One was "Red 2," which was the only song that was directly lifted from the Tony Williams record. I really chopped it up. I tried to focus in on the different space that we recorded in and the bleed on the microphones, and tried to accentuate that rather than try and control it. I tried to make more of it. The other was "Voices (Of The Past)." That was out of Gilles saying, the classic Gilles thing, can you make this one a bit more dancefloor friendly—not really wanting to steer the music any fundamental way, but that is the sort of consideration you have to have when you're releasing music. So I went back and looped sections and tried to make it a bit more dancefloor friendly. It's still pretty abstract but doing what I did I think created a better structure. Before it didn't really have a lot of focus. I took a very liberal approach with the scissors and started going really hard into the edits between instruments. It breathed new life into the music. I was taking my cue from the great disco re-edits, people like Theo Parrish chopping up tunes and looping sections. I'm not a purist. It was really empowering to mess around with the music and see what happened. It felt right.

AAJ: And then Dilip did the final mix?.

TS: Yes. Once I'd finished with those two tracks he was able to mix it and we spent a week putting it together. I was very happy with what he did. He brought his amazing skills to the table and was able to deal with the sound in a way I wasn't able to.

AAJ: They say if you want something done, ask a busy person to do it. You have a family, you always have at least a couple of bands on the go, and you organize boutique gigs and DJ on Worldwide FM. Do you ever think about having your own label, too?

TS: That may be something I do down the line but actually I like working with labels. I'm into the way they create an identity for themselves. I'm all about collaboration and I like building relationships with them, like I have with Brownswood for over ten years. I've known Gilles for a lot longer than that, and he's been very supportive of everything I've done, from Jade Fox up to now. It's nice to have that support, it's nice to be able to bounce ideas around with people. And with this album, I like the fact that there are three labels collaborating on it. I feel like that could really be the future, working in partnership with likeminded people. This record is an attempt to put something truthful into the world, through collaboration and community, at a time of rising dishonesty and disinformation. "Bishara" means the bringer of good news, and by bringing the musicians on this album who are very dear to me together, we pay homage to that idea by collectively spreading light where there is increasing darkness.

Tom Skinner: Seven Inspiring Albums

Says Skinner: I've been an avid record collector for many years and I've got far too many favourite albums to get them down to seven. So I'd thought I'd pick some things I've been listening to lately, that have inspired me or I've found interesting. They're not necessarily my favourite records.

The Jimi Hendrix Experience
Axis Bold As Love
Track, 1967

When I was in America with Sons Of Kemet earlier this year, the last gig was in San Diego, and during the day I'd been walking around looking for a present to take back for my son. I found this little kids' clothes shop and they had a bunch of really cool rock 'n' roll t-shirts so I got a Jimi Hendrix one for him. Ever since then he's been obsessed with Jimi Hendrix, as I was when I was a young boy. I've always loved Axis Bold As Love and it's one we've listened to together quite a lot. I think it gets a bit overlooked. I love the way it's sequenced, I love the intro, which is pretty wild, and some of his best songs are on it, like "Spanish Castle Magic" and "Castles Made Of Sand." We've been listening to Band Of Gypsys" [Capitol, 1970] as well, which is also a very great record.

Double Negative
Sub Pop, 2018

At the Big Ears Festival on the Sons Of Kemet tour we saw this band Low. I was completely blown away by the performance. I'd never seen them before though they've been going for a long time. They're basically a husband and wife duo. Subsequently I've been listening to Double Negative. The production is mind blowing. Listening to it is a real experience. I don't know the earlier albums.

Abdul Wadud
By Myself
Bisharra, 1978

I've listened to this album a lot since Tom Challenger turned me on to it, and again especially over the last few months because we did this Church of Sound gig where we played the Voices Of Bishara material and also an interpretation of some of By Myself. So I had to arrange this solo cello record for a band. It was quite a challenge and I learnt a lot doing it. Shabaka and Nubya weren't around so we did it with Robert Stillman and Chelsea Carmichael, who were amazing. [This lineup can be seen on the YouTube clip below, performing "The Journey" from Voices Of Bishara.] When Tom first told me about By Myself and said it was solo cello I had an idea what that might be, and it was that, but it is also so much more. It is almost like it encompasses everything I love about music. It's very free and there's a lot of improvisation but then the writing is so engaging, some of it really beautiful songs. It's groovy and funky as well because Abdul Wadud played the cello in such a rhythmic way. He passed away this summer, not long before our gig, which was a very sad coincidence.

Talking Heads
Remain In Light
Sire, 1980

This is one of my favourite records. I remember the song "Once In A Lifetime" from when I was growing up. I used to go to America to visit my grandparents every summer and I'd watch MTV. So it's a very evocative song for me. When I was about nineteen and properly got into Talking Heads, Remain In Light was the record I related to because that song was on there. But the whole album is kind of their masterpiece really. Brian Eno produced it, and the rhythmic side of it is really interesting, a sort of multi-levelled rhythmic production. And that goes for the voices as well, there are some amazing contrapuntal voices. I like the tempo of it too, it starts quite up-tempo and then it gets faster and then it gets slower and slower and the last tune is kind of dirgy. It's an interesting shape, it's not your average pop music kind of shape.

Sam Gendel
Cicada Lite: Live In Texas
Unseen Worlds, 2022

I've been listening to Sam Gendel quite a lot. I think his work is brilliant, some of the most fascinating music I've heard in the last few years for sure. He put this out in the summer. I think it's just a digital release. There was no fanfare, he just like chucked it out. It's a collection of solo recordings he made on tour in Texas, from concerts and also field recordings. The sound is interesting, it's not hi-fi. I like the idea of that, that you could even record something on a phone. I'm into things that have been recorded in unusual spaces. They have a lot of character because of that. I listened to this album a lot on tour in the States this summer. It was great to listen to on planes, it really took me away. He's very prolific. Another great record he's on is Pino Palladino's Notes With Attachments [Impulse!, 2021].

Miles Davis
Columbia, 1971

This also ties into that idea of different sounding things, like half of the album is from live concerts. It's nice to hear Keith Jarrett playing a Fender Rhodes with a wah-wah pedal and completely smashing it. And obviously Miles Davis is in his element. For me some of the most beautiful stuff was recorded in the studio and written by Hermeto Pascoal, "Little Church" and "Nem Um Talvez." I used to get stoned as a teenager and listen to this and zone out.

The Beatles
Let It Be... Naked
Apple, 2003

Watching the Beatles's Get Back documentary recently I kind of got obsessed with this and the process they went through making it. The original album had a whole bunch of things like Phil Spector strings on it, which never really bothered me, but the Naked version is apparently how they envisioned it originally. It's a lot more raw. Going back to the Sam Gendel album, some of this was recorded on the roof of a building in central London. It sounds amazing. And also Ringo Starr, he's so on point. Watching Get Back made me realise he just didn't put foot wrong. People put him down but I think Ringo is a great drummer and he's got a unique style.



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