CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

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)

6. Brandee Younger
“Soulris” (Soul Awakening, self-released). Ravi Coltrane, tenor saxophone; Younger, harp; Dezron Douglas, bass; Chris Beck, drums. Recorded in 2019.

BEFORE: [Listens for a few minutes] That line just there told me it’s Ravi Coltrane. If it isn’t, it’s someone that’s taken in a lot of Ravi. Actually, the sound is a lot deeper than I’d expect of Ravi. At the beginning it sounded like Pharaoh a bit, but the sound is darker. Then I was like, “This is kind of like Ravi but a lot more subdued than I’ve heard Ravi play harmonically.” But then once he started to take flight, I was just, “Yeah, of course it’s Ravi Coltrane.” [Continues to listen] Is that Brandee Younger?

This sounds amazing. Wow. I feel like the mix is really great as well, in terms of how they’ve positioned the harp in relation to the energy of the drums. I like a darkness, I like to hear that kind of roughness with the drums. There’s something I guess I hear a bit less in the L.A. scene in general, like Robert Glasper or Kamasi [Washington] albums, where things are more to the front in terms of the mix, whereas I like the dark and the shade and the mystery. 

Shabaka Hutchings and Ashley Kahn
Hutchings and Ashley Kahn during their Zoom session (photo courtesy of Ashley Kahn)

7. Joe Harriott
“In a Sentimental Mood” (from BBC2 special TV program Love You Madly, YouTube video). Harriott, alto saxophone, with Stan Tracey Big Brass and others. Recorded in 1969.

BEFORE: [Hutchings wears a face mask as a blindfold for this video] That’s really tough. There’s a lot of alto players that come into my head, but then it’s not any of them. One thing I was thinking was … there’s a certain thing that I call a “big stage player,” and not in a derogatory way. Players who are used to playing on a big stage, and can convey big emotion. It’s different from people who are used to doing it in a small, intimate circumstance. I feel when people learn about this way of projection, it’s similar to that kind of swing-era approach, especially in big ballrooms. It’s like, say, Sidney Bechet. When you hear him play the soprano, the sound is massive and he’s really pushing the music across.

Can I take the mask off?

AFTER: That makes so much sense now. I know Joe Harriott, his album Genius was the one that first got me into him. But his name comes up so little. Sometimes I have Joe Harriott periods where I remind myself to check out how amazing he was. Joe Harriott is one of those tragic stories of someone who was so significant for not just British jazz but the tradition of jazz in general. He’s totally forgotten but he’s such a killer player. He was in tandem with Ornette Coleman. That’s why I couldn’t frame it, because I was thinking in terms of America, I couldn’t think of many people who would have the chops that he shows on this tune. That’s one of the things I would say in defense of non-Americans playing jazz: Joe’s able to make associations that aren’t necessarily being done or perceived by the host culture of the music. He was playing from a certain era of jazz, but then he’s able to play rhythms and language out of the original context.

There’s a slight controversy in British jazz history about Joe Harriott: Was he influenced by Ornette, or was he expanding the idea at the same time as Ornette? I don’t know the answer to that, but it’s something I’ve heard come up in many drunken conversations discussing these two guys on either side of the Atlantic experimenting in an abstract way, associating the same kind of ideas in jazz. There’s a good biography on him called Fire in His Soul [by Alan Robertson, 2003], but I’ve not finished reading it. It’s on my lockdown list.

8. Melissa Aldana
“Never Let Me Go” (Visions, Motéma). Aldana, tenor saxophone; Sam Harris, piano; Pablo Menares, bass; Tommy Crane, drums. Recorded in 2018.

BEFORE: I feel like this is one of those ones that you’ve set out to throw me because I know it’s not Mark Turner. [Listens more] Maybe it is Mark Turner, maybe you’re double-bluffing [laughs]. It could be Chris Cheek. He’s playing so much language that I normally associate with Mark, but when he was playing in the lower register and it got all cracked, I’ve never heard [Turner] do that. He’s normally a lot more controlled in the low register—not that lack of control is a bad thing, but I don’t normally hear him dynamically go down to the grit of the saxophone, and when the melody came in it didn’t sound as much like Mark as the beginning. 

There’s a weird thing: When I was in college, it was the big age of Mark Turner for everyone studying jazz and it was almost—this is kind of political incorrectness [during a pandemic]—almost a viral effect. If you heard Mark Turner, you’re into him, and I’ve seen a lot of fallen soldiers lose their originality trying to sound like him. I used to listen to him all the time, and actually he was one of the guys that had a seminal impact on me wanting to not sound American.

I’ve heard the tune before but I don’t recognize it. Could it be this girl—I think she won the Thelonious Monk prize relatively recently? She plays tenor, and I’ve heard her play. She’s really great and has taken that position and developed it further. It could be her. 

AFTER: It’s her! Melissa was who I was thinking of. She’s learned so much from that kind of language, and she’s been able to take that but then portray it with her own take on it. It’s a naked technicality on the saxophone for someone that’s rooted in that harmonic language. It was a bit less easy to differentiate her from the person who she’s obviously learned that kind of harmonic matrix from, but once she started playing in the melody it starts to become more identifiable as her own thing.

9. Courtney Pine
“Sister Soul” (Devotion, Telarc). Pine, soprano saxophone; Byron Wallen, trumpet; Dennis Rollins, trombone; Chris Jerome, synthesizer; Cameron Pierre, electric guitar; Peter Martin, bass; Robert Fordjour, drums. Recorded in 2003.

BEFORE: This is Courtney Pine. This puts me into the era of when I first came to England and I got into Courtney’s thing. It might even be him on all the instruments. On some albums back in the day, he played everything. He’s a monster instrumentalist. It’s not necessarily the music that I’m listening to now but in retrospect, he was outrageous. Nothing that I say can express how much saxophone he was playing then. In concerts he would be doing all these showman things, like he would play and play and play until the climax of the solo, and when he reached the big high note, he would start into these weird multiphonics, and then he’d basically take his hands off the saxophone while still blowing this high stuff, hold his hands in the air like Jesus Christ, and roll his eyes into the back of his head—and he’s got these massive eyes! When he did that I used to go crazy. It was incredibly dramatic.

It’s tough to explain to someone that’s not seen him live, but in some ways Courtney Pine is very close to how I treat the recording process: There is a recorded document of an album, and then there is the live performance, and those two things are very different. I can connect [this idea] to something I’ve been reading recently—the John Cage book Silence [Silence: Lectures and Writings, 1961], and one of the things that he writes is that you’ve got to separate the composing process and listening process from the performance process. They’re different things that contain very different matrices of meaning and priorities, whereas many people lump them together in one big ballpark.

So on Courtney Pine’s albums, like this tune, you hear this and it sounds great and groovy, but when you see him live, especially when I saw him play this music around this era, in 2000, it was a mind-opener. It was one of those entry points for me as a 16-, 17-year old who didn’t identify as a jazz fan. It had elements that I could understand and it felt good. It had a vibe. My personal favorite Courtney Pine is Modern Day Jazz Stories [1995], and that album he did with Jeff “Tain” Watts, Within the Realm of Our Dreams [1990]. For me, those two are among the best albums to come out of Britain, point blank. 

10. Jazz Jamaica
“Little Melonae” (Blue Note Blue Beat: Vol. 1, Toshiba EMI). Brian Edwards, alto saxophone; Eddie “Tan Tan” Thornton, trumpet; Rico Rodriguez, trombone; Clifton “Bigga” Morrison, electric piano, synthesizer; Alan Weekes, electric guitar; Gary Crosby, bass; Kenrick Rowe, drums; Tony Uter, percussion. Recorded in 1994.

BEFORE: This sounds like Brian Edwards from the U.K. If it is him, it might be him playing with the Jazz Warriors. Brian was the guy that ran the jam session at Uncle Sam’s that I was talking about. It also made me remember Soweto [Kinch] because obviously he came up listening to Brian as well, and got influenced by him. He now plays tenor and he’s in this group the Banger Factory, which is run by a guy called Mark Kavuma in London.

When I first came over to London to start university, there were so many jam sessions. At one point we could go to a jam session every single night of the week, from swing sessions to free improv—lots of different things. There was a pub in Brixton called the Effra [Hall] that used to do a more mainstream jazz jam on Sunday, and Thursday was the reggae night. [Jamaican saxophonist] Michael “Bammi” Rose was always coming down, Brian Edwards was there, Alan Weekes on guitar, the original Jazz Jamaica group, so I would go down there quite a lot. 

This is one of the things that’s tough to explain to people who are new to the London scene or to the fact that jazz happens in the U.K. It’s had a long history and there’s lots of players—some are known, some aren’t known—that have culminated in the players, like myself, who you might see today. The whole scene of [composer/bandleader] Django Bates, [saxophonists] John Surman and Andy Sheppard, Loose Tubes, and we’d all intersect.

It’s easy to sometimes see things historically as specific scenes, but everyone knows each other and has played together. There was a bit less integration in the jazz world in Gary Crosby’s day, the time of Jazz Jamaica and Jazz Warriors. I think I’ve been fortunate to actually be a point of intersection. I’ve worked with Django and Surman and obviously Gary, and I think it’s not necessarily because of who I am in particular. I feel like the time in which I came to London was a really good time in terms of being part of the scene, and for learning from the generation before—Gary and Courtney [Pine] and Steve Williamson—and hav[ing] a connection to the generation that came after, like [Seb Rochford’s] Polar Bear, Acoustic Ladyland, and all of the younger guys. 

When I started to see Nubya [Garcia] play she was tiny, just a schoolgirl, and she sounded okay. The same with Moses [Boyd]. It’s happened with so many young players, where Gary’s been saying he or she has got potential. Then you go away for two years, doing your gigs, and come back and you’re like, “Whoa! That guy has been practicing!” or “That lady’s been in the shed!” There’s even a newer bunch of young kids now—and by young kids I mean not yet 25—that are really playing, and it keeps going.

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.