Consistently resolves toward hope, even if its underlying optimism isn’t so much the aversion of doom so much as the desire to meet that doom as one’s best self.
Over the last few years, British-Barbadian saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings has emerged as one of the leading figures in contemporary jazz, lending his talents to an impressive number of projects that illustrate his own varied roots as well as his broader musical tastes. Sons of Kemet foregrounded Caribbean percussion that the artist absorbed growing up in Barbados, while The Comet Is Coming drew in a panoply of reference points from British music, from neo-psychedelia to the country’s fertile electronic scene. Hutchings’s group the Ancestors showcased a lateral move for the artist, who formed the group out of South African session musicians in 2016 and released Wisdom of the Elders, a catch-all of influences from calypso to African jazz to early fusion that attempted to sketch out some of the tortured history of Africa and the far-ranging cultural impact of the slave diaspora. The group’s follow-up, We Are Sent Here By History, repurposes the past to gaze into the future, using traditional forms to speculate on a future in which all of humanity may be set adrift by climate change and other horrors.
The title comes from a chant repeated throughout the album by performance artist Siyabonga Mthembu, who alternately sings, speaks and vocalizes on most of the tracks. He acts as a griot, weaving fragments of story into equal parts celebration and warning. Mthembu’s poems can be cosmic, as in the references to comets and “how God became irrelevant” on “You’ve Been Called” to a Zulu-language rant about coded masculine roles on “We Will Work (On Redefining Manhood.” Such lyrics are personal, political and macroscopic, investigating the ways that our immediate behaviors have been shaped by time and will have to change as mankind faces its darkest hour.
Musically, the octet has only deepened its interplay from their first recording. It’s sometimes difficult to tell that seven instrumentalists are playing at any given time, as the ensemble favors supple flourishes and subtle interplay over the bombast that such a large group could provide. The record is anchored by the contrapuntal play between Hutchings’s tenor sax and Mthunzi Mvubu’s alto, which often sounds like two people walking parallel to each other on opposite sides of a street, one occasionally lagging behind the other or going off for a brief detour before broadly synching up. Hutchings’s phrasing is deep and sonorous, flirting with free jazz emotion but always in a restrained way. Mvubu, meanwhile, is more openly keening, brushing right up against the edge of losing control. On “Go My Heart, Go to Heaven,” Hutchings uses his saxophone as much for tone as direction, adding low groans that fill out Ariel Zamonsky’s knotty bassline while Mvubu floats overhead in occasionally darting motions. Even when Hutchings takes a solo, he does so with tenderness to offset the nervy energy of Mvubu and the rhythm section.
Elsewhere, the rest of the band shows off while keeping themselves from flying off in their own directions. Tumi Mogorosi tap dances on the cymbals throughout the album, creating propulsive, even frantic washes of metallic noise that nonetheless sound rhythmic and even elegant thanks to how delicately he plays. Percussionist Gontse Makhene adds deep, reverberating hand drums to Mogorosi’s lighter skittering. On “The Coming of the Strange Ones,” the pair punch through Hutchings and Mvubu’s synchronized sax line with a ferocious, roiling rhythm. Nduduzo Makhathini regularly adds dashes of piano and Rhodes organ, the latter of which is employed in splashes of warm, ambient clusters akin to Miles Davis’s early fusion records. “Behold, The Deceiver” complicates the smoky, noir lounge sax harmonies with Makhathini’s chords, which ground later solos as the track ramps up into one of the album’s most explosive numbers. The piano adds an almost dubby layer to tracks, helping to dissipate and warp some of the energy whenever things threaten to tip over into chaos.
Despite the ominous, apocalyptic inspiration behind the album, We Are Sent Here By History consistently resolves toward hope, even if its underlying optimism isn’t so much the aversion of doom so much as the desire to meet that doom as one’s best self. Three of the last four songs directly tackle the concept of escaping the trap of masculinity, while the other, “‘Til Freedom Comes Home,” exemplifies jazz’s long-standing status as the finest musical expression of black historical anguish and resilience. The stamps of Pharoah Sanders and Albert Ayler are all over this record, and listening to this record and its keening but urgent spirituality, one is forced to consider that, much as the likes of Nirvana can now comfortably be classified as classic rock, the ruptures of free jazz, once considered so sacrilegious and radical, are by this stage as traditional to the history of the genre as Louis Armstrong’s swing. The album only occasionally indulges in the full, chaotic emotions that free jazz embodies, yet at every turn the record simmers with passion and the inspiring sense that we may yet, even in our twilight, discover our best selves.