Sons of Kemet burn at New York’s Winter Jazzfest

Winter Jazzfest is a big deal in New York City. The festival offers fans the chance to hear hundreds of long-established and emerging artists over six nights and 14 stages. Among predominantly US-based performers, this 14th edition opened with a sold-out showcase of British Jazz, with Gilles Peterson hosting The Comet is Coming, Nubya Garcia, Yazz Ahmed and Oscar Jerome.

Fellow Brits Sons of Kemet (pictured) also performed as part of the festival's signature 'Marathon' event: two nights of over 100 groups in venues across Lower Manhattan. The quartet drew a hefty crowd to the 700-capacity Le Poisson Rouge. From the outset, their trademark driving rhythms filled the space in a way that only their sax, tuba and two drum sets can. There was no clue of the shift in band-members since the ensemble's first album, Burn (2013): with tuba player Theon Cross (below) and drummer Eddie Hick taking over from Oren Marshall and Seb Rochford respectively. While Hick and The Comet is Coming's Max Hallett (filling in for an absent Tom Skinner) played with distinct personalities, their masterful drumming worked seamlessly together, along with Cross's never-tiring tuba grooves, and Shabaka Hutchings' enchanting tenor sax riffs. Theon captivated the audience. His incredible chops, stamina and skill over the range and technique of his instrument blurred boundaries between relentless, percussive basslines and melodic, energetic solos; the crowd adored it.

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The tuba rested only as Cross took up cowbells for the ensemble's hypnotic instrumental rendition of 'Rastaman Chant', echoing Bob Marley's "Babylon throne gone down / I say fly away home to Zion". Concepts of home and confronting oppressive, institutionalised systems were emphasised as Shabaka introduced a piece from the band's forthcoming album, Your Queen is a Reptile, which is due for release on Impulse! in March. The group's third album questions the myths of hereditary privilege and 'validity', criticising the British empire, reclaiming a world where "people can accept their feminine leaders" and immigrants can question "obsolete systems". These are hot topics in the UK and US, and Shabaka's discourse fits well into Winter Jazzfest, which, according to the programme notes, "supports social and racial justice, gender equality and immigrant rights". From Marc Ribot's punk-jazz Songs of Resistance, to Alexis Cuadrado's politically-driven live soundtrack to Charlie Chaplin's The Immigrant, these themes reemerge.

Musically, Sons of Kemet also embodied this anti-hierarchical, borderless ethos, their new work retaining characteristic qualities: driving musical eclecticism, mixing dub and Caribbean sounds with Afrobeat, electronica-like rhythms, and New Orleans grooves. This reflects the diversity of Winter Jazzfest – from the sensory electronic experimentalism of Susie Ibarra's Dreamtime Ensemble, via Matt Wilson's poetry-driven Honey & Salt Band, to Jazzmeia Horn's R&B-influenced scatting. These showcases, then, were not about being British, American or other, but about discovery, compassion, energy, jazz. Nonetheless, it was thrilling to witness a UK band enthral a captivated New York audience.

- Celeste Cantor-Stephens
– Photos by Josh Cheuse

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