This week London-based saxophonist and band-leader Shabaka Hutchings launches his new album Wisdom of Elders in the city it was recorded in – Johannesburg at The Orbit on Friday the 19th and Saturday the 20th of August.
Tradition shapes your work. For Shabaka Hutchings, that’s something he’s long understood. After years spent orbiting London’s jazz circuit, he examines and reimagines his influences with a dexterity that’s unique. Drawing out the vision underlying his new album, he says, “I see energy as being a form of wisdom to be passed down through the ages.”
The album is a document of sessions combining Hutchings with a group of South African jazz musicians he’s long admired. His connection to the group was Mandla Mlangeni (bandleader of the Amandla Freedom Ensemble), whom he’d flown here to play with over the past few years. Recorded over one day, the group drew on their South African lineage – heroes like Zim Ngqawana and Bheki Mseleku – to bring their own slant to the American jazz lineage being reconfigured in Hutchings’ compositions themselves.
The artists on the album are Mthunzi Mvubu on alto sax, Mandla Mlangeni on trumpet, vocalist Siyabonga Mthembu, Nduduzo Makhathini on Rhodes piano, bassist Ariel Zomonsky, percussionist Gontse Makhene and drummer Tumi Mogorosi. The album sleeve was designed by Mzwandile Buthelezi.
Hutchings first encounter with the rich legacy of the South African jazz scene was with Bheki Mseleku’s album ‘Celebration’. Hutchings says, “I saw it in the library when I was 18 and though I didn’t know Mseleku’s name at that point, I recognised Courtney Pine and Steve Williamson, two British saxophonists who I was really into at the time. The first thing that struck me about this album was the feeling of the music. It had so much joy!”
He remembers the impact the album had on him, “At that time I was trying hard to start the process of learning jazz. I would listen to artists and try to second guess what they were doing technically and how I could utilise elements of their style. With this Mseleku album, none of that seemed to matter. It felt like it was so much more than the intricacies of HOW he was creating the music. It invoked the feeling of why this music was being made. What stories he was telling through the sounds. This is the feeling I get when I play with my favourite musicians in South Africa now. There’s an attitude towards the creation of sound in which the feeling of the music reigns supreme and new stories, attitudes and reflections are being shown.”
Going beyond the jazz greats Hutchings cites, influences are drawn from plenty of other sources: caribbean calypso, central African song structures and Southern African Nguni music all play a part. Bringing together those ideas with the contributions of his bandmates is, he explains, crucial to what he sees in the role of an album artist. “Even though I wrote all the music, for me, the leader of the project isn’t the person who writes all the music but the one who has a vision for how certain musical elements will be combined.”
Unpicking the album’s title, he continues, “When we study the music, the lives, the words of our master musicians we obtain a glimpse of that artist’s essential energy source. This is the core vitality of the individual which leads them to utilise the musical specifics of their chosen genre in a way that mirrors their inner source of power. This is an intuited wisdom that’s handed to us from the legacies of our elders.”
His first trip to South Africa was in 2008 to perform at Pan African Space Station festival, run by Cape Town based organisation Chimurenga and by 2013 he was visiting frequently.
“My first musical point of contact was Mandla Mlangeni who I met in Cape Town and who invited me to perform with his Amandla Freedom Ensemble. Through association with this group and subsequent performances in Johannesburg I would meet and work with many of the musicians who I perform with in ‘Shabaka and the Ancestors’ which was recorded in February 2016 in Johannesburg.”
Born in London, moving to the Barbados from the age of six to 16; his tenor sax has become a regular sight on stages around London and beyond since his return. Receiving awards from Jazz FM and the MOBOs for playing in – and often leading – groups like Sons of Kemet, The Comet Is Coming, Melt Yourself Down and Sun Ra Arkestra, he’s part of a generation whose idea of jazz is pointedly unrefined. That’s to say, Wisdom of Elders comes from an artist interested in the indefinable gaps more than fitting into boxes.
“All my trips to perform in South Africa surprise me since I, and the musicians I perform with, develop musically in the periods when I go back to England. So the launch this weekend in Johannesbrug is set to be special since the music has had time to settle in our minds since the last time we played/record it. We’ve had a chance to develop with it in the corner of our musical periphery so I think a special energy will be fought to the stage. One of a fresh approach to this music.”
Friday and Saturday at The Orbit, 81 De Korte Street, Braamfontein, R180
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