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Shabaka Hutchings Wants a Revolution

Why the British saxophonist is poised to become jazz’s next crossover star

Shabaka Hutchings (photo by Jati Lindsay)
Shabaka Hutchings (photo by Jati Lindsay)

Shabaka Hutchings’ new album is about what you think it’s about. Its title, Your Queen Is a Reptile, is not a metaphor or an allegory: The record’s goal is to challenge what Hutchings views as the mythology of the monarchy. Instead of a lizard Queen Elizabeth—a queen who “does not see us as human,” as he describes in the liner notes—Hutchings, alongside his band Sons of Kemet, proposes a list of black women he’d be OK with bowing down to: Angela Davis, Mamie Phipps Clark, Harriet Tubman. For the lattermost, his tribute takes the form of an almost six-minute jam that’s half rhythm (drummers Eddie Hick and Tom Skinner) and half contrapuntal harmony (Hutchings and tuba player Theon Cross). It has the danceability of soca, the angularity of grime, the abrasive textures of punk and—somehow—the freedom of jazz.

The 34-year-old saxophone and clarinet player has spent the last decade cultivating this sound via a series of high-concept, party-ready bands around his native London, in addition to playing in groups led by friends like Kamaal Williams, Yazz Ahmed and Nubya Garcia. As the U.K. scene becomes harder and harder to ignore Stateside, so too does Hutchings and his colleagues’ perspective—one rooted in the broader African diaspora instead of American history, and targeting an audience that wants to dance and think at the same time. For Hutchings, marrying his jazz background with music suited to London clubs has required that he eschew another hierarchy: “I don’t want to sound like Mark Turner or Joe Lovano. … They’re too good. I want to take the saxophone and just get ignorant,” he said on the writer Phil Freeman’s Burning Ambulance podcast earlier this year.

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