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Indispensable Feature Story: Shabaka Hutchings

by Kristine England

Much of the creativity being showcased in the jazz world is happening in the UK, and at the center of that musical community is tenor saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings. Born in London, he spent most of his childhood in his parents’ native Barbados. The diversity of the people and cultures of those two locales helped shaped his musical identity.

Picking up a clarinet at the age of nine, Hutchings would play along to his favorite hip-hop artists, including the Notorious BIG, Nas, and Tupac. He returned to England to study classical music on the instrument and not only earned his degree but also a coveted spot in the Tomorrow’s Warriors program.  Other members have included Nubya Garcia, Moses Boyd, and future bandmate Theon Cross.

The much-lauded Sons of Kemet came together in 2011. With Hutchings now on sax as well as clarinet, the band was originally comprised of a stable of drummers Tom Skinner, Seb Rochford, and Eddie Hick. Oren Marshall on tuba (later replaced by Theon Cross). Rochford later left the group, but the quartet continues to record and play live.

Sons of Kemet have been huge contributors to the London jazz scene, first releasing  Burn in 2013 and Lest We Forget What We Came Here To Do in 2015. Signing to legendary Impulse Records, the Sons released our Queen Is a Reptile in 2018. The group’s latest, Black to the Future, was released in 2021. “Sons of Kemet’s fourth album is [Hutchings’]  most outgoing and evangelical yet, but it carries no trace of compromise…Sons of Kemet’s music is as rooted in the brass-laden carnivals of the Caribbean and London garage raves as it is in the more established American traditions.”  

As is often the case in jazz, musicians splinter off into other groups, leading some and lending their talents as sidemen.  Sometimes a concurrent project takes on a life of its own with a new member.  Both Hutchings and Skinner joined Melt Yourself Down, a collective founded by Pete Wareham (also on tenor) in 2012. Other members included vocalist Kushal Gaya, bassist Ruth Goller, and percussionist Satin Singh. With Melt Yourself Down, Hutchings recorded two albums: 2013’s eponymous debut and 2016’s Last Evenings On Earth.

He started going to see the psychedelic/electronica duo Soccer96 with Betamax Killer and Danalogue the Conqueror. Showing up with saxophone in tow he sat in with the two one night. Betamax Killer described the performance: “When he got up on stage to play with us it, created an explosive shockwave of energy that stunned us all.” A few weeks later, the trio booked three days at a studio, and the result was The Comet is Coming, a psychedelic, electronic avant-garde jazz journey into the cosmos. The group released two singles in 2016, “Neon Baby” and “Do the Milky Way,” which eventually ended up on the Prophecy EP along with three other tunes, including  “Star Exploding in Slow Motion,” which at just over 6 ½ minutes, is not nearly long enough.

The trio’s full-length debut was issued in 2016, Channel the Spirits, followed by the EP, Death to the Planet, in 2017. The trio released another record, Trust in the Lifeforce of the Deep Mystery in 2019, and a “companion piece” titled The Afterlife the same year. “there’s something in the way the Comet Is Coming skewers the typical jazz trio that stands apart from his other projects. “ -- Pitchfork 

The Comet Is Coming 

"Summon The Fire"

Yet another project is Shabaka and the Ancestors, which released Wisdom of Elders on Gilles Peterson's Brownswood Recordings in 2016, followed by We Are Sent Here by History in 2020.

In 2021 he was commissioned by the London Sinfonietta, an English contemporary chamber orchestra. “This collaboration is a continuation of my ongoing musical endeavour to re/decontextualise my core musical language and present it in situations which push the players and audience members alike to reimagine the musical vernacular of the Afro Caribbean diaspora." - Shabaka Hutchings.

In May 2022, he released his first solo recording, an EP titled Afrikan Culture. Hutchings explains that the project was created "around the idea of meditation and what it means for me to still my own mind and accept the music which comes to the surface. It features various types of Shakuhachi flutes and a new technique of creating that I’ve been experimenting with in layering many flutes together to create a forest of sound where melodies and rhythms float in space and emerge in glimpses." 

He's currently on the road with Sons of Kemet on what he announced would be the last tour for the foreseeable future. 

What his next move will be is anyone’s guess. This article will be out of date in a week, probably. Shabaka is more than a musician. He’s a force of nature, and the music world is richer for it.

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