Kamasi Washington – Big Bang Theory

Kamasi Washington

There are few, if any, jazz triple albums that have made quite the impact that Kamasi Washington’s The Epic has had this year. Kevin Le Gendre spoke to the Los Angeles-based saxophonist about how his seismic spiritually-charged music came from his formative years playing in church and a deep well of like-minded forebears

Historically, the west coast of America may be synonymous with jazz that is ‘cool’, but many of its players also went straight ‘into the hot’. Certainly, the likes of Dexter Gordon knew how to burn and today there is a Los Angeles jazz scene that is ablaze with ideas as well as intense performances, producing artists such as 34-year-old saxophonist Kamasi Washington. His The Epic is arguably debut album of the year, a work whose earthy maturity is matched only by its fiery ambition.

At its core is a crack 10-piece band featuring electric bassist Thundercat, but it is the inclusion of a 32-piece string orchestra and 20-strong choir that makes the 172 minutes of the triple CD a digital age rhapsody. Unsurprisingly, its roots run deep. Washington’s mentor is none other than the big band legend Gerald Wilson. In 2006 the younger artist/musician had a very significant meeting with the veteran composer.

“I was showing Gerald a live recording of my band The Next Step and Brandon Coleman was playing some keyboard strings,” Washington told me in a recent email exchange. “Gerald and I had talked about classical music and orchestration a lot over the years and he really liked the sound of what Brandon was doing, and told me I should write some orchestral pieces that would include that band.”

Son of respected Angeleno saxophonist Ricky Washington, Kamasi, who majored in Ethnomusicology at UCLA and counts Jeff Clayton among his other essential tutors, was subsequently asked to make a record by Flying Lotus, the interstellar producer whose A&R policy at the fiercely progressive Brainfeeder label brought to light the aforementioned Thundercat. Significantly, Lotus gave Washington creative carte blanche. “That sense of freedom led me back to the memory of that day with Gerald,” Washington says. “It was my opportunity to do some things on that scale. I didn’t want to lock the musicians into a rigid arrangement of orchestrations. The magic of what we do comes from having the freedom to move the music the way the moment asks us.”

So Washington opted to record his bandmembers first to enable them to “do what they hear”, before arranging the strings and voices around “what we did spontaneously, so I could get the best of both worlds”.

The result was a series of sweeping, soul-stirring anthems that lean equally to jazz, gospel and classical traditions, and it was indeed an iconic composer from the last canon that acted as a key pathfinder. “My biggest inspiration on the choral side actually came from Stravinsky’s ‘Symphony of Psalms’,” Washington reveals. “I used to listen to that and dream of improvising over it with a live orchestra and chorus. But there are others as well, like the Charlie Parker With Strings album, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, Norman Connors’ Dark Of Light and Donald Byrd’s Cristo Redentor. I listen to a lot of music!” Bigger is better on The Epic. Washington has a lot of musicians in his orbit and rather than diminish numbers he decided to augment when circumstances conspired to fill the rehearsal room to bursting. “My big band The Next Step came together in a way by chance. I’ve known everyone in my band since I was a kid, some as early as three years old. We’ve always played with each other and been in each other’s bands but we’d never had everyone on the same gig at the same time,” says Washington. “One night I had a gig at a club called 5th Street Dicks and Cameron Graves, Thundercat and Ronald Bruner were supposed to be the rhythm section. I forget the reason they all ended up cancelling on me the day of the gig, so I called Miles Mosley, Brandon Coleman and Tony Austin to come play and somehow they all showed up! My first thought was to have them do alternate sets, then I thought it would be interesting to see how they would all sound together. We sounded amazing, you would think we had been playing with a double rhythm section for years the way everything fit so perfectly.”

Musical osmosis aside, the emotional charge of The Epic can be traced to an experience Washington had as a boy that proved a turning point in his life as a musician. At the age of 13 he used his father’s horn without permission to figure out how to play his favorite song at the time – Wayne Shorter’s ‘Sleeping Dancer Sleep On’. “I ran and showed him and he immediately took me seriously. Literally, the next day he took me to join the band at my uncle’s church! At my uncle’s church they were so into the spirit of music. We never knew how we were going to play the songs or even what key they were going to be in, everything had to be, as the choir director would say, ‘led by the spirit’. All the musicians and singers would just flow and at some point every week we would reach these amazing climaxes! As I learned about other musical traditions, styles, and cultures I’ve always found that so much of the music that I really loved had that same kind of approach even if the musicians didn’t mean to make ‘spiritual music’.”


Review Kamasi Washington – The Epic

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This article originally appeared in the August 2015 issue of Jazzwise. Subscribe to Jazzwise

Kurt Elling – Out of This World

Kurt Elling

Kurt Elling’s richly resonant, subtly virtuosic voice is one of the most recognisable and celebrated in jazz earning him a Grammy for his 2009 album Dedicated To You alongside 10 other Grammy nominations, and seen him top numerous critics polls. Yet with the end of his 20-year musical partnership with pianist Laurence Hobgood, Elling is now seeking out new artistic territory, as heard on his latest album, Passion World, which sees his globetrotting tastes exploring music from Brazil, Ireland, France, Scotland, Iceland and Cuba. Peter Quinn spoke to the singer about his journey into the unknown, embracing change and his hopes and fears for the heart and soul of humanity

Kurt Elling is ringing the changes. On the business side, he’s with new management. On the artistic side, his latest release, Passion World, is an ambitious new project which casts its stylistic net far and wide, mostly from outside the jazz canon. But the most far-reaching change since our last conversation (‘Up On The Roof’, Jazzwise 169) is the ending of his long-standing musical relationship with pianist and arranger Laurence Hobgood.

When I spoke to the producer of Elling’s 2011 album The Gate, Don Was, at the time of the album’s release, he noted the following about the closeness of Hobgood and Elling’s musical relationship: “What I discovered as producer of The Gate is that Kurt and Laurence together form this kind of living organism that is rapidly evolving over time. The way they work off each other is really unique, and magnificent.” Sitting in the top floor bar of a central London hotel, surveying the city’s vastness, I suggest to Elling that to end that relationship – Hobgood had been a key collaborator for almost two decades, from the time of the singer’s 1995 Blue Note debut Close Your Eyes – must have been incredibly difficult.

“It was,” he replies. “And I’m confident that in the fullness of time we’ll be able to, and we’ll both desire to, revisit it. It’s a long, long time working with somebody like that, and him working with somebody like this. I’m certainly proud of everything we’ve done together and everything we learnt together and everything we taught each other. But I think it’s just a natural part of the adventure that you try different things with different people.

“God, I’m learning so much about skills I didn’t even know that I had developed,” he continues. “Putting the new record together felt like a much bigger risk: just the doing of it and the emotional support that I got from the guys in the band. They all knew that it was a new way of going about making a record, me not having Laurence there as a sounding board. Laurence needs to have the freedom to not be bound by whatever creative decisions I want to make on the stand. And while it’s true that we have been stronger together, I’m pretty sure we’re strong individually, and he deserves the time to find out where his trio thing can take him. And who wouldn’t want to hire this guy, right?”

Following this parting of ways, I wonder who Elling now looks to as his sounding board. “I don’t think that there is one at this point, it’s developing,” he says. “We don’t have a stable piano chair. It just makes sense, after 20 years, not to be tied down again. And it’s an open-ended question as to what the band sound wants to develop into. John McLean on guitar has been with me long enough that I know what kind of things he’s capable of and I want to play off of those elements. And that probably means getting a lot more B3 in the mix, so I’ve got to have a piano player with a slightly different skill set. And it takes a while for band personalities to gel and for things to become themselves. The important thing is to make friendships and value people and value the experience. I just want it to continue to open out. While I’m on earth and while I can do this stuff, it isn’t just going down the one track. I think that would be boring for everybody. I want to be surprised and I want to surprise myself.”

The impulse behind the singer’s eleventh album, Passion World, a stunning collection about how love and heartbreak is interpreted through song in different musical cultures, stems from a long-standing desire to perform with the French accordion maestro Richard Galliano. Elling vividly recalls the first time the accordionist crossed his radar.

“We were on a festival together in Brazil. The level of musical eloquence and dexterity was just thrilling. And, of course, the sound. As a Chicagoan I can go down the road of an accordion player: I can hears me some accordion, brother! Then I heard him in Paris a couple of times and started to dig into the recordings. Jazz at Lincoln Center invited me to do some nights and, as always, I’m trying to figure out where’s the road in my head leading me. And Galliano’s was the name at the top of my list. I didn’t even think it would be possible: the guy lives over in Paris, who’s going to pay for that? So Jazz at Lincoln Center, bless them, said OK let’s do that. Wow, well, I better get to work. I had heard him in enough contexts that I knew he was pretty omni-competent and ready to play in many different styles. So some of the things that we had been doing to reach a hand of friendship out to audiences came more into focus and then it became that kind of a show. It’s incredibly gratifying to have a friendly relationship with a guy that doesn’t even speak the same language.”

With new lyrics penned by Elling, including a particularly beautiful line in the Pat Metheny song ‘After The Door’ (originally titled ‘Another Life’) – ‘The songs I already know, lovely as they are, should grow into something more. There’s a world of love and music after the door’ – appears to sum up the entire ethos of the album.

“I was hoping it would,” Elling says. “I was hoping the message would get out. Life is the adventure; you want to find out what’s out there. It isn’t until you tie yourself to the bench that you discover: are you really willing to sacrifice? Are you really willing to have your heart broken? Are you really willing to risk it all? Are you dedicated enough? Can you figure out a way to be smarter than everybody else in the room at this one thing? And as you go down that road, you will have your heart broken, and you will sacrifice, and if you are dedicated enough you’ll find out. And as that happens, you’ll be out in the world and it isn’t just the music. But it’s the same road. And it also speaks a little bit to parting with Laurence. It’s like, well I know all these songs, what don’t I know? I know how to sing all these ways; can I also learn how to sing these ways? Can I work with these people?”

The album’s eclectic song list draws not only on Brazilian and Cuban music, but also on French chanson, Brahms, and traditional Scottish music, the latter remembered from time spent as a student in Scotland before his journey in jazz had begun. “I had this stupid ukulele along with me,” he recalls. “And I busked a little bit, which was just embarrassing. But it turns out you only need five or six chords to do just about any tune you want to play. And that song stuck in my head.” Kurt Elling busking traditional Scottish songs on a ukulele – no, I can’t imagine it either.

If Passion World represents a search for new sound worlds and musical relationships, with Elling’s voice now having reached its full maturity, I ask if the album also illustrates a desire to draw on new stylistic elements? “Oh yeah,” Elling says. “With Passion World I’m trying to sing believably in different languages and slightly different styles. I don’t want to just jettison my jazz identity or anything like that. I want to meet in the middle. But I’d love to learn how to sing some fado, because it’s so gorgeous and profound. Turkish music: I’d love to get over there and kick that stuff and figure it out. Because it’s beautiful. If I can investigate some other things and have some more friendships, that’s really what it’s about. I haven’t even touched on Asia or Africa on this record. I’m kind of thinking of this as volume one, although I don’t have specific plans for when a volume two would appear. But, God willing, I’ll be able to tour a little bit longer and learn some more stuff.

“That’s really the way that I like it to come. I meet somebody out there who’s another musician, like Galliano or my friend Toku over in Japan – a really great singer, flugelhorn player, a beautiful cat. ‘Well, hey man, let’s go out and hit Tokyo and show me what this is about’. In addition to having the friends in the band, there are a lot of people out there, there’s a lot of ingenuity. That’s one of the big rewards of being on the road. If you’re going to be away from your daughter, you better figure out a reason to do it beyond the soundcheck. I better, otherwise I’ll jump out the window.”

As one of the busiest jazz artists on the planet, performing 200 shows each year, Elling knows all about the road. His touring schedule, he tells me, has got a little out of control. “As a musician, it’s great to be out on the road, I’m grateful for it, I’m happy to be in London again. As a father and as a human being, it’s a little too much.” It’s one of the things he’s looking at with his new management team. And being away from the US so much necessarily means catching up on events back home via foreign media, which must give him an interesting perspective on the disturbing recent events in Ferguson, Baltimore, and elsewhere.

“The thing about it is, that’s been happening forever in the States, it’s just that it’s coming to light now. There’s a cancer in the body politic – there’s so much fear, and there are so many moneyed interests playing off of that fear, and trying to increase the fear so that they can have more control. That’s really what it comes down to. People are trying to play it, and the Supreme Court hasn’t stopped the incredible money slush that’s just cascading in from these corporations and individuals. And they’re just trying to buy everything that they possibly can. The Senate and the House are totally corrupted. I could point you to some true idealists, people I individually believe in, but it’s quite a sick moment for politics in the US. We’re at such a dangerous moment in global history, and if you can’t have somebody who’s as sensible as Barack Obama, and dispassionate in the best possible way about logical choices, if you can’t have somebody like that truly lead the country as a unit, rather than this crazed, bombastic, downward spiral into greater and greater depreciation of the discussion, then I don’t know. All I can say is, there’s a kind of insanity.

“There will always be challenges, and there will always be pain, and there will always be disruption and destruction. Human nature and the world being what it is, we can’t escape ourselves and our fate. But if we actually wanted to, we really could make it a lot better. We really could.”

If Elling despairs about the political mess at home, he remains absolutely clear-eyed about his role as an artist. As one of the music’s preeminent practitioners, he sums up his task simply and succinctly: “To sing well and to create a beautiful experience for audiences. And that’s a big enough job.” And with Passion World Vol.2 already a twinkle in his eye, there’s clearly a lot more love, music and beauty to explore.


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This article originally appeared in the July 2015 issue of Jazzwise. Subscribe to Jazzwise

Phronesis – Above and Beyond


Since their breakthrough 2010 album, Alive, Scandi-Brit jazz trio Phronesis have been building an unrelenting momentum thanks to the special energy that sparks between bassist/band director Jasper Høiby, pianist Ivo Neame and drummer Anton Eger. Transmuting their visceral, highly kinetic live performances once again into a bristling, melodically-charged new live album, Life To Everything, Selwyn Harris spoke to all three members about the band’s success in Australia, America and Europe, their collective bond, their fight to get their music to audiences beyond the jazz world and, of course, their latest album 

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” is the Copenhagen-based, Swedish drummer Anton Eger’s response to my question as to why Phronesis has chosen to release another ‘live’ CD. Life to Everything follows in the footsteps of 2010’s Alive that was also recorded live onstage. That album was the one that propelled Phronesis to a whole new level. With their invigorating take on the art of the post-EST contemporary piano trio it grabbed the attention of critics and audiences alike, making most end of year jazz polls, including the top spot in both Jazzwise and MOJO. So it’s a valid point Eger makes. On the other hand it’s clear speaking to all three of them that Phronesis could never be the kind of band content just to rest on its laurels.

“I think we can just let go more ‘live’ than in the studio obviously,” says the pianist Ivo Neame, currently the trio’s only London-based member. “It just feels a bit fresher. There are more possibilities for interpretation of the music rather than it being tightly arranged. It just allows the music to breathe a bit more. It’s that thing about jazz as well; it’s best in front of an audience. It’s an interactive thing. The presence of the audience influences the course or direction of the music. It’s the oldest rule in the book in a way and doing that, improvising and playing in front of an audience, you’re going to be playing so differently to doing it in front of a studio microphone. And jazz musicians in a way need that, they need the presence of the audience to maybe give a weight to what they’re doing.”

“That’s where you get the energy from and in a way there’s a tension as well,” says the former London-based, Danish acoustic bassist/band director Jasper Høiby who’s sitting alongside Eger, speaking to me on a Skype connection from his home in Copenhagen. “We had three shows on two days and that’s it. If you really don’t get it, then you don’t even have an album. I think it brings the focus and some kind of nervous energy for everyone playing but also an extra focus I think that makes you really concentrate, bringing everything you can to it. It doesn’t need to be in the studio. The only thing is, you can’t really hear as you can in the studio of course. You can still do some edits but you can’t go and really tweak things around and chop things.”

“And that was the nice challenge I think in the whole process,” adds Eger. “Nowadays it’s so easy to edit everything into perfection and if you’re in the studio you use the studio as a tool in that sense as well. But a live recording is what it is. You can’t mess around with it. People were there to witness it and that’s what you’re documenting.”

But as well, as Neame explains, practical issues were a big factor in the decision to record the CD live at The Cockpit in Marylebone in a series of three sell-out gigs at the London Jazz Festival. “The trouble as well with the UK is there aren’t decent relatively low cost recording studios with a good piano,” he says. “The only one was Real World, Peter Gabriel’s studio. In my opinion that recording studio is the best, the conditions are optimal there in terms of making a good record in terms of sound, room, the quality of the piano and the booth for the drums. If you had the money to go to Abbey Road you could go there but no one’s got that kind of budget really so in some ways the conditions in The Cockpit are just as good if not better than a professional recording studio in the UK, I would say. That’s also the problem with the piano because a lot of these recording studios are rock and pop and they’re the ones with the budget and they don’t need a very good, well functioning piano. The thing is if there wasn’t piano in the band you’d be all right because there are lots of really good studios around.”


“The whole commercialisation of the US is a terrible thing and it affects jazz. It means the best jazz musicians are having to tour in Japan and Europe to get paid.”


Life to Everything is their third on the growing jazz indie Edition Records, and the fifth since their 2008 debut Organic Warfare, which was released on the recording offshoot of North London’s LOOP Collective, from which the band initially emerged. Taking their initial cues from Esbjörn Svensson Trio and the globally rhythmic jazz trios of Chick Corea and Avishai Cohen in particular, Phronesis has evolved into a piano trio with their own distinctive soundworld. Rather than looking outwards for inspiration and extending the sound palette with other instrumentation or electronica for example, as has happened with other piano trios, Phronesis has maintained a focus on developing a deeper, closer, more equal relationship between the members of the band. You can hear on Life to Everything how that focus has reached an entirely new level.

“I think you wouldn’t be able to change anything without actually changing one of the strongest, fundamental things about Phronesis,” says Neame. “There is the sound to the music, rhythmically the grooves and the whole approach and when you start tinkering with that too much, you lose the intrinsic qualities. In a way those are the parameters and it’s working and then that’s obvious in the way Jasper used to write all the tunes and now Anton and I are writing the tunes as well. We’re writing music for Phronesis or I’m writing for Jasper and Anton. The frenetic rhythms and polyrhythmic approaches, bass lines being very important and leaps in the register of what the bass plays. Jasper is good at orchestrating that on his instrument and obviously Anton with all the metric things that he’s good at, implying different pulses, playing one pulse over another, and exploring metric modulations, there’s a lot of that on the new album because that’s the way Anton approaches writing.”

Most of the writing was done on a whirlwind worldwide touring schedule in 2013. It included a range of international venues almost unprecedented for a young European-based jazz ensemble. The year started off in Europe, and then Australia. Both Neame and Høiby pick out Australia as a highlight. Says Høiby, “I remember playing Melbourne in a massive concert hall. It was so big and I thought no one’s going to come! It was just a great, great feeling to do that on the other side of the planet, it was just mind boggling.” In the summer the ‘tour bus’ arrived in Canada with appearances at the Montreal, Vancouver and Edmonton Jazz Festivals followed by New York’s Jazz Standard and receiving a live review in The New York Times. This was followed by autumn dates on the west coast including the world-renowned Monterey Jazz Festival. Says Eger, “That’s also a box ticking adventure because it’s so hard for European bands to get a space there on the programme. Financially it doesn’t make any sense but it makes sense in the meaning of getting a new fan base and playing and reaching out to new people and spreading the music.”

Making inroads into the American jazz motherland is no small achievement for a European-based band. Traditionally a hard one to crack for any British band, let alone one playing under a ‘jazz’ banner, Get the Blessing, Empirical and the Neil Cowley Trio are among the very few to have given it their best shot when the opportunity has presented itself. Neame’s optimism is tempered by some frustration at the problems he perceives of keeping this momentum going.

“It was interesting in America because Phronesis went down really well over there,” he says. “It wasn’t like, what are these Europeans doing over here? It wasn’t like that at all. They were delighted. I think that’s because it’s a Scandinavian-British trio and there’s not many of them playing in America. My eyes were opened in that way because there’s a massive audience actually there for jazz from Europe because it’s different, of course culturally it’s always going to be different. It would be great in the future if there was some strong support structure for UK artists to be able to tour America and to play there regularly just to get round the funding issue because it’s difficult.” Høiby points to a few other obstacles. “You know what it’s like when Americans come to Europe to play, they pay like £10 and they have a sponsor who says he’s cool and that’s it you know. When European artists go to the States they have to pay like two grand in visa costs, then the travel comes on top of that, so that’s definitely a challenge. And also to travel with the double bass, airlines are really tightening up on the rules. That also makes it more challenging.”

European jazz festivals have increasingly been more open to scheduling homegrown artists in preference to those Stateside – especially with the imposition of tighter budgets of late. But Neame suggests that American musicians are still likely to be top of the menu in terms of programming.

“At the moment there’s a big imbalance I would say,” he states. “Because traditionally jazz is exported from America, and festivals book American artists because they’re thought of as the ones that are keeping jazz alive, and in a way they are, I’m not denying that. But it doesn’t really matter where you’re from, it should be valid wherever it’s from. Their music isn’t appreciated over there as well with the commercial music scene dominating radio. The whole commercialisation of the US is a terrible thing and it affects jazz. It means the best jazz musicians are passing round the hat in the 55 Bar and having to tour in Japan and Europe to get paid because it’s not appreciated and not subsidised by the state, even though it’s a very American artform.”

On connecting with new listeners outside what could be considered the core jazz audience, Neame thinks that “we’re getting there a little bit with Phronesis anyway after seven years. It’s so obvious there’s a massive potential audience but so many things stand in the way. It’s just the same old stuff, you know, trying to get rid of the prejudice that it’s an intellectual music, and performers not engaging with the audience.”

Part of the mission for Phronesis is to bring those barriers down. Their intoxicating energy and visceral onstage presence continues to draw in the kind of audiences the band speaks about reaching out to. But it’s the unswerving commitment and passion of what it means to be in this band, that has had the most positive impact on Neame’s other artistic projects.


“It would be great in the future if there was some strong support structure for UK artists to be able to tour America.”


“Some of the success can be counted in that we don’t do things by half and we don’t cut corners,” he says. “We just put a lot of effort in, Anton and Jasper both share these ideals. Taking things seriously. Not like this is an amazing thing we do but more like we’re just going to do as well as we can. It sounds very earnest but for me that’s actually important to give it as much of yourself as you can and to take it seriously in that respect but not in other respects like pretending we have huge opinions of ourselves. That’s definitely influenced what I do and it’s good in that respect if you’ve got people as well who are going to expect that kind of commitment and if you don’t give it to them they’re going to be very upset. That experience of being in a band where that shared responsibility exists, forces you to meet the requirements, to be on the same level. If you’re in something together if someone’s letting the side down or not pulling their weight or whatever it’s a natural way of everyone giving it the effort it deserves.”

In spite of having such close artistic and personal bonds to each other, Phronesis has always been split geographically. Having lived in London for years, Høiby moved back home last year, joining Eger in Copenhagen. Which leaves just Neame in London.


“I wouldn’t say I’ve had enough of London and I never thought I’d move back in some ways but all of a sudden I started feeling like it,” says Høiby. “To see and reconnect with old friends and be closer to my family, that’s been on my mind a lot. I’m not that old yet but I can really appreciate having a little bit more space too, he says. “Not having to drive around three hours of traffic from one side of London to the other to play a 50-quid gig or whatever. It can be really challenging and I’ve done that so much. I know England better than I know Denmark. So I’ve really fancied getting more time. In between playing and travelling around it’s been really hectic. At least when I’m here I have that focus where I have a little bit more time when I can write, practice and be close to my family and friends and Anton’s here so that’s not bad!”

Neame though hasn’t any intention of joining them, at least not yet: “It’s too cold and dark and everyone speaks Danish.” Joking aside the pianist tells me that now just isn’t the time. “With all the problems in the UK and the crap things about this country, I still like living here,” he says. “There are problems here especially in terms of the arts and jazz. But there’s loads of great stuff going on somehow. People are making interesting music and it’s inspiring and important to be in that environment. There was a gig at Cafe Oto recently, Fofoula, Brass Mask, Tom Skinner’s band Hello Skinny, all of that music is London-centric and if I’m really honest you don’t get that kind of variety in places like Copenhagen, it’s more homogeneous racially and I like the diversity in the UK on every level. I love Scandinavian people and their approach to life and culture and music in many ways, and in terms of politics the equality that is at the heart of a lot of Scandinavian people that we don’t have over here. Here you get millions of people voting for Boris Johnson. I don’t think he’d get in over in Copenhagen.”


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This article originally appeared in the April 2014 issue of Jazzwise. Subscribe to Jazzwise

Sons of Kemet – Rhythms of Remembrance

Sons of Kemet

Sons of Kemet – the supercharged double-drums, tuba/sax four-piece led by clarinettist and saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings – arrived with a bang in 2013 with their aptly-titled, incendiary debut album, Burn. Winning a MOBO Award and a ton of critical praise the album’s dub-edged mash up of jazz, reggae, African and Caribbean sounds encapsulated a melting pot of music and cultural references in an organic sound-system assault. Selwyn Harris spoke to bandleader Hutchings about how the groups’s new album, Lest We Forget What We Came Here To Do, takes these socio-cultural ideas into rawer, even more unfettered sonic realms

Shabaka Hutchings seemed to be in two places at once on the evening previous to our meeting in a café in the Dalston area of east London. On the same night as he was being presented with an award for ‘Instrumentalist of the Year’ at the Jazz FM awards, he was also leading his Spitalfields Re-Sounded project (he’s the current associate artist there) with his Afro-futurist psych jazz rock band The Comet is Coming at east London’s atmospheric alt music venue Village Underground.

“It was like mad,” he tells me, his tone of voice not rising above mellow, as we speak over a coffee on a humid summer afternoon in early June. “Do a soundcheck, across to the awards, get an award, go back to the gig. I got a cab.” While it’s hardly a typical ‘day in the life’ of the London-based saxophonist/clarinettist, it’s not an isolated example of the kind of acknowledgement recently accorded to him either. Other highlights could include his tenure as a BBC Radio 3 New Generation artist from 2010-12, working on platforms often the preserve of serious classical musicians, through to receiving a MOBO Award for his band Sons of Kemet in 2013 and most recently being named a Downbeat Rising Star on the clarinet. His searing spiritual-jazz sound on the tenor sax and clarinet has also earned him stints with the Sun Ra Arkestra, Polar Bear, Jerry Dammers’ Spatial AKA Orchestra and Mulatu Astatké among others. As a band leader-composer his work is an organic synthesis of written and improvised music that draws from a very broad range of reference. He’s equally at home with various kinds of classical music, electronica and rock as he is with the cultural melting pot of music from the black diaspora that’s connected to his Caribbean upbringing.

“I treat music like an individualist thing,” he says. “Me as an individualist developing. Then I put myself in situations to allow that development to manifest in certain ways. I like the idea of getting influences but not having them be a pastiche. So you can tell the influences if you really go into it but on the surface the music I make is always evolving because it’s got different bits of everything I’ve been involved with.”

Formed in 2011, Sons of Kemet’s intensely sensual music hits you straight in the gut, though it’s balanced by an incantatory post-Coltrane intensity and nuanced rhythmic detail drawn from urban contemporary as well as traditional sources. The line up boasts a double drums Brit A-team of Seb Rochford and Tom Skinner and the tuba player Theon Cross, who replaced his mentor Oren Marshall at the start of 2014 and has previously impressed in his linchpin role for Tom Challenger’s Brass Mask. In Sons of Kemet Hutchings seeks to reinvent his Caribbean roots from the perspective of a London-based contemporary musician as well as by connecting to its African heartbeat. Drawing from among others New Orleans street grooves, Afrobeat, Nubian music as well as Caribbean dub and calypso, Hutchings has, with the assistance of ethnomusicologist friends, collected field recordings from Tanzania and other African nations as source material for Sons of Kemet, though he says, “it’s not about trying to mimic indigenous cultures or what other people do, but it’s kind of taking the ideas that I like from what they’re doing and trying to see what I make of it”.


“You’re not just here to be here. You’re here to further the thinking about what your meaning is”


Rare for a debut, Burn in 2013 had an immediate impact on a wide range of critics and audiences, appearing in many end-of-year jazz charts. The follow up, also on NAIM Jazz Records, is Lest We Forget What We Came Here To Do, a title that puts a refreshingly positive and intelligent spin on aspects of the diaspora relating specifically to cultural immigration and assimilation.

“When I was thinking about the album and the very first tunes I wrote for it, I was thinking about the legacy of black people in England from the point of seeing my grandmother coming over two generations from here to my generation and how the priorities are different,” says Hutchings, who was born in London in 1984 but raised in Barbados from the age of six. “So I had lots of talks with her around the time I was recording the album about what it was to move to England from the Caribbean, what she was here to do. And it was like she was here to work. The conditions in Barbados at that time weren’t really conducive to making a living or furthering yourself. It was quite a non-enhancing environment. So she and her generation of immigrants came here to actually better their lives and also to make the lives of the people back home better.

Then you find the next generation, which is my mum’s generation, they had the teachings of their parents in terms of you’re here to make yourself better. But then two generations down the line looking at unemployment figures, looking at lots of images, the media portrayals of black children of a certain socio-economic background it seems that those lessons haven’t been emphasised enough. Because we have been incorporated into someone else’s cultural situation, we’ve lost that sense of that we’re actually here to do our thing. Now it feels to me like we’re just here because we’re all British and we’re all in here together. But I think it’s important to remember that we’re not here just because we’re here. We’re here to actually, 1/ better ourselves and 2/ expand what culture means considering the fact that we are integrated into a multicultural climate. And that stems into Kemet. It’s not a matter of saying: I’m holding on to this culture. It’s a matter of saying I want to expand on the cultural aspects of where I come from and also incorporate it into the situation I’m in at the moment. I think it’s just important to remember the ambitions and the facts that you’re not just here to be here. You’re here to further the thinking about what your meaning is.”

In another way, Hutchings applies ‘meaning’ to a few of his new compositions on the album: ‘In Memory of Samir Awad’ and ‘The Long Night of Octavia Butler’, refer to an innocent young victim of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and an African-centric science fiction writer respectively. But he emphasises that, “it’s not necessarily important to have a meaning but I find there just are meanings behind the songs. So if there is one then I let them have it. But there is meaning behind everything. It’s whether you want to address it and the expression of that based on an implication of that does serve the music. The guys in the band, we all are on the same page in terms of thinking about politics and life and stuff. Music is a kind of expression of what is happening, like the kind of zeitgeist, because we operate in the times we operate in unless we’re actively trying not to, as happens a lot in jazz. If we’re trying to be open and give a reflection of what we go through, then we give a reflection of our times. I think even that has value in that it allows people to get a mirror of what they’re seeing and going through. It’s possible to walk through today without actually seeing what’s happening.”

Sons of Kemet

Hutchings is affable company but behind the boyish, diastematic smile is someone who takes very seriously indeed his responsibility as a creative contemporary musician to his forebears and to hopefully contributing towards a more enlightened ‘Kemetic’ consciousness in the present. Growing up in Barbados, from the age of nine Hutchings learned classical music to a high level on the clarinet, at the same time listening to reggae and calypso. Connecting the two came a lot later with the great opportunities offered to him as a BBC Radio 3 New Generation artist, studying orchestration in preparation for his composition titled ‘Babylon’ written for the BBC Concert Orchestra and Sons of Kemet, that was performed at the London Jazz Festival in 2012, and being commissioned to write a piece performed with the Ligeti Quintet in Cape Town in 2013.

“I didn’t really like jazz at first,” he confesses. “I think like lots of people of my age group at that time, I thought jazz was just old, rich people’s music. My mum was trying to make me listen to a Courtney Pine album and I was like ‘I don’t like it’. But when I came to England and heard Courtney Pine live then it blew me away. In terms of intensity, I like the feeling of the 1960s onwards. But I like the rhythmic conciseness of 1930s jazz. When I finally grasped what Louis Armstrong and Coleman Hawkins were about it was a massive breakthrough. It’s only maybe in the last three years that I’ve really understood their music. I saw what these guys were about in terms of really digging into the rhythm and making the harmony functional to the rhythmic connection between the soloist and the rhythm section. The same with Sidney Bechet. It’s only been a year since I’ve got him but I think it was a mask. I’ve listened to Sidney Bechet and heard what I’ve seen written about him or hear what I thought he was about. When I really heard him I realised this was a guy blowing the crap out of the soprano saxophone pushing the rhythm section and creating an unbelievable amount of excitement and the tone and the choices of notes he plays. For me Lester Young on the Jazz at the Philharmonic sessions with Charlie Parker is the man of the match in that. He drives the audience so hard. People are screaming, it’s all playing on harmonic information but he does things to connect the audience to what he’s doing with the other members of the band. Earl Bostic had that perfect match of being someone who’s perfectly in tune to the audience, but technically and artistically he was completely demolishing the sax. Within that continuum there were still all the levels of artistry pushing the harmonic boundaries, creating ‘meaningful’ art that can stand up outside the context of people dancing. Audience response is a big thing.”

Sons of Kemet’s new album drives this point home with a rawer, more pared down ‘live’ sound than previous album Burn. “One of the things Seb [Rochford] who produced it, wanted to do was to make an album with quite a bit of production but in really subtle ways. In some ways in terms of the development from the last album to this one, the last album was quite cavernous; it sounds mysterious and murky. This album was trying to get some of the feeling back that we get ‘live’ just by recording techniques. The drums are mixed so you can hear everything that’s happening, but still has the conciseness of a studio album.”


Review Sons of Kemet – Lest We Forget What We Came Here To Do

Feature John Coltrane – Giant Steps

Feature Charlie Parker – Bird Lives!

This article originally appeared in the August 2015 issue of Jazzwise. Subscribe to Jazzwise

Photos of Sons of Kemet by Tom Barnes

Cassandra Wilson – Sowing New Seeds

Cassandra Wilson

For all of the welcoming warmth of her instantly recognisable voice, Cassandra Wilson has never taken the safe option in a career that now spans almost three decades. From her key phase with New York’s M-Base collective in the 1980s, she’s journeyed far and wide through jazz, popular song, country and soul. Yet, as she tells Stuart Nicholson, taking on the musical and personal legacy of Billie Holiday on Coming Forth By Day, required an aptly fearless approach to capture the true spirit of this most iconic of jazz singers

When Ed Gerrard,Cassandra Wilson’s manager, started talking to music business insiders about her upcoming record project he immediately sensed a buzz of anticipation, “When you say to people, ‘We’re going to do a Billie Holiday record – and by the way we’re going to use the producer for Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and a couple of Bad Seeds are on the record,’ they go ‘What?!’” he recalled. And while Holiday tributes have been done before, and will certainly be done again, it’s hard to imagine a better realised hommage than Coming Forth By Day, Miss Wilson’s debut on the Columbia Legacy label.

Released in 2015 to coincide with the 100th anniversary of Billie Holiday’s birth, the album has been a long time coming from the one contemporary singer who has consistently prompted expectation – perhaps unrealistically – of raising the sunken treasures of Holiday’s memory. “I think the most important thing about Billie Holiday is that she lived her life on her own terms, and her music and her style, her approach to her music is very singular, very unique,” Wilson reflects. “She had a voice she believed in, and she never swayed from that, she was able to interpret songs and place them inside her voice, her life, her story, and there was no compromise, it was always about being true to her voice and her genius, because she was an incredible musician, not just a singer, but a great musician.”


The most important thing about Billie Holiday is that she lived her life on her own terms
– Cassandra Wilson


Following in Billie Holiday’s footsteps is not to be taken lightly – first there’s the burden of expectation such endeavours inevitably prompt (the majority of which ultimately disappoint), then there’s the way Holiday’s songs tend to swallow the identity of those who attempt to interpret them, and thirdly is the challenge of making songs that come date-stamped in a bygone era sound relevant today. Wilson effortlessly transcends these problems, imposing her own imprimatur on each song while simultaneously reinventing them for the 21st century. “That’s part of the gig, to have a fresh voice,” she says. “When you’re paying homage to a mentor, or someone who has influenced you, it’s very important you maintain and follow your individual voice because that’s always very important in this music. We knew we had to do something different, we couldn’t just revisit Billie Holiday and regurgitate the usual things that jazz musicians do. If you want to pay tribute to someone as radical as Billie Holiday was in her day, you have to be radical in your day. You can’t be safe, you have to take chances, and you have to reach for those elements in the music that are going to really help to create an environment that would represent her spirit.”

Cassandra wilson

Just like her move to Blue Note records in 1993, when producer Craig Street helped redefine her artistic vision with the seminal Blue Light Till Dawn, Wilson’s move to Columbia Legacy sees Nick Launay’s production of Coming Forth By Day revealing fresh facets of her musical personality. However, despite his initial enthusiasm for the project, Launay hesitated before taking on the challenge, “Cassandra’s manager Ed Gerrard said Cassandra wants to make a really adventurous record and I thought, ‘I’m definitely interested but I don’t know if I can do that kind of record’ – I’d never done a jazz record,” he recalled. “I just didn’t want this to be an experiment for me, and totally mess the whole thing up. But then I thought to make this work in an unusual way it would be great to bring in musicians who are not of that scene cos’ we’re not going to prearrange, it’s going to be all about getting great people in the room and jamming.”

The musicians Launay lined-up included T Bone Burnett, Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs; two thirds of the Bad Seeds rhythm section with Thomas Wydler on drums and Martyn P. Casey on bass; and long-term Wilson collaborators Jon Cowherd on piano and Kevin Breit on guitar. Together they interpret 11 songs that span Holiday’s career, plus one original. They are a strong and powerful representation of Holiday’s oeuvre, ranging from ‘All of Me’, a favourite of homesick G.I.’s in World War II, to Holiday classics such as ‘Don’t Explain’ penned by the singer herself, and ‘Good Morning Heartache’ that was specially written for her by pianist Teddy Wilson’s wife Irene Higginbotham. Nick Launay then played a wild card, “I asked myself who is the craziest arranger I know, and it has to be Van Dyke Parks,” he said. Pop aficionados rightly hold Parks in awe for his work with Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys, The Byrds and Little Feat among others and Wilson readily praises Parks’ string arrangement of ‘The Way You Look Tonight’ as among the album highlights, “It’s mind blowing,” she says while also citing ‘Good Morning Heartache’ and the final track on the album, ‘Last Song’ as among her favourites: “‘Last Song’ is for Lester [Young] – that’s one we all wrote in the studio together,” she adds.

Significantly, Wilson also does her version of perhaps the most famous of all Billie Holiday songs, ‘Strange Fruit’. She had previously recorded this on 1995’s New Moon Daughter (Blue Note), but here she sounds less in Holiday’s shadow, reflecting more of her own emotional response to the lyrics that comes bound up in what she calls “ancestral imagery”: “Jazz grows out of a certain language developed in the Americas as a result of the slave trade, so there are pieces and snippets of information that arrive on these shores, although all names are taken, spirituality is taken away, history is taken but there are some things that remain inside – deep inside – and this is the part of the arcane information that we retain.”

It is perhaps here that Cassandra Wilson finally becomes the singer she has always wanted to be, a singer of the past, the present and the future. “It was a great honour for me to do this for Billie Holiday,” she says. “I want people to remember her as a great artist and I want them to enjoy the music and hopefully have as much fun listening to it as we had making it.”


Feature Billie Holiday – The Highs and Lows of Lady Day

Feature Diana Krall – Standing in the Smoky Haze

Feature Miles Davis – Kind of Blue

This article originally appeared in the April 2015 issue of Jazzwise. Subscribe to Jazzwise

Photos by Mark Seliger

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