The Future of Afrofuturism
July 30, 2019 | by Richard Scheinin
Shabaka Hutchings has three bands, a recording contract with a prestige label, and he seems never to not be touring. Off stage, the saxophonist is calm, friendly, a thoughtful conversationalist, and everybody wants to hear his opinions: What is jazz? Where is jazz headed? Are you a jazz musician? On stage, his saxophone playing is fierce, physical. It’s stripped down and intensely rhythm-driven, emulating freestyle rap or reaching for ecstatic jazz catharsis.
He is the face of the breakout jazz scene in London, England, where audiences are actually young. He’s 35, a voracious listener, and when asked to name a new UK band that recently inspired him, he mentions one called Dry Cleaning: “I couldn’t even tell you what the music is like, except that it sounds amazing. You might call it `rock,’ but it’s not rock like a rock beat. It’s interesting music that comes out of the rock area. Even rock, I don’t know that that means. It’s like the word jazz.”
There he is, improvising on a wooden flute to a track by Tupac, one of his heroes since childhood; or hanging out with Pharoah Sanders, a revered elder; or rehearsing a Stravinsky piece for solo clarinet that he’ll perform at a recital in Zurich. He plays drums. He’s an amazing bass clarinetist. Watch him in his hotel room, improvising a Coltrane reverie on his tenor saxophone. Watch him playing free-form improvisations with his friends from London’s community of electronic experimentalists. Watch him, again on tenor, as he gets down with drummers from Martinique and Johannesburg – or with saxophonist Nubya Garcia and other stars of London’s flourishing jazz scene. And mostly, watch him in front of festival crowds – young people, going crazy – as Hutchings performs with The Comet Is Coming, an aggressively punk-psychedelic electric groove trio, or with Sons of Kemet, his best-known band, whose Your Queen is a Reptile, on Impulse! Records, was one of last year’s big-buzz jazz albums. (The band plays on Aug. 7 at SFJAZZ.) With two drummers (Tom Skinner and Eddie Hick), an earth-shaking tuba player (Theon Cross, who must train for shows by running marathons) and Hutchings blasting away on tenor, Kemet is relentless, like jazz gone rave.
Just as saxophonist Kamasi Washington has come to represent the loose-knit, Los Angeles-based collective known as the West Coast Get Down, Hutchings has emerged as the symbol of London’s freewheeling jazz community.
A conservatory-trained musician, he has figured out a way to live the life of an artist while building an audience. He grew up on jazz proper – Charlie Parker tunes, Count Basie big band charts. Yet when asked for his thoughts on the highly unorthodox, youth-driven jazz scenes that have broken out in London, Los Angeles, Brooklyn, Warsaw, and even in Melbourne, Australia, he pauses, then lets out his response: “For a long time, there were a lot of individuals in America who were intent on definition – putting into people’s heads, `What is jazz?’” He pauses again, perhaps feeling a little frustrated by his spokesman status, always being asked to address the state of the music. “Really, who cares? I mean, at a certain point -- get a life! No one cares. And it’s come to the point where that feeling of `nobody cares’ is articulated through the music. I could care less whether something is jazz or not. I feel like for a long time there’s been a lot of half-assed explanations as to what jazz is or isn’t, but there’s now a general zeitgeist of, `We’re done explaining.’ We’re going to take the mood of the audience as a cue – and that’s not saying we have to dumb down for the audience. It’s just saying if you are looking at Coltrane, say, in terms of technique and how harmonically he got from one place to another, you might not be listening to how he’s blowing the shit out of the saxophone. It’s not so much about the intricacies of the phrase; it’s about the intention.”
Hutchings has described his own intention like this: “What I’m interested in is the power of music and the power of rhythmic information to make people sit up.” Music begins as a celebration and hopefully then proceeds to higher levels where, he says, “I can lose my shit and just fly away” – and where the audience can go on a similar journey. “The basic point I’d like to get the audience to,” Hutchings says, “is where they can see that it’s not about being cool or it’s not about dancing and it’s not about anything like that. It’s about reaching a new feeling, and having it heightened.”
Named for the Egyptian pharaoh Neferkare Shabaka, Hutchings was born in London and lived as a young boy in the city of Birmingham, in England’s West Midlands. At age six, he moved Barbados, where his parents were raised, and where he began soaking up soca and calypso culture. He started on clarinet at age nine, steadily progressing through his classical studies, though Hutchings also enjoyed playing calypso, reggae and pop tunes with friends. On Instagram, Hutchings recently posted a newspaper photo, published during his early high school years in Barbados. It shows him on his knees, playing the saxophone – which he had taken up around age 14 - for an audience of adoring classmates: “I entered the school pageant playing Brian McKnight’s song “Back at One,’” the hit R&B ballad, he explains in the Instagram post. “I had the whole routine: play the melody and chorus, take a solo, hold a sustained high note until the audience goes wild.”
When he was 16, the family returned to Birmingham where Hutchings got into jazz. He played in a high school big band that toured the Midlands, performing charts by Ellington, Basie, Artie Shaw, Stan Kenton and Maynard Ferguson. He also came under the wing of the great, Birmingham-based saxophonist Soweto Kinch, who was melding hip-hop and jazz. Hutchings’ own playing at this point was “crap,” he once insisted, wondering what the older musician saw in him. But Kinch became an important mentor, introducing him to countless jazz albums and bringing him into weekly jam sessions. His influence on Hutchings still resounds: Kinch showed him, Hutchings has said, that “making jazz is about trying to reclaim the coolness and relevance of the music in the eyes of the general public.”
Throughout this period, Hutchings continued his classical clarinet studies: “I was never going to be a person who did only one thing,” he says, speaking by phone from his home in London. He moved there in 2004, when he was admitted to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, one of Europe’s major conservatories. An only child, Hutchings had always enjoyed practicing the clarinet in solitude: “That could be playing ii-V-I exercises in a Jamey Aebersold book,” he says, “or it could be learning a Brahms sonata, trying to understand what all these pieces mean and what the composers were about – learning the rules and the structures and then applying that to what you do. I’ve always been of the attitude that the more time you put into something, the more you get out of it. So I was really just enjoying playing the clarinet from the perspective of becoming a well-rounded musician. In London, you need all the skills you can get. That might mean reading really well and being able to play in a West End musical band or in a funk band at a wedding. I did everything from Indian Bollywood-type festivals to film scores. I even one time did an advertisement for New York City health care, a Benny Goodman-type thing, which I recorded in London.”
Hutchings has always listened widely: Caribbean music, South African music, Coltrane, Fela, Biggie, Tupac, Charlie Parker, Eric Dolphy, all kinds of electronic music and contemporary classical music. There’s a danger in trying to absorb all this musical information: “How do you navigate through it?” he asks. “The issue is attention – focusing. In terms of learning lots and lots of jazz, bebop language, there might be a point in my career where I thought, `This isn’t the language that I want to speak right now.’ Because you can go down a rabbit hole, speaking other people’s languages. And every time I get to that point with a particular kind of music, say, free improvisation” – he has played with Evan Parker, Steve Beresford, John Butcher and other heavies – “at a certain point, I focus and say, `That’s enough.’ I enjoy those kinds of junctures, where you have to kind of step back and reflect on the relationship of what you’re doing to the canon and the tradition.”
Founded in 2011, Sons of Kemet emerged during one of those step-back moments, while Hutchings was working to reimagine the vocabulary of bebop. He has described alto saxophonist Charlie Parker as a boxer, whose improvised lines are full of jabbing “micro-phrases” that “interweave and interact” with drummer Max Roach, “creating a vocabulary that can be considered outside of the confines of harmony.” Drawing connections between bebop and hip-hop while moving toward his own rhythm-driven vocabulary, Hutchings has aimed to “disappear within the band, so it’s one movement, moving forward as one rhythmic entity.”
Sons of Kemet
That’s his general approach, though he still distinguishes between the personalities of his various groups. Because he composes all the material for Sons of Kemet, he is constantly “thinking about the music and how to make it better” during performances. “For instance, 40 or 50 minutes into a set, everyone’s getting tired, so there’s got to be a natural trajectory that reflects that – or pushes against that. It’s about how you can keep the pace, gauge yourself, conserve your energy over long periods of time.”
By contrast, The Comet Is Coming is a collective trio -- saxophone, keyboards and drums -- in which Hutchings can more fully “concentrate on how far I want to push the music. Because I’m released from the responsibility of leadership, I think that heightens my ability to lose my shit and just fly away.”
He also plays with a third band: Shabaka and the Ancestors, which is “almost the opposite of Comet. It’s not as bombastic; it’s not a festival band. We’re taking a journey from what might be considered `spiritual jazz.’” The group, built around musicians from South Africa, plays a kind of acoustic incantation music; it feels ritualistic, connected to the jazz of Pharoah Sanders or Chicago-based percussionist Kahil El’Zabar. “There’s a lot of dynamism in that band,” Hutchings comments. “There’s power in a different way.”
Shabaka and the Ancestors
With any of these groups, once a performance passes through the ignition stage, things tend to intensify. Recently, Hutchings finished an album with Shabaka and the Ancestors, scheduled for release on Impulse! early next year: “We sat down and listened back,” he remembers, “and it sounded so intense that we had to reel it back a little. Track by track, it sounded great. But the whole thing – it was exhausting! When you’re in the middle of it, it’s impossible to gauge what’s going on in terms of the overall arc. Then you get it mastered and you listen to it and think, `Oh my God, this is too much!’ And that’s not necessarily the feeling that I want people to come away with. I want them to listen again and again.”
Hutchings has additional projects mapped out. The next album by Sons of Kemet, also due out next year, is largely in the can. It probably will be followed by a recording from The Comet Is Coming, after which Hutchings would like to make a duo album – just saxophone and electronics, “something less strenuous” – as well as “a proper recording” of classical compositions he has composed for orchestra and string quartet.
That’s a lot of musical information to organize, and Hutchings once again is paying attention to his situation. He is staying focused: “With touring and success, different issues arise,” he says. “There are new concerns: How do I maintain some kind of integrity artistically when I’m playing on big festival stages that demand a certain kind of crowd hype? How do you not lose the nuance in the music? How do you continue to play creatively when you have to play every single night?”
He draws inspiration from new artists, regardless of genre: “Have you heard of Circuit des Yeux?” he asks, referring to a project by Chicago-based singer-guitarist Haley Fohr. “I saw her in the Netherlands and she blew me away. It feels like she’s very comfortable going into that space where she can allow the music to take over. You get the sense that she’s surrendering to the music. She lets go, and what she gives to the audience is a reflection of her, and that’s what I’m trying to do -- trying to get to a similar kind of psychological space.”
Likewise, Hutchings is paying attention to advice given him by saxophonist Marshall Allen, the 95-year-old leader of the Sun Ra Arkestra.
Sun Ra – the late big band leader and keyboardist who often is described as a pioneer of Afrofuturism – was “all about bringing poetry and myth back into the music, instead of jazz being this impenetrable juggernaut,” Hutchings says. Indeed, Sun Ra made albums with titles like Astro Black, Art Forms of Dimensions Tomorrow, Solar Myth Approach and The Nubians of Plutonia. His ancient-to-the-future cosmology resonates with Hutchings and with his various bands: “Kemet,” one of the names for ancient Egypt, translates as “black land.” Sun Ra’s theatrical presentation – he performed with fire eaters; singers; percussionists galore – finds a 21st-century reflection in The Comet Is Coming’s playful persona. Its members have taken stage names: Hutchings is King Shabaka; keyboardist Dan Leavers is Danalogue; drummer Max Hallett is Betamax.
Sun Ra died in 1993, but the Arkestra keeps touring, with Marshall Allen as leader. Hutchings has performed with the band half a dozen times, and he recalls Allen’s appraisal of his playing: “He told me, `Don’t think, play! I know you’re thinking and it’s holding you back.’ Because as a musician, you should be acting and reacting; there isn’t time to be thinking it through. In some ways, it’s nerve-wracking, because you have the possibility of playing something that nobody likes and nobody wants to hear. But, look,” Hutchings says, “I’m going to do whatever my instinct tells me is appropriate.”
He’s going to lose his shit and fly away.
A staff writer at SFJAZZ, Richard Scheinin is a lifelong journalist. He was the San Jose Mercury News' classical music and jazz critic for more than a decade and has profiled scores of public figures, from Ike Turner to Tony La Russa and the Dalai Lama.