Sparks Of Wonder, Discovery Propel Rising Stars

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Shabaka and The Ancestors, winner of the category Rising Star–Jazz Group, includes Ariel Zamonsky (left), Siyabonga Mthembu, Shabaka Hutchings, Tumi Mogorosi, Gontse Makhene and Mthunzi Mvubu.

(Photo: Tjaša Gnezda)

In 2019, five artists received pages of music with an express direction: “Learn these parts.” Comprising bass lines and horn parts, the charts would be transformed into potent music in the studio, following heady conversations among London-based saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings and his bandmates in Shabaka and The Ancestors.

The band, one of three that Hutchings leads, topped the category Rising Star–Jazz Group in the DownBeat Critics Poll.

“The struggle for me in the studio context is how to keep that excitement, that freshness,” Hutchings said. “What it comes down to is, we don’t labor recording.”

The leader—who plays tenor saxophone and clarinet on the band’s latest album, We Are Sent Here By History (Impulse)—also topped the poll category Rising Star–Jazz Artist. Among the contributors to the album are Mthunzi Mvubu (alto saxophone), Ariel Zamonsky (bass), Tumi Mogorosi (drums), Gontse Makhene (percussion) and Siyabonga Mthembu (vocals).

Hutchings and his Johannesburg counterparts sought to show up to the studio sessions prepared for mutual input and new discoveries. We Are Sent Here By History reflects two sessions, recorded a year apart then transformed by Hutchings into 11 distinct tracks during post-production.

Ideas surrounding the music—topics ranging from intrinsically racist Eurocentric curricula to perceptions of masculinity and the silencing of violent oppression narratives—emerged during studio discussions, generating layered, conversational momentum during the recording process.

The session’s first take became the album’s opener, “They Who Must Die,” a meditative gesture that features resonances from Mthembu, a brilliant vocalist and storyteller. “After a few takes, it becomes that self-reflection of ‘What can I do better?’ Hutchings explained. “That takes away that conversational element.”

Since he was a child, Hutchings has been fascinated with freshness. He spends his days considering possibilities, as well as intention. When he first heard Americans using the word “dope,” both in casual and poignant conversation, he liked it.

“I started thinking, ‘What does it mean to be dope?’ he said. “And I kept the longing to work out what the word ‘dope’ means. To me, it’s having the attitude towards life—or towards whatever you’re putting into your art—that’s constantly fresh and as creative as you can make it.”

For the Ancestors, every gesture, every impulse to create something new, emerges within the context of a continuum. “The music is part of an overall vision of how I see the world,” Hutchings said.

Mogorosi considers We Are Sent Here By History, in part, to be an exploration “into the larger story that can’t be contained in one space.”

“Taking your metaphor of the sea—that is inherited—we inherit as some sort of narrative that we get to navigate, or surf,” Mogorosi said. “When the wave crashes, it’s speaking to the moment of the event. But the event is [predicated] on this notion of being sent by something that came before. The music itself is a finger pointing to the moon, but not the moon.”

Hutchings and his bandmates share a commitment to collaborative discovery with another poll winner, Sarah Bernstein, who topped the category Rising Star–Violin. In recent years, the New York-based violinist, vocalist and interdisciplinary artist has been reframing sound in her mind, exploring the limits of sonic perceptions, on her own and with her longtime duo partner, drummer Kid Millions (aka John Colpitts, who rose to prominence as a member of the experimental rock band Oneida).

The two met six years ago when Bernstein began work on “a very loud set” that featured electronics, “noise” and solo expression. Shortly after their initial encounter, Bernstein began melding her set’s sound with Kid Millions’ approach, one she describes as “a very ecstatic drumming.”

“[My solo] expression grew alongside the duo’s growing,” said Bernstein, who won acclaim for 2019’s Broken Fall (577 Records), a duo album with Kid Millions. “I grew as an electronic artist [during the time] I was working with him.”

Despite aesthetic differences, Bernstein and Hutchings wield spontaneity that, moment to moment, has the power to move from rumination to confrontation in search of something honest. “Playing in this context of so much energy—spontaneous energy—is about getting to the root of something,” Bernstein noted. That intense focus during live performances changed something inside her, affecting how she now approaches every expressive setting. “To be always extremely immediate with energy is something I think about a lot,” she said.

Like Bernstein and Hutchings, two other poll winners—Lage Lund (Rising Star–Guitar) and Sasha Berliner (Rising Star–Vibraphone)—also embrace immediacy as part of their artistry. The opening track of Berliner’s 2019 release, Azalea, was nearly entirely improvised. Beginning as the spark of an idea for a harmonically open rumination, “Foreword” provides the listener with what Berliner considers “a homey-ness before [the album] takes off.” As an improviser, she leans as heavily on her own clear vision for where she wants to take the music as she does on her collaborators’ instincts about where it wants to go.

Berliner’s approach for Azalea incorporates sung and spoken lyrics with the addition of stark, wildly passionate recorded speeches and broadcast footage reflecting a range of topics, from the 2016 presidential election to the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements.

She crafted a hybrid of “electronic enhancements” and acoustic sound expansion for the album, citing Wayne Shorter, Esperanza Spalding and Ambrose Akinmusire as composers who have inspired her exploration of acoustic-electric instrumentation. “I was really intrigued by that sound and that aspect,” she said.

Unlike Berliner, whose new album is her leader debut, Lund has released more than half a dozen leader projects, yet he remains profoundly inspired by spontaneity and wonder.

“When I put a band together, that [discovery] is kind of what I’m looking for,” said Lund, whose working quartet includes pianist Sullivan Fortner, bassist Matt Brewer and drummer Tyshawn Sorey.

As Lund was preparing to record 2019’s Terrible Animals (Criss Cross Jazz), he learned that Brewer’s tour schedule prevented him from making the studio date. Lund adapted: “I thought, ‘Hmmm. Who else plays bass? Well, Larry’s pretty good,’” he said playfully, referring to iconic bassist Larry Grenadier.

The quartet entered the studio with no rehearsal session ahead of the hit. “I love that feeling of, ‘I’m not really sure if this is going to work out,’” Lund said. The former New York resident, who recently moved back to his native Norway, considers discomfort to be essential to freshness. “With Tyshawn and Sullivan, even though they’ve played that music for quite a while, I have no idea what they’re going to do,” he explained. “I can’t go on autopilot. But I know I’m going to like their choices.”

For all these poll winners, the impulse to create—and to seek discovery in creation—seems to be both a revered gift and a solemn responsibility. DB

This story originally was published in the August 2020 issue of DownBeat. Subscribe here.




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