Live Music + Gig Reviews

Soweto Kinch @ Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

18 November 2010

The MOBO award-winner Soweto Kinch is one of the most eminent saxophonists on the British scene today, but in this concert his playing only told a quarter of the story. Just as important were the social commentaries inherent in his lyrics, the quality of his rapping in its own right, and his embracing of new technologies to pull the act off.

Kinch was premiering his new album The New Emancipation which comments on slavery, contemporary race issues, fame, capitalism and surveillance. His first piece, however, contained no lyrics and demonstrated his undoubted prowess on the alto saxophone. Sturdy and resonant, his playing was so focused and controlled that it became easy to forget the versatility he was demonstrating by the second. It is a standard technique for saxophonists to stoop forward as they play, but the degree to which he did so helped to contribute a sense of gravitas to his ‘statements’.

His second song, Trying to be a Star, was about our current obsession with fame. His strong voice interacted well with that of Femi Tomowo, who also played guitar for Kinch and provided an excellent first half set with his own quartet. As the group moved on to songs about slavery, images of black people working on cotton plantations appeared on a screen. Black and white photography can still encourage us to think that these things happened a long time ago, but the subsequent colour images of people being ‘enslaved’ in fields and factories today brought the realties of exploitation home.

Several guests appeared over the evening including the young Jason MacDougall. With (in Kinch’s words) “an age and weight to his voice” that defied his tender years, he gave a moving account of Help. The Matthew Herbert Big Band‘s vocalist Eska Mtungwazi also joined Kinch to sing Escape, a song that didn’t attack a target such as money or surveillance, but instead dreamt of rising to a higher plane. Harry Brown on trombone, Bryon Wallen on trumpet and Shabaka Hutchings on saxophone all provided magnificent solo support, with the latter also doing a turn on the bass clarinet, his final solo thunderously reverberating around the hall.

Kinch also involved the audience by asking them to blue tooth him any photos they had on their phones relating to freedom. As these were projected onto a screen, he rapped freestyle to describe them. This was the defining moment of the evening as, completely off the cuff, Kinch built in rhymes involving Centre Point and CCTV. Nor had the audience made it easy for him to comment on freedom by sending him pictures of nanny goats!

Prior to this, he had rapped the numbers ten down to one, providing a rhyming commentary on each. The poetry (and that is the right word) was prolific, although it was noticeable that his delivery didn’t feel quite as lucid as when he was freestyling. Kinch can come across as quite serious (undoubtedly a product of his tremendous intelligence) and it was the freestyling that really enabled him to loosen up and lose himself in his art.

If – and it’s a big ‘if’ – there was a criticism of the evening, it was that Kinch attacked many elements of the world around us without really suggesting a constructive way forward. The solutions he offered all concerned freeing our minds spiritually, rather than taking concrete action against the issues he raised. But no-one could doubt Kinch’s strength of feeling as he invited the audience to join him in Raise Your Spirit, and at the end he declared this to be “one of the most fun gigs I’ve ever done”. Kinch was paying a wonderful tribute to his audience, but the credit for such an incredible evening must ultimately go to him.

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Soweto Kinch @ Queen Elizabeth Hall, London