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January/February 2005

Soweto Kinch
Conversations With the Unseen
Dune Records

Out of Birmingham, England, Soweto Kinch (age 25) is an artist of a new sort-a rapper, but also an alto saxophonist who clearly has imbibed everything from Bird through Osby. His Conversations With the Unseen is far from the first attempt at hybridizing jazz and hip-hop. What distinguishes it is that it isn't really a hybrid at all, but rather a jazz album with a discrete hip-hop component.

After his two-minute rap "Intro" (a standard hip-hop device), Kinch launches into a spiky head called "Doxology" with his quartet-Femi Temowo on guitar, Michael Olatuja on bass, Troy Miller on drums. Kinch's tone is bright, his attack aggressive, his flow of ideas seamless. Temowo favors a dry vintage sound that brings Liberty Ellman to mind. Together, Kinch and Temowo play unison figures exceptionally well, and Kinch has made sure to privilege that sound throughout the recording.

The hip-hop aesthetic doesn't return until track six, "Intermission-Split Decision," an eight-minute rap interlude. Everything but the concluding "Good Nyooz" and "Outro" is straightahead jazz, from Kinch's own pen. It's adventurous and well-executed, with the hard-swinging drive of classic Blue Note, the rhythmic surprise of early Wynton Marsalis and the searching spirit of things yet to come. "Snakehips" and "Mungo's Adventure" have a certain Rollins-like playfulness, which is balanced by the dark, balladic texture of the title track and the epic sweep of "Equiano's Tears." Eska Mtungwazi's scat/neo-soul vocal on "Good Nyooz" is startling in its virtuosity.

In the liners, Kinch is quoted as follows: "It wasn't alien to Louis Armstrong to put down his horn... and sing.... I don't see why spoken word shouldn't be compatible with improvisation." Kinch is hardly alone in that view, but unlike Roy Hargrove, Andy Milne, Matt Shipp and other experimenters in hip-hop, Kinch is able to serve as his own MC. It'll be fascinating to see where he takes this next.

Originally published in January/February 2005
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