Over the last half decade, Shabaka Hutchings has established himself as a central figure in the London jazz scene, which is enjoying its greatest creative renaissance since the breakthroughs of Joe Harriott and Evan Parker in the 1960s.
Hutchings has a restlessly creative and refreshingly open-minded spirit, playing in a variety of groups—most notably, Sons of Kemet, The Comet Is Coming, and Shabaka & the Ancestors—and embracing influences from the sounds of London’s diverse club culture, including house, grime, jungle, and dub. “The common theme in my career as a jazz musician has been wondering if what I’m doing is the thing that I should be doing,” says Hutchings, who studied classical clarinet at college at London’s prestigious Guildhall School of Music & Drama. “Me learning about jazz, how to play and interpret, was always a case of just trial and error. I think where I’ve come to recently is I’ve stopped trying to think ‘Is what I’m doing valid? or ‘Is what I’m doing part of the jazz tradition?’ and just see myself as a musician.”
Now 34, Hutchings first began garnering attention as a member of Melt Yourself Down, the “Nubian party punk” band led by fellow saxophonist Pete Wareham. Sons of Kemet (“Kemet” being the pronunciation of the ancient name of Egypt) marked his first group as a bandleader, and 2013’s Burn and 2015’s Lest We Forget What We Came Here To Do, both released by the UK label Naim Jazz, received significant acclaim, including a nod from influential DJ Gillles Peterson. Sons of Kemet’s new album, Your Queen Is a Reptile, their first record for Impulse!, is the band’s most fully realized creation yet, powered by Hutchings’ blazing, incendiary saxophone, Theon Cross’ tuba blasts, which sound like funky bass lines, and the high-octane interplay between multiple drummers (a revolving cast that includes Tom Skinner, Seb Rochford, and Eddie Hick).
Born in London, Hutchings moved to Birmingham at age two, then relocated to Barbados at six, remaining there til he was 16 (after which he returned to England). He began to play clarinet in the school band, and the calypso and soca music of Barbados’ Carnival not only provided Hutching’s first musical memories but informs Sons of Kemet’s kinetic intensity. “Everyone comes out on the street and it’s a massive party,” says Hutchings of Carnival, “and in some ways that’s the core feeling that we’re trying to get in Sons of Kemet. As someone from the Caribbean diaspora imagining that feeling, how I remember that feeling as a youngster, I want everyone in the room being so connected to that jubilant feeling of really just enjoying the celebration of music. That’s what I’m trying to get with the performances, the situation where every single person in that room can feel this energy that brings us all together. And once we are together, for me that’s when the transcendence can happen.”
In his teens he was obsessed with reggae and hip-hop, especially Tupac, Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, and E-40 (“he’s the Eric Dolphy of hip-hop,” Hutchings says of the West Coast rapper, “where he’s going is just completely out there”), and still practices by playing his saxophone along to rap albums like the Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready To Die. “What I’m trying to do a lot of times on the saxophone is provide that role of the MC, not from a narrative perspective but from the perspective of someone trying to provide this rhythmic relentlessness,” says Hutchings. “When I step on the stage in Sons of Kemet I’m not trying to be Sonny Rollins or John Coltrane, I’m trying to be someone like Capleton or Anthony B or Sizzla, in terms of just the energy that I’m coming up with: That’s who I want to be. My core vocabulary is jazz, but I’m not trying to have the energy of someone in a suit standing stationary in front of a microphone giving a nice round sound, I’m trying to just spit out fire.”