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Shabaka Hutchings: Before & After

The saxophonist tunes in from London via Zoom for a varied listening session featuring Lakecia Benjamin, Art Blakey, Pharoah Sanders, and Courtney Pine

Shabaka Hutchings
Shabaka Hutchings (photo: Pierrick Guidou)

That American audiences rarely get to experience the full extent of jazz talent from other countries is no secret, and nothing new. The door into the U.S. has never swung with the same ease as the one leading out. Consider the British scene of the past 60 years. For every George Shearing, John McLaughlin, and Jamie Cullum who established themselves in America with regular touring schedules and recordings, there were deserving players like Johnny Dankworth, Joe Harriott, and Django Bates who did not. A few succeeded by relocating here—Marian McPartland, Dave Holland—and some managed a Stateside presence for a few years but unfairly faded, like Tubby Hayes in the ’60s and two other saxophonists, Courtney Pine and Soweto Kinch, in the ’90s and ’00s. This fact is not lost on Shabaka Hutchings, whose career continues to defy the historical odds, even as he faces the challenges peculiar to 2020. “I can see it’s a matter of, ‘Can you keep coming?’ and if there’s a way of being able to front the cost for the visa,” he says, “because it’s a lot more expensive for us to come over to the U.S. than it is the other way around.”

Though born in London in 1984, Hutchings grew up in Barbados from the age of six, and returned to live in Birmingham as a teenager. The now London-based saxophonist clearly has the energy needed to keep plugging away, along with a profound sense of purpose. One can intuit that from the number of recordings he’s released (eight albums in the past seven years!) by the three ensembles he currently helms: Sons of Kemet, The Comet Is Coming, and Shabaka and the Ancestors. One can read it in album titles like Lest We Forget What We Came Here to Do, Wisdom of Elders, and We Are Sent by History (echoing the bold declarations of Ornette Coleman’s initial releases). One can hear his commitment in the urgency and topicality of the music itself, which has earned him a berth as a banner artist on the revived Impulse! imprint.

As the 36-year old Hutchings’ reputation continues to build on these shores, so the spotlight has widened to include other players in the current London scene. Saxophonist Nubya Garcia, tubist Theon Cross (a member of Sons of Kemet), drummer Moses Boyd, and groups like Kokoroko, Nérija, Maisha, and Ezra Collective are all becoming known to American critics and fans alike. To many, Hutchings is the leading edge of this new British generation, a role that producer and early supporter Gilles Peterson reinforced when he invited the saxophonist to curate the worthy 2018 compilation album We Out Here. (It’s worth mentioning that the vast majority of these musicians are products of London’s long-running Tomorrow’s Warriors jazz education and career development program, founded in 1991 by bassist Gary Crosby and manager/producer Janine Irons. More on them to follow.)

One hopes that neither time nor the coronavirus will deter the Shabaka juggernaut, as his words and performances make plain that his work is far from reaching a plateau. This was his first Before & After, and in line with other virtual gatherings conducted during the crisis, it was done as a Zoom meeting, open to any who wished to witness his reaction to the music. Happily, the videoconferencing platform supported the demands of this exercise, delivering sufficient sonic detail and dynamics, and more than 40 fans joined the two-hour event (which you can watch in full on JazzTimes‘ YouTube channel). Hutchings started off revealing his current lockdown listening. “I recently got that new Pulled by Magnets album. It’s [drummer/producer] Seb Rochford’s new group, so I’ll be listening to that a bit,” Hutchings said. “Also Coltrane, the ’63 box set, and I’ve given that a big listen.”


Listen below to a Spotify playlist featuring some of the songs in this Before & After session with Shabaka Hutchings.

1. Lakecia Benjamin
“Spiral” (Pursuance: The Coltranes, Ropeadope). Benjamin and Steve Wilson, alto saxophones; Sharp Radway, piano; John Benitez, bass; Marcus Gilmore, drums. Recorded in 2019.

BEFORE: [Near the end of Benjamin’s solo] See just there, that repeated note? That’s one of the things that I liked listening to back in the day, just fixate on that thing. De-duh-dunh, de-duh-dunh, de-duh-dunh—and see if I can use that for the whole solo or something. [Listens more, as altos trade fours] The altos really are so different from tenor, it’s such a different personality. [Listens more] You hear that, how the drummer is playing right here? In Sons of Kemet I’ll say [to the drummers] I want you both to play like how the drummer is playing right here, the whole track through. Here it feels like he’s playing more like a caricature of a drummer, [using] all the drums at once. I like that. I really like telling drummers you can do that from the beginning all the way through.

That was great. The first alto player that came into my head was Arthur Blythe, but then as it progressed I thought, no, maybe Gary Bartz. Then Vincent Herring. I started out on alto. When I started going to jam sessions [around London], Gary Crosby looked at me and he was like, “You’re way too tall for the alto, it looks like a little toy on you. You need to play a tenor!” But I’ve always had this love of hearing alto players really scream on the instrument.


I’m guessing it’s from the ’70s. Maybe not, but it has the same vibe of that era, and really stepping up. Sonny Fortune had a similar thing as well, without necessarily the amount of language that they’re doing. I can’t remember the name of the tune, it’s in my head. “Syeeda’s Song Flute”?

AFTER: I was meaning to listen to this album, actually. Her and Gary Bartz, right? Oh. Steve Wilson? It really did have the vibe of that late-’70s Gary Bartz era. I feel like there’s a lot of albums with instrumentalists going at it together like [Freddie Hubbard’s 1965 live album] The Night of the Cookers, friendly battle: the spirit’s really high, just trying to riff off each other, keep the energy up. The energy levels have to be in a certain place and then you add the musicality and the shape and the trajectory to that.

I played with Lakecia one time at the Bowery Ballroom in New York. It was great. I can’t remember what the situation was, a certain artist had to drop out, so Winter Jazzfest put together a group for a jam: me, Lakecia, and Donny McCaslin. It was good.


2. Mankunku Quartet
“Yakhal’ Inkomo” (Yakhal’ Inkomo, World Record Company). Winston Monwabisi “Mankunku” Ngozi, tenor saxophone; Lionel Pillay, electric piano; Agrippa Magwaza, bass; Early Mabuza, drums. Recorded in 1968.

BEFORE: I like the sax so much. I was just kind of drifting off listening to it. It’s Mankunku. He’s one of the elder statesmen of South African jazz. [He and] Dudu Pukwana are the two tenor players that really tell the story of South African jazz. From what I can tell, having gone to South Africa many times, this tune is one of those that’s become commercial. People that wouldn’t necessarily say they’re jazz lovers know this song. It’s somehow gotten into the national songbook. People will play it at barbecues. In the townships, they had it on the speaker. 

When I first heard this album I was like, “I can’t believe I’ve never heard this guy before.” This is the thing that I find with a lot of my interactions with South African musicians: They have this different way of interpreting a love of an era or type of music. So, you’re hearing Mankunku and he’s obviously listening to a lot of Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders, but the way that he’s actually playing it, there’s a different kind of energy in it. I’ll try to see if I can see Coltrane through his eyes when I hear him. 

The doorway to South African jazz for me actually came after playing with [drummer] Louis Moholo for the first time, Moholo being a member of the Blue Notes, a seminal South African unit. I started to listen to the Blue Notes and learn the connections in terms of who the members were, and that’s what started this exploration into the older South African scene. I first heard this [track] about six years ago when I started to go to South Africa backwards and forwards before we started the Ancestors.


One other thing to add about this tune in particular: I can’t remember the exact translation, but “Yakhal’ Inkomo” basically refers to the last cry of the bull before it’s ritualistically sacrificed. So this tune is supposed to be expressing that cry of suffering, as a metaphor for the legacy of South Africa.

3. Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers
“Blue Minor” (Blue Night, Timeless). Terence Blanchard, trumpet; Donald Harrison, alto saxophone; Jean Toussaint, tenor saxophone; Mulgrew Miller, piano; Lonnie Plaxico, bass; Blakey, drums. Recorded in 1985.

BEFORE: I just heard something and it’s really messing with me now. I have no idea who that is. The first thing I think about is that it’s the type of tune that was played in a lot of jam sessions when I first came to London. There was a jam every Sunday in a place called Uncle Sam’s, where they had a house band that had been playing there for like 15-20 years and used to do a gig from 10 p.m. until 4 in the morning. They would play all the standards, and this kind of tune, which has a kind of optimistic Art Blakey vibe. It’s like one on [the 1963 album] Ugetsu, “On the Ginza,” one of those tunes that’s got this buoyancy. They’re up tunes, and this one’s got a similar feeling at the beginning. 


AFTER: Oh, Donald Harrison, and Jean Toussaint—I should have stayed with this to the tenor solo! I’m going to have to check that out when we finish here. Jean is an interesting influence. I think he came over [to London] because he had a wife here and then he started to teach at Guildhall [School of Music and Drama] and Trinity College of Music, and then was associated with Tomorrow’s Warriors.

Earlier in my career I wouldn’t have said he was a direct influence but the more I go along, the more I actually go back to the lessons that he was teaching me at Guildhall in 2004 to 2008. I’m at the stage now that I go back to his lessons: Can you improvise on three notes, or make a solo with limited material? Or can you listen to people and reproduce their vibe in your own song? For me, how to listen to solos, that was the biggest lesson—how to actually listen to jazz, as opposed to how to play it.

Tell us how you first connected with Tomorrow’s Warriors.


When I moved to England [in 2000] I heard about Tomorrow’s Warriors because they had a jam session that happened every week in London. At the time I was living in Birmingham and hanging out a lot with Soweto Kinch, and he was in the Tomorrow’s Warriors group then. Every Sunday he’d take a coach down to London, where the band would play a set, and then they’d open up for a jam session and then he’d come back and do another jam session in Birmingham, which I would go to every week. Tomorrow’s Warriors started not necessarily teaching jazz, but as a functioning jazz group. After Soweto left, there was a lineup that would later go on to be called Empirical with [alto saxophonist] Nathaniel Facey, [drummer] Shaney Forbes, and that’s when I started to go down to London and listen to them play, and when they started to incorporate more of a learning aspect to it. They’d have an older jazz musician come down to our rehearsals and give us some input. Nothing really formal, and that’s what they basically have continued to do for the last 20 years.

Originally Tomorrow’s Warriors was set up to redress the balance of diversity in the British jazz scene—or the London jazz scene, really. There just weren’t that many jazz outlets where you would see black people on stage. So with Tomorrow’s Warriors, instead of seeing one black person playing jazz on stage, you might see three or four. At that time, it was pretty radical. Now, I would say 95 percent of the young black musicians that came up in the last 15 years and were serious in following the jazz tradition went through Tomorrow’s Warriors.

4. Marcus Strickland Twi-Life
“On My Mind” (People of the Sun, Blue Note). Strickland, bass clarinet and drum programming; Mitch Henry, keyboards; Kyle Miles, electric bass, vocals; Charles Haynes, drums; Greg Tate, spoken word; Bilal, vocals; Pharoahe Monch, rhymes. Recorded in 2018.


BEFORE: Fantastic. I don’t know who that is. I heard a West Coast, Iman Omari kind of vibe, especially in terms of production. I really like the production. The way that the bass clarinet was mic’d at the beginning reminded me of a Black Monument Ensemble album that came out recently, on International Anthem. Obviously it’s not that, but the way they’re using that sound in particular reminded me of that album. 

I was listening to it and thinking I’m really glad that one of two things happened: Either jazz got more experimental in terms of production techniques, or other music that wasn’t normally considered jazz is more able to adapt to the jazz context. Or both. I feel good to be around at a time where there’s so much of this kind of creativity going into the music. I always refer to the time when I went from [being] a non-jazz lover to a jazz lover, because there was a point when I just didn’t like jazz. I heard it in such a superficial way that I thought it wasn’t the music for me. But there were certain landmark albums, certain signifiers stylistically, that led me into the music that was jazzy—if I can use that cliché, and I don’t say that in a derogatory way—music that had bits of jazz attached to it. For instance, that [1994] Buckshot LeFonque album I remember really bringing me in, [Guru’s 1993] Jazzmatazz [Vol. 1], Greg Osby’s [1990] Man-Talk for Moderns, Vol. X. When there was a rapper or a singer doing something that I could relate to.

So if, for instance, it’s Robert Glasper and someone listens to that and goes, “I really like the sound of this bass clarinet,” they might come upon Eric Dolphy and then realize they really like him. My first encounter with Eric Dolphy, for instance, was Last Date, and I only picked it up because the album cover looked really cool. I like his silhouette on it, with the bass clarinet over his shoulder and he’s got a big goatee. I was like, “I want to be that guy.” So I think this tune is great. For me, anything that can get more people to start listening to the music, roots-backwards, you know.


AFTER: It’s interesting that it’s Marcus because I used to be really into him—like really, really into him when I was in college, in the time of MySpace. I went onto his page and I downloaded this live gig he put up and I used to play it on my MP3 player all the time, just him playing all these standards. So it’s interesting to see someone like that grow with the times, develop into something that’s completely different-sounding. Also, there’s this weird thing I’ve got with Marcus Strickland. There’s some pictures of him that look exactly like me maybe 20 years ago. There’s one he posted recently and it’s a spitting image of me when I was 17 or 18 playing the saxophone. It’s crazy. 

5. Pharoah Sanders
“Harvest Time” (Pharoah, India Navigation). Sanders, tenor saxophone; Bedria Sanders, harmonium; Tisziji Munoz, electric guitar; Steve Neil, bass; Lawrence Killian, percussion. Recorded in 1976.

BEFORE: It’s Pharoah—”Harvest Time.” I love this album so much. Actually, Tom Skinner, one of the drummers in Sons of Kemet, put me onto this. He was a massive fan of this album. And Floating Points [DJ and electronic music producer Sam Shepherd], apparently he did a set at Primavera [Sound festival near Barcelona] where he played the whole album within his set and it’s one of his favorite albums. I started hanging out with him a bit and realizing that the music he makes is a small part of his general musical knowledge and sensibility.


This album fits into my sensibility in a weird, roundabout way—and it involves Floating Points. There’s this gourmet sushi wine bar in London called Brilliant Corners that has really amazing speakers in each corner of the room. It’s a small, intimate room. They have these nights called “Played Twice” where they play a high-fidelity pressing of an album, and then have a band do a live rendition of it. I did a load of them. It’s one of my favorite places in London to play. One of the albums that we did was this album, Pharaoh, with Floating Points on keys, Tom on drums, David Okumu on guitar, and Tom Herbert on bass.

It’s an interesting thing listening to an album knowing that you’re going to do a reinterpretation of it. Before, it just sounded like Pharaoh having a jam on one chord when I heard it. But when I went into it with the knowledge that I had to recreate it I really got it, the trajectory of the album was one piece, and the space that Pharaoh was inhabiting. The temptation for players that play with a lot of energy is to not be able to control a solo unless you’re going up to a climax in some way. What I like about this album and this tune in particular is how Pharaoh can basically make time stand still when he’s soloing, and there’s an intensity but not [one] that’s leading you to a climax point. You’re in this kind of world, more like a textural landscape. It’s a weirdly tough album to get as well, considering it’s one of Pharaoh’s best.

Ashley Kahn

Ashley Kahn is a Grammy-winning American music historian, journalist, producer, and professor. He teaches at New York University’s Clive Davis Institute for Recorded Music, and has written books on two legendary recordings—Kind of Blue by Miles Davis and A Love Supreme by John Coltrane—as well as one book on a legendary record label: The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records. He also co-authored the Carlos Santana autobiography The Universal Tone, and edited Rolling Stone: The Seventies, a 70-essay overview of that pivotal decade.