It begins with a gradually intensifying rumble of thunder and an explosion of brilliant light. This finally ushers in the long anticipated recorded incarnation of Shabaka Hutchings’ Sons Of Kemet. The band has been described as a supergroup in some quarters, given the high calibre of the musicians and their already demanding workloads in other projects. Yet it seems more accurate to describe the group as a powerful meeting of minds – a space where Hutchings’ interest in cultural history and politics can fuse with an appropriately heavy band vibe.
What will quickly become apparent to those new to the group (which has been performing semi-regularly since 2011, including a feted appearance at Cheltenham Jazz Festival), is the unusual nature of the line-up. Hutchings plays a variety of clarinets and saxophones, the low end is provided not by a bass but by Oren Marshall’s fervent tuba and the rhythm section is completed by both Tom Skinner and Seb Rochford (who also handles production duties) on drums. Skinner worked with Hutchings on another fascinating hybrid project Zed-U and also currently plays with the relentlessly energetic crossover group Melt Yourself Down and with Ethiopian jazz legend Mulatu Astatke.
With Sons Of Kemet, Hutchings has built on the groundwork laid out by Zed-U, which drew together ideas drawn from the worlds of dub, reggae, electronica and contemporary jazz. Kemet casts its net similarly wide, but takes the ideas to a new level of expression and clarity. The presence of Oren Marshall inevitably creates links to the foundational days of jazz in New Orleans, whilst Skinner and Rochford’s dual drum assault draws from Rastafarian nyabinghi (Count Ossie’s Grounation has clearly been a big influence on the group), marching rhythms, funk and free jazz (the varied colours and textures on The Book of Disquiet).
Hutchings is a naturally curious, independent-minded thinker, thoroughly immersed in literature, history and philosophy as much as in music. The Book Of Disquiet takes its name from an eccentric and fascinatingly fragmented novel from Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa. His compositions are conceptual and carefully planned, but the resulting performances also have the strong sense of freedom and spontaneity that comes with the musicians’ experience in jazz.
There are times (particularly on the contemplative, sometimes unnerving The Book Of Disquiet or the wistful, charming Adonia’s Lullaby) that it sounds like a pensive, atmospheric flipside to Melt Yourself Down’s recent celebratory escapades. The patient, extraordinary interpretation of Rivers Of Babylon rescues this most beautiful of standards from memories of Boney M and takes it to a place of spirituality and yearning. Yet elsewhere there is a restless and transportive energy – such as on the modified second line groove of Going Home or the urgent, apocalyptic warnings of Beware and All Will Surely Burn.
Given the group’s line-up, it’s a surprisingly poised and balanced set, the variety in feeling and texture greatly aided by Hutchings’ own malleability. His clarinet tone, sometimes supported by echo or electronics, is both graceful and haunting, but he is able to increase tension with impressive swiftness. Even at its calmest (Song For Galeano constantly threatens to shift from a whisper to a scream, but never actually does), this music feels completely alive and alert, with the musicians gently jousting with each other all the time. Without a chordal instrument, there’s plenty of space for Rochford, Skinner and Marshall to converse with each other, and also for the meaning inherent in Hutchings’ sometimes fragile, sometimes remorseless melodies to linger in the air.