Shabaka Puts Down The Sax

Shabaka Puts Down The Sax

In 2022, Shabaka Hutchings began the process of unwinding an extraordinarily exciting career that he’d spent more than a decade building. As the leader of Sons Of Kemet and The Comet Is Coming, as well as Shabaka And The Ancestors, he’d laid revolutionary poetry from Joshua Idehen, Kae Tempest, and others atop pounding acoustic and electronic grooves that borrowed from techno, Caribbean parade music, and more. He’d toured the world, slowly climbing from small clubs to massive festival stages, his high-energy saxophone style cutting through like a siren as the drums pounded.

But it all came to an end with surprising rapidity. He announced that Sons Of Kemet and The Comet Is Coming would break up as soon as their live commitments were met, and stated via his Instagram account that he would be laying down his saxophone at the end of 2023, in order to focus on mastering various types of flutes from around the world.

In November 2022, he released a 28-minute, eight-track EP, Afrikan Culture, billed simply to Shabaka. It featured him on flute, shakuhachi, clarinet, and bass clarinet, with guest appearances by harpist Alina Bzhezhinska, kora player Kadialy Kouyate, guitarist Dave Okumu, and electronic musician Kwake Bass. The music was gentle and meditative, more New Age than jazz, and it came wrapped in a simple sleeve with a sepiatone photo of Hutchings gazing somberly at the camera.

His new solo album Perceive Its Beauty, Acknowledge Its Grace, out this week, is more ambitious than the EP, but as he said when we spoke via Zoom — me in rural Montana, him at his mother’s home in Barbados — there’s a direct connection between them, starting with their titles. Hutchings is playing a little clarinet, various flutes, and shakuhachi throughout, and saxophone on exactly one track, “Breathing,” as though saying goodbye to it. And the music is based in simple figures, but arranged with great delicacy and complexity, whether providing a backdrop for a particular vocalist or just wavering in the air.

There are a lot of guests on the record, including harpists Charles Overton and Brandee Younger; pianists Nduduzo Makhathini and Jason Moran; keyboardists Surya Botofasina, Floating Points, and Laraaji; bassists Tom Herbert and Esperanza Spalding; drummer Marcus Gilmore; percussionist Carlos Niño; strings from Miguel Atwood-Ferguson; and vocal contributions from Moses Sumney, Saul Williams, Elucid, Eska Mtungwazi, and Lianne La Havas. The album’s final track, “Song of the Motherland,” features his father Orville Hutchings, aka dub poet Anum Iyapo. Oh, and André 3000 plays a Teotihuacan drone flute on “I’ll Do Whatever You Want.”

Over the course of about 40 minutes, we talked about the new music, how he’s presenting it live, the switch from saxophone to flutes, the current state of and enthusiasm for spiritual jazz, and much more. Our conversation is below.

Is this record, this new album a direct outgrowth of the Afrikan Culture EP? Do you feel like the same core ideas are at work on both records?

SHABAKA HUTCHINGS: That’s the whole idea. I mean, on even a more basic level, the two titles of the albums are supposed to read from one to another. So the whole idea of Perceive Its Beauty, Acknowledge Its Grace is Afrikan Culture, comma, Perceive Its Beauty, Acknowledge Its Grace. And then the next album will be the next sentence in a long form poem that encapsulates, hopefully, all the solo records of my career. But in terms of just musically, Afrikan Culture, I guess, was that first attempt to just use the instruments that I have that weren’t the saxophone to make something; to make some sounds that just, I guess, reflect my personal relationship with them. And yeah, I guess I spent more time on Perceive Its Beauty. But it’s basically the same core idea, which is, see what music the flutes actually bring out of me.

The range of guests on this is really something. Where did the compositional ideas come from? Like, which came first, the people you wanted to collaborate with or the musical ideas?

HUTCHINGS: The people came first, basically. And the main thing was trying to get everyone to play in a mode that I was happy with. Because, you know, it’s a really tough thing when you’re talking about compositional ideas, because when you get past a basic level of composition, actually the compositional idea is about how to direct the ensemble to capture the atmosphere that you want and the music — the melodic content — sometimes can actually be an inhibitor to getting the atmosphere and the vibe. And the vibe is something about the combination of players, [and] what information you give them to make them approach the instrument.

So for instance, one of the things that I did was have everyone not use any headphones or separation, and tell everyone that we want to be playing as if it’s the introduction or the outro of any particular song. We want to hold that space. Just to get them into a mold of how they engage together. So then I have a lot of material from the initial sessions that I can then go away with and compose over the top, [adding] alternate horn lines, composed melodies on the top. So it really was a produced album in that sense in that, yeah, there was the sessions, but I wanted to, you know — like, Flying Lotus was a big inspiration for this album in that I really like when it sounds like he’s gotten together a bunch of recordings, live recordings or studio sessions, but it’s the way that he finds the interesting bits of the material that’s recorded, how he programs them next to each other. What he decides to add, whether that’s like a kick drum, whether that’s other samples, and that’s the idea that I wanted to have with this album. Without it sounding like that kind of album, basically.

Kind of similar to what Makaya McCraven does in terms in terms of assembling live recordings and then overdubbing and…


The kind of oblique instructions you describe I think are very interesting as compositional strategies. It’s like, I always remember the story of Miles Davis saying to John McLaughlin, “I want you to play like you don’t know how to play guitar” [on Bitches Brew], you know?

HUTCHINGS: Yeah. And that’s like the most important thing. For me, that’s what separates a composer from someone who can present music to a band and hope for the best. You know, because that — you can hear the difference, because actually everyone can have their heads down reading the music and get a result that’s not the atmosphere that you want.

And I just keep coming back to the word atmosphere, because the older I get, the more I realize that that’s the thing. That’s the source of music. You know, you can play notes, you can get people to play along with you or to recreate sequences or patterns, but actually getting a particular atmosphere and holding it and creating a situation where as a bandleader, you’re able to instruct the band on how long to hold certain moments of tension or how long to hold certain atmospheres, in spaces that they might not even be comfortable in. That’s what differentiates one, I guess, composition with a certain amount of nuance and sensitivity. And that’s what I’m really involved with these days. The sensitivity in terms of the compositional approach, how to really be sensitive to everyone’s personality and seeing that each personality that contributes to the total music can actually live in the same space.

And instruction is one of the ways — minimal instruction is one of the ways that that can happen. If stuff is too explicit, sometimes people think about it too much, you know, or they think they know what they’re doing because you’ve given all this instruction, so they don’t actually think about it enough in terms of what they think your instructions mean. So yeah, there’s a fine line to be made.

The biggest difference between this record and the EP and your previous stuff is that there’s often a lack of explicit rhythm. So does that cause you to think differently when you’re playing and when you’re creating, when there’s not a big beat behind you?

HUTCHINGS: I guess so, yeah. I mean, I think I’ve got a tendency to play inside of and around rhythm in very subtle ways. So I think that when you’ve not got any explicit rhythm, you know, you can actually go deeper into the real subtleties of where you place your notes. Where I place my notes rhythmically. But I’ve not actually thought about that so much. I guess that would be in that there’s a certain, like, kind of forward motion that happens when you’ve got, like, a rhythm. And without it, there are just other elements — there’s other poetic elements that you’ve just gotta call upon to make the music go forward. If you’re thinking, like, this is creative music, and by creative music I mean we’re trying to get creative solutions to musical problems. So the lack of rhythm is a creative issue. That’s different to what I was dealing with the last however many years. So then, I have to just kind of sit back and think, how do I bring the music to any sort of climax? Or what does it mean to have a climax, or do I need a climax? If there is no drums or no rhythm, and all of these questions [are] being answered in whatever way I come up with, that’s for me what causes creativity.

And that goes right back into the question of why I decided to embark on this path of not playing the saxophone and playing the flute in the first place, in that it creates this creative issue that needs to be resolved. And the resolution might be me practicing more flute, because I know that’s the only thing I’ve got on stage. So I’ve got to find a solution to the issue of not having a saxophone. But that’s the thing that, for me, keeps the spirit of music alive. It not particularly being easy, and having to actually mentally struggle to figure out what to do next.

Was the decision to abandon the saxophone and clarinet in favor of the flute something that kind of built up in you gradually, or was it a road to Damascus kind of thing, where you woke up one morning and were like, fuck this, I’m done?

HUTCHINGS: But just to clarify, it’s not the clarinet also. It’s just the saxophone. So I’m still actually playing — I don’t really practice the clarinet a lot, and I just put it in my suitcase while I’m traveling. I mean, I used it for the last couple of gigs that I did. There’s one track on [Afrikan Culture], “Black Meditation,” that there’s a clarinet line. But it’s almost my, like, cheat card, having that Western instrument I can just pull out. But no, it was a road to Damascus moment when I, I realized all of a sudden…actually, it was after the first day of recording at the Van Gelder studio. And that was in, like, early May [2022].

I think after the first day, I was sitting down for breakfast on the second day of the recording, and I realized, actually, what I need to do is not play any more saxophone. You know, I need to not make it a — it’s not a competition for my interest. There is only one interest that I’ve got, which is learning how to play these flutes. And the way to do it is to, yeah, kind of relinquish the saxophone. So that was like a year and a half, a bit more than a year and a half ago. I started to prepare for the album at the start of that year. The start of 2022. And I wasn’t really practicing much saxophone even at that point. I was playing it on my gigs. But because the shakuhachi actually takes more muscular strength and focus and sensitivity around the chops, I just found I didn’t really need to practice the saxophone so much because the flute was keeping me in shape a lot more than the equivalent practice I could be doing on sax.

So yeah, it was just kind of a flash point of going, I think that I need to just publicly play the instrument that I’m privately most involved with and not have a situation where…privately I’m really into the flute, but for my job I pick up the saxophone, and I do something different to what I’ve been preparing in the background. I just realized, actually, if I’m going to be an artist, the definition of an artist is someone who presents the public with the results of their private work or private thinking. And it can’t be that I’m doing all this private thinking, but then I do something else for the entertainment of the public. I could do that. But I just thought that at this stage in my career, everyone would benefit if I do exactly what I’m really into, with as much integrity as possible. So that was the kind of road to Damascus moment. And then it was over the next year and a half, just like sitting with that decision, telling people, having to explain myself again and again and again, to myself and to others, that I realized that actually, it was the right course. Because there was nothing throughout the time of thinking about it over a year and a half to two years. There was nothing that swayed me into thinking that it was the wrong decision.

Now, once you knew that this was the transition, was that when you knew you had to disband your groups as well? And what has the response been from the other guys in The Comet Is Coming and Sons Of Kemet. Like, obviously they’re friends as well. So you know, they’re going to support you on that level. But was this a 100% mutual decision or were there arguments?

HUTCHINGS: There weren’t any direct arguments. I think I took a while to be able to — especially with Sons Of Kemet who received the news first — it took a while for me to be able to articulate myself enough for the guys to completely get what the deal was, because especially in a situation that’s as complicated and personal as this, it takes real communication. And I think that it’s been a learning process in how I communicate what I’m feeling and what I’m thinking about music to the rest of the band, and they fully understand and supported what I was doing, but it was just a journey of actually learning how to communicate this to them. And the same with Comet, actually.

We rely on reader subscriptions to deliver articles like the one you’re reading. Become a member and help support independent media!

Your dad is on the last track of this record. I didn’t know anything about him at all until I read the PR materials for the album. What’s your relationship like? Tell me about how that track came together, and tell me a little bit about him, generally.

HUTCHINGS: So yeah, I mean, I didn’t grow up with him. I grew up predominantly with my mum, who took me to Barbados when I was younger, when I was six. So I spent most of my time with her, even though I’ve kind of spent time with him throughout my life. And he’s basically one of these incredibly talented people, like multi-disciplinary, who’s really not…it’s one of these tragic cases where he’s never gotten the props that he really deserves. He’s got an album called Song Of The Motherland that was released in 1975 that I’m actually reissuing on my record label, Native Rebel Recordings. That should come out in May. And that album is one of the — I think it’s one of the real, trailblazing dub poetry albums that predated Linton Kwesi Johnson and Gil Scott-Heron, but never really got its due. He was a graphic artist also, so he did a lot of the covers for quite a few dub albums in the ’70s and ’80s. And he’s listed as either Orville or Orville Hutchings or Iyapo Hutchings. Yeah.

But since then, he plays mbira, he does a lot of ceremonial work in the community, and he’s just — he’s a graphic designer, he’s just an incredibly big talent that no one’s really heard of. He’s got a couple poetry books published also. So he’s not really done live poetry or any recorded poetry in years. His life has just drifted him away from that particular path of doing poetry. And he didn’t actually realize that he was coming to the studio to do that poem. I just got the poem from one of his books, I got the track all ready, and then when he came for something completely different, I was like, you know, I got this track I’d like you to hear, here’s one of your books, your poetry books from back in the day. This is the poem that I’d like you to read on it. So he listened to a couple minutes of the track and he’s like, okay, let’s do it. And he just did it in one take. And actually, his poem ends right on the last note of the music, and he hadn’t even heard the music all the way through. He just did it in one take and it ended perfectly on the last note. As soon as that happened, I was like, this is it, you know.

André 3000 is on your record, too, and you were on his. How long ago did the two of you connect? Because you’re on semi-parallel paths at the moment, in certain ways…

HUTCHINGS: So I recorded on his album when he was doing those sessions, and I’m on one of the tracks, and he was recording around about the same time that I was recording my — the first sessions for my album. This was around May, in 2022. So that’s when I first hooked up with him. You know, like Carlos Niño invited me down to the studio. And I went for a couple of sessions. And then I actually went and gave him a bass clarinet lesson. And he’s a really great bass clarinet player. You know, I think he just didn’t really realize it because no one’s, like, just kind of told him, you’re really great. There’s a couple of little technical things that I talked to him about, but he’s got a really great sound and just in terms of musicality and the ability to pick up an instrument and start the process of learning it really quickly and to the point where you can just start making music, he’s really quick, he’s a real musical guy. So then we just kept in contact from then, texting. I text him certain, you know, if I’ve got particular exercises or I’m going over new flute books or videos I’ll just send him flute material. And we’ve just kept in contact from then.

I think people don’t realize how long a journey this has been for him, because I saw him buying CDs at the Vision Festival in New York in 2017, which is this big free avant-garde event put together by William Parker and his wife. And now it’s 2024 and, you know, people are like, what happened to André? And I’m like, nah, he’s been around.

HUTCHINGS: He’s been around. Yeah, definitely. Yeah, I think it’s always a longer process than people realize, especially when it comes to creative music, like what you hear as any given output, especially for someone like him who is in such a completely different world. It’s just a real change in paradigm that has happened over an incredibly long time in terms of the fame, even having the confidence to say, I’m going to establish myself as a different type of artist altogether. And even that wouldn’t be something that’s quick. It’s not something that’s like, oh, it happened last year when we were thinking about a new PR direction for the album. It’s something that’s slow and soul-searching and, you know, painful in some cases — how to turn a corner, you know, artistically.

So recently Moor Mother tweeted, “Just imagine if some of the folks playing spiritual jazz was actually spiritual.” And I’m wondering if you think that that in particular is a term that’s lost its meaning, or did it ever mean anything? And did it die with Pharoah Sanders? What do you think?

HUTCHINGS: You’ve just got to think about what, spirit? What it means to be spiritual. Like, what does that mean? You know, that’s the first port of call. Like, what is spirit, if you’re talking about spiritual jazz music — I mean, the word jazz has a whole bunch of baggage in any case. But if you think this music, this instrumental music that’s predominantly concerned with spirit — for me, the spiritual aspect of what it means to include even the word spirit in amongst the music is that the priority is affecting the spirit. It’s not affecting the brain, it’s not affecting the analytical aspects of the brain that can break things into different sections and look at the music in terms of, you know, specifics of harmonic or melodic systems. It’s just concerned with, is the music affecting me on a spiritual level?

So then if you think what does spirit mean, if spirit actually means the energy that pushes you forward in one direction or another? It doesn’t necessarily mean a particular path within the direction of that orientation, it’s just, according to a lot of African ontologies at least… it’s slightly different in monotheistic religion that suggests that to be spiritual is to follow a particular route of spiritual energy. In a lot of African practices, they see all routes as contained within a broader body of energy. The same aspects of yin and yang, that you’ve got the darkness and the light in a balance of forces. And all of these forces are needed to complete a cyclical encapsulation of energy.

So if to have spirit is just to be able to harness an energy, and I guess if you’re [thinking about] what that energy should be in terms of having a vibration or a dimension of positivity and something that can actually move people forward in a way that’s wholesome and regenerative is to have some kind of, I guess, wholesomeness, some kind of consciousness of what we’re doing. And I think that’s probably what she was pertaining to, people that use the word spiritual — so, affecting the spirit — but aren’t necessarily even aware or concerned with what the implications are for them personally, as opposed to it being a tagline to just describe the sounds of the music. That result is like, the sounds of the music is one thing, but actually where you are in your actual progression of life being important, and like what the orientation of your energy is, where you’re actually — how you’re considering the music in terms of spiritual energy just being important.

So what are your gigs like at this point, presenting this new music? Because I saw Comet at the Mercury Lounge in New York, and the entire crowd was just bouncing and jumping, so what kind of atmosphere are you conjuring at gigs now?

HUTCHINGS: Well, I mean, we’ve done — I did the residency at Winter Jazzfest where I played in five different ensembles in January. And then we did the first three like non-festival, just kind of shows in Vancouver, Seattle and Portland a couple of weeks ago. And the atmosphere, those were in really great kind of hall spaces, amphitheaters. And the atmosphere was seated. And the music was just generally softer, I guess. Yeah. More intimate. I think that that’s the thing that came to me the most; there was a there was a bigger intimacy between the musicians on stage, and between the musicians on stage and the audience. And that’s what I think I’m just going for more with this music in general. For the last couple of shows that we did, what we did is actually start the set [doing] half the show of doing a series of duets between myself and each member of the group. So we really get into actually how I’m responding to each particular member on stage before bringing everyone towards doing an ensemble playing.

And that was really something I have not really explored so much with bands, because there’s this idea that the band means that all members on stage come in with a bang, and they play all together for the duration of the set. And that stops this, like, nuance in seeing actually, what’s the dynamic between one instrument and another? Sonically and energetically. And then what’s the dynamic between, you know, each possible permutation of instruments, with myself being the central point? And then seeing what happens when each balance is understood and then everything is brought together.

So I guess the main thing that I got from it is the fact that I’m actually just learning how to structure a set. It’s like, I’ve had a lot of experience in constructing a band set and seeing what happens when you get different forces to generate a big amount of energy and turn that energy into a show. But now it’s a different challenge in not using that type of energy, but still trying to find a way of having a coherent show and thinking about what does it mean to have a show, balanced with the need to have self-expression, the need to find what artistically is the best route to portraying all the music.

And so, yeah, I’m getting the answers slowly but surely. I finished these gigs, and during my time in Barbados, I’ve just been thinking a lot about the set, thinking about how I’d like to play differently from how I was playing in the bands. One of the aspects that has been coming up is just vamping. It just seems like the sets that I was doing in the bands Comet, Kemet, and Ancestors, they were quite snappy, in that we came in, we knew what we were all doing. We knew the set, we came in, played the tunes. There were moments to improvise, and those improvisation moments can be stretched, as the particular gigs needed. But in general, they were all at the service of the written material. That was the kind of solid landmarks.

But in these sets, it seemed to be that we’re trying to actually push the jamming outwards by getting to zones more, getting to more atmospheric spaces, [letting] the atmosphere establish itself before we get to the material. And just waiting and seeing how long it needs to take to get there. Which is something I’ve not really done consciously before, not kind of gone into the set thinking, let’s actually play slightly less material, but really get to grips with what we’ve got between each player and then between the whole band.

Perceive Its Beauty, Acknowledge Its Grace is out 4/12 on Impulse!

more from Q&A