In the wake of my decision to check out more up-to-the-minute music, I plumped for Wire’s Record of the Year, Your Queen Is A Reptile, by British saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings-led collective, The Sons of Kemet, and was converted from the get-go. The great title is a reference to David Icke-type conspiracy theories that hold to the notion that our Royal Family are, not to put too fine a point on it, descended from lizards. As a counterpoint to this rather appealing idea, The Sons of Kemet (SoK) dedicate the tunes on their third record to’ Black Queens’ of the Present and of the Past, exemplars such as Doreen Lawrence, Angela Davis and Harriet Tubman, “our queens” as they are described in the liner notes. These are self-created women and self-empowered women, as opposed to this country’s rulers, on the throne “by right of blood, by way of lineage, by reason of tyranny, by the confidence of tradition”, as the sleeve notes would have it. You get the general idea, one that is a resonant one for the children of the Windrush Generation, and one that has been further explored by another of our great young saxophonists, Jason Yarde…
The cover of the record features a depiction of Afro-Egyptian female royalty, conjuring up images of the Afro-Futurism that Graham Lock called Blutopia in his 1999 book of the same name about Sun Ra, Duke Ellington and Anthony Braxton. ‘Kemet’ is another word for Ancient Egypt, which immediately puts us in Sun Ra territory, but it is refreshing that this fine group are (largely) black British, as opposed to hailing from the Windy City, as so many Afro-Futurists have done in the past. Having said that, the opening track,’ My Queen Is Ada Eastman’ is reminiscent of Chicagoan Henry Threadgill’s 80s Sextett,with its prominent percussive drive and use of the tuba. The album’s release being on the revived Impulse! label is another synchronous aspect of its presentational impact - the label that saw the release of so many fine Civil Rights-era recordings by modernist jazz masters such as Coltrane, Mingus and Shepp back in the day. The SoK use occasional vocals, informed by rap and ragga, but this largely instrumental work’s political heft mostly emerges through its passionate commitment to stylistic integration and continuity. Like Ben Lamar Gay, who I discussed a few blogs back, an Equal Opportunities approach to musical genres ensure that Afrobeat, rap, reggae, grime, jazz and improv all get a fair crack of the whip. The ancestor worship that is in evidence throughout, as hinted earlier, stretches back to Ellington’s ‘jungle music’ through to Art Blakey and the AACM, onward to our own Jazz Warriors of the British 80s and 90s.
Shabaka Hutchings deserves, and will probably get, a blog of his own. Suffice to say that he seems to be a Courtney Pine for the twenty-teenies, without disrespect to either man intended - comparisons are often invidious and unhelpful, but Hutchings’ lineage is connected intimately to Tomorrow’s Warriors, the educational music organisation which was a legacy of The Jazz Warriors and, accordingly, Pine himself. There is thus a continuity of young black British players, unspooling from the early 80s up to today. Hutchings met Steve Beresford at The Guildhall School for Music and Drama in 2008, which led to an invite to join the London Improvisers Orchestra, and thus offering an entree into the London-based Free Improvisation scene. He plays a major role in the Just Not Cricket! box set and DVD of British Improvisers recorded and filmed in Berlin in 2011. An interview in the April edition of this year’s Wire offers a full overview of his range of influences and playing situations.
The SoK’s sound is overwhelmingly poly-rhythmic, and the album uses five percussionists in all. Four tracks feature three of ‘em, and there are two pairs on two other numbers, those of Tom Skinner/Seb Roachford and Moses Boyd/Eddie Hick. Theon Cross on tuba obviates the need for a bass or basses (which Threadgill has used) and is the second lead voice after Shabaka. The latter uses a stuttering, staccato style on the faster numbers, and a riff-based approach to spark off his improvisations - the Wire piece by Phil Freeman suggested that he “works up a simple motif to the point where it can suddenly be flicked on like a switch, channeling massive bursts of energy”, which sounds to me like a description of Albert Ayler. Hutchings doesn’t quite reach that peak of intensity (who does?), but, having seen him live on several occasions over the past few years, I can quite definitely assert that he is getting there, or thereabouts. A great performer and a great band.