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Soweto Kinch

A Life in the Day of B19: Tales from the Tower Block


by Ian Mann

November 30, 2006


Kinch has made one of the year's most daring and distinctive albums and he is to be congratulated for the breadth of his musical vision.

Kinch’s previous album 2003’s “Conversations With The Unseen” was something of a bolt from the blue. It’s unprecedented blend of jazz and hip-hop was a runaway success and catapulted the young alto saxophonist/rapper from Birmingham to the forefront of the UK jazz scene. A growing reputation as a phenomenal live performer helped consolidate his position and this new release has been widely anticipated. Like its predecessor it has garnered considerable critical acclaim.

Whereas “Conversations” was in essence a jazz album with hip-hop interludes “B19” goes further in Kinch’s quest to integrate the two styles. It is an unashamedly audacious record, the first part of a two-part story or “duology” set in the B19 district of his home city. In what they used to call a “concept album” Kinch charts the vicissitudes of three fictional male characters “S”, an aspiring alto saxophonist, Marcus a similarly struggling would be rapper and Adrian an older character who has returned to Birmingham from the US following the breakdown of a relationship.

In his rapping and narrative Kinch displays a keen eye for the minutiae of everyday life. He takes a wry look at the benefit system, celebrity culture and train delays among other things. His rapping is sharp and funny and most importantly English- and Birmingham at that. As a listener who normally has very little time for hip-hop I can relate to this. US hip-hop usually leaves me completely cold. It’s not the swearing I object to as much as the attitude of random violence, casual sex and homophobia. To have something rooted in everyday life that a British listener can genuinely relate to makes a refreshing change. As a wordsmith Kinch is consistently inventive and supports his story well. The capture of BBC newsreader Moira Stuart as narrator is a major coup and not surprisingly has attracted mainstream media interest. Conversely Kinch has given a number of young local rappers some exposure on this record, all of them having been performers at his regular open mic nights in Birmingham.

Musically Kinch’s core quartet is admirably tight with Feme Temowo on guitar, Michael Olatuja on bass and the phenomenally talented young drummer Troy Miller. Miller is already gaining something of a reputation as a solo artist. With trumpeter Abram Wilson and fellow saxophonists Denys Baptiste and Jason Yarde also lending their services there is no shortage of musical talent on board. “A Friendly Game Of Basketball” is an instrumental stand out with fiery solos from Wilson and Kinch and powerful drumming from Miller.

The tale Kinch spins on the album deserves to be listened to rather than summarised here. In any event the story is only half finished with the follow up “Basement Fables” due for release by Dune in March 2007.

This is an ambitious record, presumably containing a degree of autobiography, which tackles serious inner city social issues. His use of words and character voices is excellent and the bleaker elements are balanced by a sly and sharply observed sense of humour. Personally I would like to have heard more of his biting alto playing and found that for me the hip hop elements began to pall after a while. For all it’s virtues it may not be a record I listen to in it’s entirety that often.

That said Kinch has made one of the year’s most daring and distinctive albums and he is to be congratulated for the breadth of his musical vision. After this there can be no doubt of his validity as a serious hip hop artist although some of his jazz audience may take a step back.

Despite my personal reservations I would certainly like to see “B19” in a live context, as I’m sure this would really make the story come alive.

Based on my personal enjoyment I’ll give this three stars but I’m tempted to give it one extra for its vaulting ambition and sheer unadulterated chutzpah.

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