In Conversation: Shabaka Hutchings

Sons Of Kemet saxophonist picks apart the meaning of royalty, the future of jazz...

With a breathful intensity that coarses through his tenor saxophone, Shabaka Hutchings’ playing is instantly recognisable on his many projects.

From frequently guesting with cosmic jazz legends the Sun Ra Arkestra to his work with punk-jazz ensemble Melt Yourself Down, the synth-fusion of the Mercury Prize-nominated Comet Is Coming and the free jazz of his South African project Shabaka and the Ancestors, Hutchings is a chameleon of the genre.

Like any chameleon, surface appearances may change but the underlying substance remains. This very changeability belies the fluidity of jazz, a genre which Hutchings only discovered upon returning to England after having spent a decade in Barbados and subsequently trading his classical clarinet for mentorships under Soweto Kinch and Courtney Pine.

Musical directing the ‘We Out Here’ compilation of London jazz on Gilles Peterson’s Brownswood label last month, Hutchings is now a mentor of sorts to this new generation, as much influenced by his idols of Pharoah Sanders and Sonny Rollins, as they are by his own career.

His latest project takes on loftier ambitions than just jazz though, it is a scathing critique of the monarchy we live under: ‘Your Queen Is A Reptile’. Recorded with his Sons of Kemet group, featuring the tuba of ‘We Out Here’’s Theon Cross and the double drums of Tom Skinner and Seb Rochford, Hutchings combines the lassitude of dub with a propulsive swing in putting forward his vision of ‘alternative queens’ to replace our own.

We spoke to Hutchings ahead of the album release about comparing the ‘myth’ of monarchy with the myth of the reptilian illuminati, shape-shifting through different projects, and melding minimal electronica with jazz.

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You wrote an opinion piece on the MOBOs failing the UK jazz scene in 2016 – do you feel like the tide has turned now and that jazz is more commercially accepted?

The jazz genre is definitely getting more love now. The music doesn’t seem as precious as it was 10 years ago, people aren’t trying to hit you over the head with their jazz stick whether you like it or not!

I never used to like jazz as a kid and I can see what it is about it that can push people away. What got me into it was recognising coherency: a melody, a bassline, a groove, something to hold onto which I could then see the complexity through. We’re trying to find a way to bring that to people who might not associate themselves with jazz and that's an exciting challenge.

You studied classical clarinet growing up, what was it that made you cross over to the saxophone and jazz when you returned to England?

The main thing that got me into jazz was seeing it live. I met Soweto Kinch and played in his jam session in Birmingham every week for about two years. It was amazing to see his intensity, to practice with him and to see how he relates to American jazz musicians. Soweto always used to refer to jazz albums as records containing ‘information’ that he needed to decode and then get out to the audience.

I view many jazz albums like that, ones that I will listen to repeatedly because there’s information in the lines that the saxophonist or drummer is playing and that I want to learn. Records like ‘Saxophone Colossus’ by Sonny Rollins or ‘Night At The Village Vanguard’ I’ve been listening to for many, many years.

It’s my job to unpick that information and then present it within a context that a listener who isn’t a jazz aficionado might appreciate – in that way the information can be carried on regardless.

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You were the musical director for ‘We Out Here’, what was that process like?

In some ways it was easy because all the bands had their own identity. We had three hours to record each group, three bands per day for three days. There’s a specific art to recording in such a small amount of time. The first two Sons of Kemet albums were recorded in two days and Comet Is Coming took five days for an album and EP.

You have to spend lots of time in post-production and also conceptually before to know what you want to get down. The studio isn’t the time to be labouring – the labour happens before and after – the studio is about getting out what you want to say.

How do you go about transitioning from project to project? For instance, going from playing free rhythms with the Ancestors group to then playing with two drummers in Sons of Kemet?

I learn from each project and it all goes in cycles of influence. With the Ancestors, not being able to rely on the drummer to give me a solid beat means that your internal rhythm has to be present – everyone has to be a drummer. So, my role becomes about propelling the music, it’s not about the beat, it’s about forward momentum and being able to tap into that. When I then play with Kemet and we have two drummers you end up pushing it even harder.

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Did that sense of forward momentum play into your improvised work with Sarathy Korwar and Hieroglyphic Being on last year’s A.R.E Project?

When I was asked to be a part of that project I had been listening to a lot of Actress and thinking about how I could develop a saxophone line that didn't progress in terms of climax as I had done previously.

I often find in jazz, you have small areas of climax and then diminishment. But with recordings like John Coltrane's ‘Live at the Half Note’ where he's soloing for 20 minutes and it starts at a climax point and the intensity keeps building, there isn't a moment where the momentum drops. In some ways, that's how I'd like to approach my compositions, in a longer form like minimal electronic music.

You’ve named the tracks on your latest record, ‘Your Queen Is A Reptile’, after ‘alternative queens’ like Angela Davis and Ada Eastman; what makes a worthy queen for you?

The first thing to understand is that they're not your queens, they're mine. They're people who have subjectively influenced me and given me inspiration, people who are leading me or who I might want to be led by. Whereas, if you look at the Queen we have in the UK, I don't particularly feel that I'm being led by her other than that I've been told she is the Queen.

You need a continual process of appraising your leader's qualities and analysing where their historical narrative fits into your life.

What effect do you want the record to have on its listeners?

The reason I called the record ‘Your Queen Is A Reptile’ is because I’m trying to provoke my listeners to consider who their queen is and the role of myth in the fact of us even having a queen.

Sun Ra talks about how oppressed communities lose the power to create their own mythological structures or the power to dictate which elements of society are accepted as super-reality. We have an implicit faith in processes that we don’t fully understand, like the fact that some families have superiority by birth-right, which is at the basis of hereditary monarchy.

By presenting the monarchy in the light of another more ridiculous myth, we force the listener to consider the comprehendible myth of their being a monarchy in itself.

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Sons Of Kemet will release new album 'Your Queen Is A Reptile' on March 30th.

Words: Ammar Kalia

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