Home Music Sons of Kemet: Black to the Future

Sons of Kemet: Black to the Future

Now firmly ensconced as one of the major voices in the avant-jazz revival of the last decade, Shabaka Hutchings continues to deepen his mastery of the genre as an enduringly relevant musical communication and means of social commentary. Last year’s offering with the Ancestors, We Are Sent Here by History, was eerily timed to the Covid-19 outbreak in its themes of post-apocalypse and the necessity of destroying the old ways to build new futures. Back with his other main outlet, Sons of Kemet, Hutchings’ 2021 effort naturally is shaped by the subsequent social landscape that followed during the pandemic, from the hellish and haphazardly maintained responses of the US and UK governments to the massive demonstrations against police violence.

The core quartet, following a few lineup changes over the years, has settled into an odd array of instrumentalists. Hutchings himself plays sax as well as the clarinet, backed by two percussionists in Tom Skinner and Eddie Hick. For low-end oomph, Theon Cross curiously sticks to tuba, offering brassy gurgles that work surprisingly well as basslines in the band’s mercurial, genre-averse stew of overlapping sounds. This time out, befitting Hutchings’ own status as a serial collaborator and the political urgency of his music, new album Black to the Future is filled with guests from all over the avant-garde fusion gamut. Poet/noise musician Moor Mother, saxophonist Steve Williamson, pioneering grime rapper D Double E and more dot the record, adding new wrinkles to the band’s already protean sound, pushing each track in unique directions.

These guest voices also add their own politically strident commentary to the group’s passion. “We are all field negroes now!” poet Joshua Idehen intones with the wild-eyed chanting frenzy of an evangelical preacher on opener “Field Negus,” his intensity contrasting with the gentle moans of Hutchings’ sax as he castigates colonialism of robbing his people of their heritage and culture only to turn around and police how they express resistance to such oppression. “Keep calm and carry on” he spits with dripping sarcasm. “Oh, the audacity! Oh, the caucasity!” The fury of Idehen’s words set against the gradually cresting energy of the music behind him sets the stage for the album’s dense play of lyrics and tones, and the way that its raging polemics are embodied and complicated by composition.

As hinted by the way that each of the track’s titles flow together to make a poetic imperative sentence, so too does the music itself work as a giant interlinked composition, with one track segueing into the next without a moment’s notice. Yet there is still striking variation between each song. The bustling “Pick Up Your Burning Cross,” with its staccato snares chopping up Hutchings’ looping trills and faint, shimmering flute, dumps into the humid Caribbean groove of “Think of Home,” where Hutchings doubles up on sax and clarinet to lay down wafting lines of reeds as the drummers create an organic version of dub, playing scattered and distended beats that drift around each other as Cross’ tuba blurts hold everything together.

One of the album’s greatest pleasures is hearing how the quartet adjust their approach around each guest. On “For the Culture,” they adopt some of the skeletal propulsiveness of classic UK grime to back D Double E, turning floating woodwinds into a buzzing, minimal backdrop under which an even more skeletal percussion pattern makes with real instruments the kind of brittle, punchy sound that grime MCs and producers used to make with cheap bedroom synths and software. “Hustle,” which features another UK rapper in Kojey Radical, adopts a denser soundscape of two steps forward, two steps backward movement as the instruments sound as if they are circling each other squaring up for a fight. This reflects Kojey’s own caustic lyrics like “You can test my spirit, but don’t test my patience,” daring anyone to step to him.

The album’s back half eases off the guest stars to remain with the core band, but if anything the compositions only get even stranger and more distinctive. “In Remembrance of Those Fallen” erupts out of the gate as demented calliope music, all pan flutes and overlapping percussion as Cross’s prominent tuba turns the whole thing into Tom Waits-esque gutter carnivalia. Then, Hutchings enters with an elegant saxophone line that clashes with the absurdity, and his languid playing gradually reorients the chaos; the other players don’t shift what they’re doing, exactly, but they fall into place around Hutchings in such a way that the goofiness becomes more emotionally charged, lending urgency to the skittering percussion and bouncing tuba. Similarly, the album’s longest track, “Envision Yourself Levitating,” traverses a tonal range across its eight-and-a-half minutes, first rising up from the primordial soup with lonely saxophone howls against negative space before Hutchings starts laying down sheets of sound as the drummers conjure up some cymbal dancing redolent of Elvin Jones’ brassy washes. Eventually, everyone dials it back to let Cross take center space as clarinet and shuffling snares thread around him. Hutchings may be known as an outré talent who honed his chops with some of jazz’s most daring modern acts, but here is a reminder that even the most cerebral jazz is rooted in keening, unguarded emotion.

“Black” closes the album with another appearance from Idehen, who speaks through radio broadcast distortion as the band collapses into faint but screeching noise behind him, the poet and band both building in intensity until climaxing in a frenzied burst. It’s a powerful final note for what may be the best album yet in Hutchings’ ever-expanding catalogue. Hutchings, like many contemporary jazz luminaries and indeed like many forward-thinking musicians stretching all the way back to the likes of Miles and Ornette, tends to reject “jazz” as a label, perhaps as much to avoid the general commercial stigma of the label as to foreground his embrace of other styles of music. Yet it is precisely artists like him who prove jazz’s enduring power and adaptability, freeing it from museum-piece staleness and reminding everyone, including the people who play it, how much gas is left in the genre’s tank. Black to the Future is angry and immediate, but also lyrical and elegant, and it speaks passionately to issues that have been baked into jazz’s commentary since its creation and which continue to be relevant.

Summary
Armed with a host of likeminded guests, Sons of Kemet continue to stretch the elastic boundaries of jazz with another triumph.
85 %
Sublime fury

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