Soweto Kinch had a banner year in 2004, winning accolade after accolade in his native U.K. But to hear the alto saxophonist tell it, his most momentous experience was an autumn sojourn at his aunt's house in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, USA. Kinch arrived in late September and stayed nearly through the end of the year-interrupting the visit only once, for a festival gig in Finland. While in the Big Apple, he mainly kept a low profile, haunting jam sessions and simply taking in the scene.
"I think New York certainly strengthened a single-minded quality in myself," Kinch reflects by phone, a week after returning home to Birmingham, England. "There are so many great players that there's more onus and incentive to be an individual-to find those qualities in your playing that help you to stand out."
Kinch has actually had no problem standing out since the release of his solo debut, Conversations With the Unseen. Originally issued by the British indie label Dune in 2003, the album found U.S. distribution in September '04, a few weeks before Kinch's Stateside arrival. Conversations has helped the saxophonist earn a clutch of honors-including a BBC Radio Jazz Award, an Urban Music Award and the prestigious Mercury Music Prize-along with a widespread reputation as the Next Big Thing in British Jazz (at least among those who recognize crooner Jamie Cullum for the savvy pop entity he is).
The saxophonist takes such proclamations in stride. "I'd seem a little pretentious getting up on my own soapbox as a spokesperson for anything," he cautions, with a laugh. "But I know there are so many potential great innovators cut short because of convention in this country. And I'd like to inspire people to do something different-something alternative to what's being posited as 'black' or 'young' or 'urban.'"
Those keywords are telling; Kinch is avowedly focused on forging a jazz approximation of young black urban music. His album begins with a hip-hop invocation that owes much to A Tribe Called Quest-an impression that's only strengthened by Kinch's lackadaisical verbal flow and offhanded rhymes. Conversations is interspersed with similar asides, most notably "Intermission-Split Decision," a parable that has its narrator choosing between two love interests (metaphorically, jazz and hip-hop) and discovering that "these two separate women is just one and the same."
Still, Kinch is a jazzhead first and foremost: His recent single, "Jazz Planet," imagines a world in which beboppers reap fame and fortune while boy bands scrape to make ends meet. Throughout Conversations, his quartet engages in a loose-limbed yet intelligent brand of postbop. The band's sax-guitar frontline vaguely recalls the mid-'60s Sonny Rollins group featuring Jim Hall, particularly on Caribbean-flavored fare like "Mungo's Adventure." Elsewhere Kinch and crew mine Lee Konitz introspection ("Elision") and post-Coltrane modality ("Equiano's Tears"). Kinch himself has a tart but full-bodied alto saxophone sound, suggestive of many influences but ultimately free of them. His strengths as a jazz musician outweigh his skills as a rapper, but no matter: He's selling the total package.
"I set out in the first album just to be truthful about all the different forms of music that I've absorbed," Kinch says. "I actually thought about excluding the hip-hop thing, because it might alienate a jazz audience." What sold him on an organic integration of the two styles was a gig several years ago with London-based singer Eska Mtungwazi. "Her approach was just: 'Play a song according to the mood that it evokes in people,' rather than second-guessing what an audience can or can't deal with, which is actually quite patronizing.'" Mtungwazi makes a soul-scatting guest turn on Conversations, with a track called "Good Nyooz."
Kinch was born into international culture: His father is a Barbadian playwright and his mother a British-Jamaican actress. He himself earned a B.A. in modern history from Oxford before turning to music full-time. He attributes his self-taught saxophone style to numerous forbears, many of them British: "It's been built on the music not just of African-American musicians, but also African West Indian musicians who were born here in Britain: Courtney Pine, Steve Williamson, Gary Crosby." Kinch cites Williamson's early-'90s work with the hip-hop band the Roots as a precursor to his own hybrid; Pine and Crosby have both served as actual personal mentors. The latter leads the Jazz Jamaica All Stars big band, in which Kinch plays. (The band's album Massive is another Dune release to have recently reached the U.S. market.)
Early in December '04, Kinch capped his New York residency with a showcase gig at the Jazz Gallery that generated major buzz and a rave from the New York Times. He began 2005 preparing for his next album, which he says will continue to build on the jazz/hip-hop idea. Asked whether his foreign exchange trip will have influenced the new music, Kinch doesn't hesitate: "Definitely. Absolutely. You'll hear it, whether in my playing or in the lyrics. I think New York's left an indelibly good impression on me." Nate Chinen