All Hail King Shabaka! A Preternaturally Talented Artist Shifts Gears

( Photo by Danny Matson/Getty Images)
– Shabaka
If you haven’t heard Shabaka Hutchings and his brilliant tenor saxophone (and clarinet), his mind-blowing three projects in Shabaka & The Ancestors, The Comet is Coming and Sons of Kemet, any of the eight albums he’s released in the past seven years, his transcendent performances including his tour last year with Comet or the Spotify 2020 Coachella playlist in preparation for what surely would have been one of this preternaturally talented musician’s biggest breakout live performances, do yourself a favor.
“It’s totally exhilarating,” says Ashley Capps of AC Entertainment and co-founder of Bonnaroo, where The Comet Is Coming’s 2019 late-night ‘Roo set left the veteran promoter palpably blown away. “That Comet is Coming show at Bonnaroo was my fourth in six months,” Capps gushes. “I had seen them in New York at the tiny Nublu back in December. And then he came with both The Comet is Coming and Sons of Kemet at Big Ears Festival in March. And The Comet is Coming ended up playing twice. They did a regular set and then they did a secret show in the tiny little Pilot Light in Knoxville and then the show at Bonnaroo – I can’t get enough of them.” 
Capps is not alone in his assessment.
“He’s a brilliant player,” says Jamie Krents, EVP of Verve/Impulse! Records. “He’s an incredible writer, creative, articulate and completely on top of what’s going on in the world and one of the best live performers in the world. I can’t really think of better timing than signing him as we were relaunching Impulse!” Krentz puts Shabaka in a rarefied pantheon among the iconic label’s greats: “The label has had so many iterations over the years but, obviously, the gold standard is the classic Impulse! era through the ’60s with Creed Taylor, Bob Thiele and obviously Coltrane.”

It’s a lot for anyone to live up to, but with his growing body of work Hutchings, at only 36, is building something very special.

Comet Is Coming Shabaka
– Destroying The ‘Roo:
The Comet is Coming performing at the This Tent during at the 2019 Bonnaroo Festival on June 13, 2019.

“When we play live, it gets pretty intense,” says Hutchings who, like too many of us, is holed up in his home. For him, that’s just outside of London and far from the stages where his live performances elicit ecstatic responses. “The experience I’m trying to give myself when I play is always a similar one in that I’m trying to just get to this moment of peak intensity,” he says. “It’s a point where it’s like really, really intense musically, and then a point where it’s almost like everything just slows down and you’re able to then make decisions about how to manage the intense space that you’re in.”

It’s those time-warping intense moments where Hutchings converts the uninitiated and titillates devotees, which he accomplishes consistently with all three units. “Sons of Kemet was the initial incarnation of Shabaka’s thing,” says Rachel Millar, his manager of three years but who has known him for at least a decade as a sax player herself, producer the London Jazz Festival and working at the Leaf Label. “Sons of Kemet definitely taps more into his Caribbean roots [Hutchings grew up in Barbados and the U.K.]. He has put a lot of time and effort into it and it’s a very different thing. It’s the party band. It’s the band that you go and dance to. It works at jazz festivals. It works at non-jazz festivals. It’s got that big crossover audience.” It’s easily the most rocking tuba, sax/clarinet and two drummers combo in existence.
“And then The Comet is Coming is the rave band,” Millar continues. “It’s the high energy, high intensity– you’re going to a club and Shabaka can just blow. It’s actually more composed and less improvised and structured and written out. He [a.k.a. King Shabaka] is there with Dan [keyboardist Dan Leavers a.k.a. ?Danalogue; ] and Max [drummer Max Hallett, a.k.a. Betamax] and they’re a collective group. And it’s just going off. He really enjoys it because it’s completely switched off, enjoyable, just-blow-the-sax kind of music.”  Comet, Millar notes, is managed by Kerstan Mackness.
“Shabaka and the Ancestors is slightly more traditional, spiritual jazz that’s tapping into his African roots and collaborating with five incredible South African musicians,” Millar continues. “That was built from a passion project. I think it was Gilles Peterson [French DJ and label owner] who said to Shabaka, ‘Oh, do you want to release a South African project on Brownswood [Peterson’s label]  as a one-off?’ And Shabaka created that and then it became a part of him. It gave him an outlet for that spiritual side where he’s able to explore long solos and influences from his jazz heroes.” 
Shabaka & The Ancestors
Tjaša Gnezda/UMG
The Ancestors (From left) Mthunzi Mvubu, Tumi Mogorosi, Shabaka Hutchings, Siyabonga Mthembu, Gontse Makhene and Ariel Zamonsky.

Perhaps no other live performance in Hutchings’ career created more U.S. industry buzz than Shabaka & The Ancestors at New York’s 2017 Winter Jazz Festival, which can be a launching pad for up-and-coming artists. This because the annual January event coincides with NYC’s APAP Conference (Association of Performing Arts Presenters) which brings out talent buyers from across the globe as well as agents, promoters, labels and others looking to discover and book artists to fill out their seasons. A transcendent performance can massively elevate a career.

“I had been hearing about Shabaka for a while,” says Brice Rosenbloom, Winter Jazz Fest founder and artistic director and founder of Boom Collective. “He was touring with Shabaka and the Ancestors and I had heard about him from some of his other collaborations [one of Shabaka Hutchings’ earliest champions was genius writer/producer Piotr Orlov who later documented Shabaka’s rise and the London jazz scene for Rolling Stone]. It was a chance to open the festival pairing a legend with a new generation’s prodigious talent,” Rosenbloom says referring to his show on Jan. 5 opening for the legendary Pharoah Sanders. “It was a stunning performance.”

“I kept hearing about him from a variety of people,” recalls Dahlia Ambach Caplin, SVP of A&R for Verve/Impulse!, who also saw Hutchings that night and led to her signing him. “We knew he was a force of nature, but hadn’t seen him live. And then he performed and everybody was like ‘Oh my God this guy’s incredible!’” It’s high praise indeed considering Ambach Caplin’s signings include jazz giants Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter.

“It was insane, totally insane,” says his co-agent Karl Morse, who with André Guérette books all of Hutchings’ projects in North America (for international Blow-up Live works Comet while the United Talent Agency has Kemet and the Ancestors.), and who also saw him at Winter Jazz Festival but the following year with Sons of Kemet. “I’d been aware of Shabaka for some time and I broke a lot of other acts into kind of the jazz and progressive music space and he was the number one must-see on my list.”

Sons of Kemet
Sons of Kemet, which formed in 2011 and includes Theon Cross, Shabaka Hutchings, Eddie Hick and Tim Skinner. (Photo by Pierrick Guidou / UMG)

This past spring would have taken Shabaka & The Ancestors to another level. “We were going to have a really extensive tour. We canceled like 50 gigs between March and July,” Hutchings says. “And then we were going to do a chunk of the summer and autumn.” This included shows at The Barbican in London, Big Ears in the Knoxville, Bowery Ballroom in New York and the Tree Fork Festival. How much did canceling the tour break his heart? “Quite a lot actually,” he says. “Even more than the music was the promise of actually hanging out with my friends, who I’ve not seen or spent that much time with on the road.”

Significantly, the foot-stomping The Comet is Coming, where slam dancing and body surfing aren’t unknown, were slated to play Coachella. Paul Tollett, Golden Voice’s president and CEO, had booked them after being blown away by their performance at Glastonbury.        
“I was looking forward to The Comet Is Coming playing Coachella,” says Morse, who notes they  had also played Primavera and Austin City Limits. “What I witnessed with his set at Bonnaroo was people walking by the stage and they would just stop with their jaws on the floor and go ‘What the hell is this!?’ and get their minds blown.” 

Shabaka Hutchings We Are Sent Here By Hisotry

Shabaka And The Ancestors’ 2020 release “We Are Sent Here By History” on Impulse! Records. Cover art by Daniela Yohannes.

Another important aspect of Shabaka & The Ancestors is that they are clairvoyant. How else to explain their new album We Are Sent Here By History, which Hutchings described in a manifesto before the album’s before as a “meditation on the fact of our coming extinction as a species”? Or that the album was released on March 13, the day much of the world shut down due to the global pandemic? Listening to the album and reading its prescient lyrics, it’s hard not to believe the band isn’t channeling a higher power speaking to us from beyond about these bizarre-o-world times and the need for change.

“It really is uncanny the way it is kind of prophetic,” Hutchings says, “and end of the world as we know it, however you interpret that, and how the album linked up with this actual solid thing. When we were writing the album or when I was thinking about the themes, I wasn’t sitting there cross-legged going, ‘I have a vision of the world literally falling apart.’ I think the source of creativity, the kind of creativity that allows you to depict something like the themes that we’re doing on the album, at the source of it is just the ability to let go and allow your knowledge of history and allow your knowledge of the present to give you stories to tell.”
We Are Sent Here By History’s opener “They Who Must Die” is a dirge that devolves into an apocalyptic cacophony against a dark ethereal backdrop as the world burns. This is against a vocal mantra by ancestors who offer salvation through “genes/spirits and African time.” But really, anything vocalist/lyricist Siyabonga Mthembu sings, with his warm rich baritone, whether in Zulu, Xhosa or English, brings solace. The title of “Behold, The Deceiver” is a wise cautionary tale and speaks for itself in these politically perilous times; while “Run, The Darkness Will Pass” points to a time beyond this toxic pall. An interpolative poem Hutchings wrote based on Mthembu’s lyrics speaks of the ills of “toxic masculinity” and the “the fire of ancestral sacrifice” bringing the “harmony, of nature, of eternity,” with man finally learning of its vulnerability, laying down arms and learning “how to breathe.”  These words, especially in this fraught year of 2020, take on a new and important resonance.

Shabaka Hutchings
– Shabaka Hutchings
Photo by Pierrick Guidou

“We get into a zone when we’re recording where we’re hanging out and we just chat about loads of stuff,” Hutchings says of his South African band mates whom he met in the Johannesburg jazz scene while visiting a friend. In addition to Hutchings’ tenor sax and Mthembu’s vocals, the group includes alto sax player Mthunzi Mvubu, bassist Ariel Zamonsky,  percussionist Gontse Makhene and drummer Tumi Mogorosi.
“We chat about politics, we chat about the mistakes of the world, we were chatting a lot about what it means to be a man, for instance, especially in the context of South Africa. There was a lot of things like “men are trash,” like the hashtag on Twitter, a lot of men are actually getting together in groups and reflecting on where they need to go. Especially in the scene that the guys from the Ancestors are hanging out in there’s a lot of reflection on decolonial politics. So when we get together as a group, we talk about those things. We don’t talk about them with an agenda, we’re just talking as friends. But we all are musicians who are aware of the past, in a multifaceted way. And we’re aware of the present in terms of what’s actually happening, so when we talk together, I guess, it equates to the future.”
The thoughtful and manifest meanings on the Ancestors’ recording are all the more impressive considering all three of Hutchings’ projects are in constant in motion.  Putting out eight albums in seven years, means he is constantly in release cycle and either touring, composing and/or recording or planning to do one or more of these pursuits. “I’m on the tour bus with Comet going from gig to gig with my headphones on writing the music for Ancestors,” he says. “We recorded the Ancestors’ album in two parts. We recorded half of it last January near the start of the Comet Is Coming tour. We released the Comet Is Coming album in February and toured for that year until December. But we also did a session the year before in March in Cape Town and that was when Sons of Kemet was on the road.”  It’s enough to drive a manager bonkers.  
The Comet Is Coming
– Here Comes The Warm Jets:
The Comet Is Coming’s Danalogue The Conqueror, King Shabaka and Betamax Killer. (Photo by Fabrice Bourgelle/UMG)

“Our Google Calendar is like the Bible,”  says Millar. “If it’s not in there, then it’s just impossible to track anything. We discussed it at the beginning and made a master calendar that basically has all three projects.  “So it means that if the guys in The Comet Is Coming get offered a gig, they can look at the calendar and be like, ‘OK. Shabaka has definitely got a gig with Sons of Kemet. That means we’re free. We can take that gig.’ So everyone knows what’s going on at all times just to alleviate the constant questions that were obviously happening, like, ‘Do you know if we’re going to be touring that week?’ which would come from all different bands. At least, it’s kind of all clear-cut. And I’m working with The Comet’s manager and he can see what’s going on as well. So that’s kind of like the Bible.”

Now, however, with the “Bible” stripped of any live dates, asking Hutchings the dreaded pandemic question, “How are you doing?” this past May elicits candor.  “I’m okay,” he says. “I’ve definitely been through the phase of inertia and not really knowing what’s the point in doing anything. And now I feel like I’m getting to this point where I’ve actually started to get a flow in terms of relaxing and working and just de-structuring my day from how it was being a touring musician to where I’m at a kind of equilibrium and figuring out how do I actually be creative in my house. The house I’m living in isn’t a music house, because I’m on the road all the time.”

Hutchings, however, is using his downtime productively. He’s downloaded several photo apps and is watching YouTube tutorials and learning how to manipulate photos. He’s also upped his Instagram game, making videos of himself performing various wind instruments in nature and taken beautiful photographs. His page has covers of books and videos and a link to an eclectic set he spun on July 8 as part of his monthly WorldwideFM set. There was an outside project, curating a festival at the Barbican with both Sons of Kemet and The Ancestors among the artists playing, that was canceled. Now, because of the proximity of his neighbors, he’s taken to learning how to perfect playing quietly and with more control. “The challenge,” he says, “is how can I reduce my dynamic while still getting all the inflections and all the things I play, but with half or even a third or two-thirds less dynamic.”
Like many, Hutchings was greatly impacted by the police killing of George Floyd, which occurred not long after our interview. It prompted him to pen a brilliant Op-Ed for the U.K.’s The Big Issue. In 845 powerful words, Hutchings deconstructed many of the root causes of racism while touching upon Sun Ra, Andre 3000 and cultural theorist Stuart Hall and calling for “a commitment to the promotion of a multiplicity of perspectives detached from the hierarchical bias ingrained into the fabric of our society.”

During the quarantine, Hutchings seems to be recalibrating, finding inspiration and continuing to be creative: he appeared on Instagram Live in a riveting conversation with Virgil Abloh, the artistic director of Louis Vuitton’s menswear, discussing the subject of creativity. He’s also working on classical compositions for clarinet, the instrument he studied in college (because there projects aren’t enough…). And there’s a new Sons of Kemet record slated for the end of the year. Last week he posted a clip of him jamming with bassist Neil Charles and drummer Femi Koleoso of Ezra Collective. 

“Basically, what happened is one day I wake up and all of this tension in terms of the work that I’ve started and I’m very engaged with, all of it goes away,” Hutching says. “So then for the first time, I literally have nothing to do, and can do whatever I want.”  And that, like so many things this consummate artist touches, is wondrous.