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’ 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.

It’s fair to be skeptical of artists vocally distancing themselves from their immediate ancestors; after all, rejecting what came before is the oldest coolness cheat code in the book. We’ve heard similar proclamations that this time things will be different, from other artists who have recently Saved Jazz, like Robert Glasper and Kamasi Washington. It’s Hutchings’ global perspective, though, that sets him apart from other artists using pop literacy as a way to reach new audiences. Obviously African and Caribbean sounds have long had a place in jazz, but filtered through London’s current melting pot, that aesthetic feels totally new. Reliably rough around the edges, the music resists the smoother tendencies of Stateside fusion. “London is a tense place,” he told JazzTimes last year. “We’re not going to try to counteract that by being serene, and it feels like the audience just resonates with that.”

Hutchings’ take on fusion also represents a more essential repudiation of jazz’s Western leanings. In practice, his rejection of Turner and Lovano as “too good” is about completely revamping the genre’s critical hierarchy to place rhythmic communion at the center instead of improvised melody. Repeated, percussive licks dominate, with a few soaring runs sprinkled throughout; mostly, though, Hutchings is blending into the complex rhythmic interplay between other bandmembers. He argues that spontaneity and urgency, achieved through small ensembles, loose compositions and abbreviated recording sessions, can and should replace academic complexity. In 2016, Hutchings told Bandcamp that he declined to give pianist Nduduzo Makhathini, of his group the Ancestors, the music prior to a day-long session because he “didn’t want him to play all the shit that he knows.”

To dwell on the fact that Hutchings practices Dizzee Rascal riffs on Instagram and incorporates dub, spoken word and rap in his latest album is to do a disservice to what he’s trying to achieve. This is an artist who views shedding as a tool of capitalism (why do we need to play harder and better and faster?) and gives lectures on “decolonizing the mind from a [modern] jazz musician’s perspective.” The revolution he’s articulating on Your Queen is less about a self-conscious integration of pop elements than it is about stripping away the technical and compositional traps that have helped make jazz a property of the conservatory. As a result, his sound—especially with Sons of Kemet—bears a stronger resemblance to early New Orleans jazz than it does to the music of his peers, even if on the surface it bears the same jam-band, festival-ready inflections as artists like Washington.

So how do we gauge his success, if the music self-evidently rejects the things jazz heads normally view as metrics of quality? Is the intentional repetitiveness an example of damning unoriginality or an exciting rebuttal against so much sprawling free improvisation? Is the commitment to danceable grooves acquiescing to pop or subverting the rhythmic ambiguity that defines so much current jazz? Regardless of how you answer these questions, you’ll probably be confronted with much more Shabaka Hutchings in the near future. (His recent signing with Impulse!, who released Your Queen, can’t hurt his profile, and the move seems to attempt to place him in the context of artists he’s modeled himself after, like John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders.) Already prolific between his three bands and countless sidegigs, he’s tapped into the moment in a way that’s crucial to crossover success. Afrobeats and Caribbean rhythms are driving plenty of today’s pop music, just as they are the music of Hutchings and his cohorts, albeit in an entirely different way. Washington found the crux of a spiritual-jazz revival, not to mention powerful allies in Kendrick Lamar and Alice Coltrane’s nephew, the electronic musician and producer Flying Lotus. Glasper also worked with Lamar, but long before that he’d engineered his signature meld of postbop with J Dilla and neosoul. Like those two crossover successes, Hutchings is making the right sound at the right place at the right time. Unlike them, he wants to turn jazz on its head, and he’s poised to get it at least a little off-balance.

Image by Jati Lindsay

Read Aidan Levy’s Q&A with Shabaka Hutchings from the April 2017 issue of JazzTimes.

Preview, buy or download songs from the album Your Queen Is a Reptile by Shabaka Hutchings and Sons of Kemet on iTunes.