Shabaka Hutchings at the ‘Peak of Intensity’

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Reed player Shabaka Hutchings performs with Sons of Kemet.

(Photo: Michael Jackson)

When Sons of Kemet formed in 2011—a product of the burgeoning London jazz renaissance—the vibrant quartet drew attention for its body-moving dance rhythms and provocative nonconformity. Helmed by saxophonist/clarinetist/conceptualist Shabaka Hutchings, Kemet opened new collective vistas for improvisational, spontaneous adventures.

The band breathed new fire with its unorthodox instrumentation: Hutchings on saxophone and clarinet, sharing the front line with a tuba player, complemented by the dialogue of two drummers.

By 2013, the year of the band’s debut album, Burn (Naim Jazz), the quartet was still relegated to playing small spaces in the U.K., yet it scored an impressive club date at the Berlin Jazz Festival—and proved to be one of the key revelations of the event. When asked after one Berlin gig when he would be able to bring this excitement across the Atlantic, Hutchings lamented that it was “notoriously hard” to break into the U.S. jazz scene, where, at the time, he was virtually unknown.

That all began to change after Hutchings ventured Stateside in 2017. Leading another of his bands, Shabaka and The Ancestors, he played at New York’s Le Poisson Rouge in 2017. Impulse Records enthusiastically signed all three of his groups: the Ancestors, who traffic in a U.K.-meets-South Africa aesthetic; the synthesizer-fueled The Comet Is Coming, which, in March, released its first album for the label, Trust In The Lifeforce Of The Deep Mystery; and the fiery Kemet, which last year released its spirited Your Queen Is A Reptile.

In a figurative sense, Hutchings now truly has arrived Stateside, with Sons of Kemet topping the category Rising Star–Jazz Group in the Critics Poll, paired with his winning the category Rising Star–Clarinet. It’s an instrument that’s absent from Reptile, but often wildly present during concerts.

Also helping raise Hutchings’ international profile was a spotlight-grabbing turn on DJ Gilles Peterson’s 2018 compilation We Out Here (Brownswood), on which he played clarinet and bass clarinet on the track “Black Skin, Black Masks.” His connection to reed instruments goes back to his childhood in Barbados, where he studied classical clarinet, “taking it as far and wide as possible,” until he got hooked on the creative jazz of Don Byron. “I listened to [Byron] all the time, and that was the voice for me,” Hutchings recalled. “When I was in England, I met him, and after gigs he showed me a bunch of stuff. He always made time for me. It was good going through this because his uncategorizable musicianship inspired me to do the same.”

The 35-year-old Hutchings explained that the relationship among band members in Sons of Kemet continues to deepen. “It’s all about energy and enthusiasm,” he said over the phone from his London home. “On a basic level, we have an unspoken agreement that we all hold each other up. It’s trust because we listen to each other in a four-way conversation. It’s intense because we all play from different places and that offers us a lot of freedom to keep up the energy. Our shows are physically and emotionally exhausting because we are going for the peak of intensity.”

Oren Marshall was the original Kemet tuba player, but in 2013, one of his students at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, Theon Cross, took over. Hutchings shares a Caribbean music background with Cross, whose parents were born in the region. “That’s been great because we can share those musical inflections of reggae, soca, African,” said Hutchings. “I can write bass lines and Theon knows exactly where I’m going. He’s in the prime of his youth. Every show he gets better and better. And when I’m feeling exhausted, I look at Theon and he inspires me to keep going.”

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