2016 is turning into an epic year for Shabaka Hutchings.
Whether performing John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme with The Enlightenment Ensemble, producing cosmic-electro-jazz with The Comet is Coming, laying down electro-jazz-punk with Melt Yourself Down or exploring emancipatory spiritual jazz with the best South Africa’s young lions, The thirty-two-year-old saxophone and clarinet prodigy from the United Kingdom has been grabbing attention everywhere.
His main musical outlet, Sons of Kemet, dropped their stunning second album Lest We Forget What We Came Here To Do in September last year to critical acclaim.
In Hutchings’ short career he has featured on film soundtracks composed by Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood, several albums by hip-hop/jazz/funk outfit The Heliocentrics, young Johannesburg jazz band The Amandla Freedom Ensemble’s debut album and even a fusion record exploring a hybrid of Indian classical and electronic music.
On stage he has ripped it up with Ethiopian jazz legend Mulatu Astatke, 70s Nigerian funk star Orlando Julius, Nigerian JUJU star King Sunny Ade, Blue Notes drummer Louis Moholo and a host of American and British jazz veterans like Charlie Haden, Jack DeJohnette and Courtney Pine.
Hutchings’ star is on the rise and nothing reflects that more than his recent Mercury Award nomination.
In mid-September the annual Mercury Award winner will be announced. The award is the equivalent of literature’s Booker Prize. There are twelve albums nominated this year, including the latest albums by Anohni, David Bowie, Laura Mvula, Radiohead and Kano.
On that list is an album, Channel the Spirits, by a new band, The Comet Is Coming — an appropriate name, indeed. Released in April this year, Channel the Spirits is filled with psychedelic space-age jazz and primal, muscular grooves.
For an album this avant-garde, it’s surprisingly accessible. Downright addictive, if I had to testify. The comet has come to feed our minds and feet in one sitting, a soundtrack to fuel our dance towards oblivion.
The album inhabits a world where the cosmic jazz of Sun-Ra, John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders, rub up against dark industrial-strength synth work and Can’s kosmische funk grooves.
A world where Fela Kuti and Tony Allen’s Afrobeat battles King Tubby’s dub for the soul of the dance floor.
Hutchings has gone from playing session musician to Radiohead’s Greenwood in 2012 to challenging his band for the Mercury Award in 2016.
But when the Mercury Prize is announced Hutchings will have an eye on his new baby, the album Wisdom of Elders by his new band, The Ancestors. The album was launched in Johannesburg this week and will see a global release in mid-September.
So who are the Ancestors?
Well South African jazz fans will recognise several names.
Drummer Tumi Mogorosi, bassist Ariel Zamonsky, percussionist Gontse Makhene, alto-saxophonist Mthunzi Mvubu, trumpeter Mandla Mlangeni, The Brother Moves On vocalist Siyabonga Mthembu and Nduduzo Makhathini on Rhodes piano.
The band is a roll-call of Johannesburg’s most promising young jazz lions.
So why these guys?
“It’s a vibe thing,” says Hutchings, after the test pressing of the new vinyl album stops spinning. “I wanted the album to capture us just enjoying playing music together.”
And if you were at The Orbit las Friday night at the launch of the album, you would have seen the joy that Hutchings is talking about, manifested in Mlangeni, who was dancing on the back of the band stand with a huge grin on his face as his band mates cut loose.
The horns section of Mvubu, Mlangeni and Hutchings were impressive at The Orbit, a fascinating conversation of voices, which will grow as this band hits the road to tour South Africa and abroad.
However it was Hutchings that left audiences picking their jaws off the floor.
Shy and reserved off-stage, Hutchings is a tornado of sound on it.
Mlangeni was the first Ancestor that Hutchings met, in Cape Town in 2012, through the latter’s then-partner, who was studying with Mlangeni at the University of Cape Town.
They were soon playing shows together — and beginning a musical conversation.
On Wisdom of the Elders, Mlangeni stars with some discordant trumpet work on the ten minute groove-monster Natty, a highlight on the album which sees Mogorosi channeling Tony Allen.
Mogorosi was the next Ancestor to hook up with Hutchings: “As soon as I played with him, I was like, ‘This is my guy,’” says Hutchings. He adds that Mogorosi reminds him of free-jazz drummers like Mark Sanders, Tony Marsh and Roger Turner:
“He uses the drum as a sonic thing to hit,” says Hutchings. “When he does groove, he is grooving, but he is not a groove drummer.”
Mogorosi was monumental at the launch, a beast unleashed. His work on the album, however, is more restrained and considered.
The rhythm section of Mogorosi, Zamonsky and Makhene is the beating heart of this band, gently shifting the rhythms up and down gears to create the perfect platform for the horn players to weave their magic over.
Hutchings favourite song from the new album is Give Thanks, an eight-minute duet that resulted from himself and Mogorosi hanging out alone, waiting for the other musicians to arrive at the recording studio.
The next Ancestor Hutchings met was Makhathini.
This was after Makhathini played a show with Malcolm Jiyani in Cape Town.
The musicians chatted after the gig and a few months later Hutchings was flying from London to Lagos to play a show with the young South African pianist.
“I didn’t want Nduduzo to have that South African jazz sound on this album,” says Hutchings. “So I didn’t give him the music beforehand and I made him play Rhodes and go for colour, rather than the piano and the history.”
It is a masterstroke as Makhathini’s touches splash colour in all the right places, often giving the music a psychedelic quality, particularly on the six-minute Joyous and the five-minute Obs.
Another Ancestor that turns in star performances is Mthembu, The Brother Moves On’s lead singer.
“I played with Siya with The Brother Moves On and I heard his singing and I thought that’s what I want, that’s what I want on the album,” says Hutchings.
Mthembu is magnificent on three of the album’s compositions, with his offering on The Observer, stealing the show.
“The Brother Moves On blew me away when I saw them the first time,” says Hutchings. “I had never heard music like that before, it didn’t sound like what we thought South African music was.”
What is South African music? Whatever it is exactly, the young musicians that make up Hutchings new band The Ancestors are at the forefront of redefining it.
“We need new hymns, we need new songs,” Mthembu repeated as the band swirled around him at the launch.
Hutchings was born in the UK to a single mother who made a living as a teacher, before the family moved to Barbados when he was six.
“I felt like an outsider, because I was the English guy and so I retreated into myself and felt comfortable with being alone,” says Hutchings. “Also I was an only child.”
He says the next ten years in Barbados was a journey towards feeling like he belonged there and then just as he felt he did, he moved back to the UK at the age of sixteen.
“Maybe psychologically that resulted in me breaking with the idea of roots and belonging, which is something that I don’t have,” he says.
He began to play recorder in the school band out of “boredom” and then graduated to clarinet. Hutchings’ mother tried to encourage him by getting him to listen to jazz at the age of thirteen, but he says he thought it was “rubbish.”
His first real musical connection was with rapper Tupac Shakur: “It wasn’t about the words, it was how he was saying them,” says Hutchings.
Then at the age of fifteen, one of his mother’s work colleagues gave him a bunch of tapes, which included Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue and My Funny Valentine; Miles Davis in Concert, as well as albums by Greg Osby, the Caribbean Jazz Project and Grover Washington Jr.
Hutchings says he consumed them and began to experiment with improvisation on his clarinet. A year later, after he had moved back to the UK, he began scouring libraries, loaning out four new albums every week.
He discovered Bheki Mseleku’s album Celebration, which blew his mind. Hutchings had picked it up because of Courtney Pine’s name on the sleeve and he credits the album with significantly increasing his understanding of how vast jazz could be.
A song titled Joyous, which was inspired by Mseleku, was composed back then by Hutchings: “It’s a really old composition, I’ve played it over the years when doing shows, but never with a band,” he says.
It has finally been recorded on the new album; Hutchings says this is the first band where the song felt right.
While consuming jazz wherever he could, Hutchings began to sit in with senior musicians, wanting to learn. He found some great mentors.
He describes the experience of playing and recording with Mulatu Astatke over two years as a pivotal point in his songwriting career as Astatke taught him about simplicity and harmony.
“He can write a tune that goes down a whole page and it would be five notes,” he says.
When the Heliocentrics hooked up with Orlando Julius in France for the start of a tour, Hutchings was there to and later travelled to Lagos to play with the funk legend.
“It made a lot of sense,” he says. “I learnt about the back and forth between James Brown and West Africa.”
However he remembers another style of jazz education metered out to him by Moholo.
“The first time I played with Louis, I remember coming away from the gig feeling really weird, really dirty,” says Hutchings. “Like I couldn’t understand what had just happened.”
“He wasn’t really playing with me, it was just dark and weird,” he says. “I listened back to the recording of the gig and I realised that he was playing around the corners of the big scheme of what I was playing, without me realising it’s a scheme,” says Hutchings. “He was pushing me from side to side, offsetting me without me realising it.
“I had been doing improv work for a while, but I hadn’t come across his technique of psychologically freaking you out on stage,” he says. “So I thought I don’t like that and the next time I went to play with him, I decided I was going to blow at him, like fighting him, so he can’t stand around the sides of what I am doing,” says Hutchings.
“I wanted to confront him, I wanted to outplay him,” says Hutchings. “And then he just lit up and we played really well.”
“If you don’t have a strong personality he will impose on you,” he says. “His approach is you either come at me or I am going to make you feel really insecure.”
When talking about his music and different projects, Hutchings often uses the terms “full circle” or “connecting all the dots”.
Like when he speaks about the decision to use Mzwandile Buthelezi to do the artwork for the album, an artist who has made covers for many of the members of his band.
Mzwandile is also the South African name that Moholo gave him, and the title of the opening song on the album.
From his early days as an eighteen year-old clarinet player listening to Bheki Mseleku in the UK, through the young saxophonist being intimidated on stage by Louis Moholo, to the confident thirty-two year-old musician who has come to Johannesburg to launch his new album recorded with South Africans in South Africa
Perhaps there is something of a circle being completed for Shabaka Hutchings in 2016.
Main Photograph: Shabaka Hutchings channels the ancestors — by Nicola Antonazzo