by Ian Mann
October 23, 2015
A highly enjoyable night of uncompromising, cutting edge, contemporary instrumental music.
Sons Of Kemet / Zwolfton, Hare & Hounds, Kings Heath, Birmingham, 22/10/2015.
The band Sons Of Kemet have come a long way since their formation in 2011 under the leadership of multi reeds player Shabaka Hutchings. Hutchings, a former BBC Radio 3 New Generations Artist, has actually been on the scene for a number of years cutting his teeth as a featured soloist in bands led by Courtney Pine, Jerry Dammers and the Ethiopian musician Mulatu Astatke. Prior to Kemet he led the electro-acoustic trio Zed U featuring drummer Tom Skinner and bassist Neil Charles which served as something of a forerunner for this current project.
Hutchings has also collaborated with classical musicians as the result of his BBC commissions and connections while at the other end of the scale he has dipped his toes in the waters of free jazz in a series of collaborations with some of the UK’s leading improvisers.
But it is the extraordinary Sons Of Kemet with which he is now most clearly identified. The band boasts what must be a unique instrumental configuration in jazz or any other genre with Hutchings joined by tuba player Theon Cross and the twin drum attack of Skinner and Polar Bear’s Sebastian Rochford. From the outset Sons Of Kemet gained a reputation and a following for the vibrancy and excitement of their live shows and their debut album “Burn” was one of the most keenly awaited releases of 2013. “Burn”, produced by Rochford, demonstrated that the band could cut it on record too, the initially unpromising chordless line up proving to be no obstacle to the band’s progress as they scooped the 2013 MOBO Award for Best Jazz Act.
Since winning the MOBO the band have lost the services of founder member Oren Marshall, the extraordinary tuba virtuoso being replaced by his former pupil Theon Cross. Cross, who also plays with Tom Challenger’s Brass Mask, is arguably less technically accomplished and is certainly less radical then Marshall but he brings a welcome earthiness to the group and overall the SOK sound has been relatively unaffected by Marshall’s departure. Cross plays on the band’s second album “Lest We Forget What We Came Here To Do” which was released on Naim Records during the summer of 2015. With a second set of winning Hutchings compositions and with Rochford again taking the production credits the new album has been as well received as its predecessor. Rochford has done less post production work this time round and the result is a warmer, more direct sounding album that is a more accurate depiction of the group’s live performances.
I’ve been lucky enough to witness the band performing live on two previous occasions, once at the Hare & Hounds in 2012 (the band’s first visit to Birmingham) and once at Cheltenham Jazz Festival in 2013. The energy and excitement of their live shows has ensured that they have become festival favourites and although I was disappointed at having to miss them at Brecon in 2015 in order to cover other events I still knew I had this date in Birmingham to look forward to. My friends Steve and Richard, both first timers at a Kemet show, enthused about the performance at a hot and sweltering Brecon which only served to what my appetite all the more.
This time at the Hare the group played in the larger of the two concert rooms and while it wasn’t quite as full as it had been for Polar Bear eighteen months ago they still attracted quite a sizeable crowd. Tonight’s performance was very different to their first appearance here with Hutchings doing far less talking and with the leader glued to his tenor sax throughout, he appeared to have left his various clarinets at home.
SOK’s music brings together several different elements of the black diaspora. Although born in the UK Hutchings was brought up in Barbados so there are aspects of the Caribbean in the group’s sound including deep dub reggae grooves with a dash of echo on the horns. As the name of the group suggests there is also a North African, specifically Nubian, influence, while the interlocking drum patterns of Skinner and Rochford reference rhythms from all parts of the African continent. The vexed question of identity politics informs the music too, particularly with regard to some of the tune titles, but it isn’t overt, Sons Of Kemet are primarily about the music. And it’s a music that has gained a surprisingly broad constituency, with its blend of infectious rhythms, memorable tunes and superior musicianship.
Tonight Hutchings chose to play rather than talk with a number of tunes being gathered together in lengthy segues. In the end he didn’t actually name any of them although I did recognise some of the pieces from the first album, notably the infectious melody of “Inner Babylon”.
Sons Of Kemet performances are distinguished by their energy as much as anything else. Skinner and Rochford slammed the rhythms out almost relentlessly but were always interacting, they rarely got in one another’s way and the interlocking patterns were consistently fascinating and absorbing. Between them the pair demonstrate an astonishing collective mastery of the percussive arts. Occasionally they were joined by Cross on cowbell and Hutchings sharing a corner of Skinner’s drum kit. Meanwhile Cross’ monstrous tuba bass grooves added considerable heft and wallop to the music as Hutchings soloed incisively above the rhythmic ferment below. It was visceral, exciting, oddly compelling and strangely accessible. In a largely standing audience people began to respond to the rhythms, particularly when Hutchings beckoned the crowd closer to the stage.
In this environment it wasn’t appropriate to note every tune and solo, with a pint of Purity ale in one hand and a notebook in the other taking notes was a little precarious and in any event the sheer rhythmic drive of the music was making it difficult to keep still. Hypnotic grooves combined with dub reggae effects and foghorn saxophone blasts. The horns of Hutchings and Cross were both wired up and electrified in order to compete with the volume of the twin drum kits.
Essentially SOK’s music is all about the mighty collective sound the four musicians generate but there were still moments of individual brilliance to delight the crowd. A compelling solo tuba feature from Cross totally engaged the crowd and even included one real laugh out loud moment as Cross demonstrated the instrument’s comic capabilities. And if you thought drum solos are boring think again after a thrilling drum ‘battle’ between Rochford and Skinner, the pair actually working in tandem rather than competing with each other and producing something quite mesmerising in the process. Hutchings on tenor was immense throughout, playing with power and fluency on a set of memorable themes, all penned by himself.
After two lengthy segues featuring tunes from both of the band’s albums Hutchings paused to introduce the musicians for a second time before thanking Tony Dudley Evans and the Jazzlines organisation for inviting him back to Birmingham, a city where he had lived for a while during his youth. “We like coming to Birmingham” he enthused. With time running short he didn’t name the pieces they’d played, opting instead to play “one last tune” in the unique SOK house style.
The inevitable encore lowered the energy levels at last with Hutchings soloing more gently above the patter of interlaced hand drum patterns from Skinner and Rochford, a kind of winding down or chill out episode after the earlier intensity. This was possibly something the band needed too, playing a Sons Of Kemet gig must be physically exhausting for everybody involved.
“Intensity” was very much the theme of the evening. Earlier we had been entertained by Zwolfton, a quintet comprised of current or recently graduated students from the Jazz Course at Birmingham Conservatoire led by tenor saxophonist Claude Pietersen. The band have already recorded their debut album “Once More All Grows Green Around Me” an ambitious set of Pietersen arrangements of tunes by Anton Webern, Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg, the group of composers collectively known as “The Second Viennese School”.
I couldn’t help wondering if the album had been inspired by New York based alto saxophonist John O’ Gallagher’s 2013 release for Whirlwind Recordings “The Anton Weber Project” in which he interprets a selection of Webern material in the company of some of the Big Apple’s finest jazz musicians. O’ Gallagher has visited Birmingham on numerous occasions, often in the company of drummer Jeff Williams and I suspect that he may even have taught at the Conservatoire.
For their support slot Zwolfton opted to play Pietersen’s arrangement of Berg’s “Three Pieces For Cello and Piano”, a single twenty minutes plus performance that Pietersen warned us would be pretty “out there”. Joining the saxophonist were electric guitarist Ben Lee, organist David Ferris (Andrew Woodhead plays on the album), bassist Benedict Muirhead and drummer Gwilym Jones.
The music embraced elements of prog rock, Messiaen style organ dissonance and contemporary jazz skronk. Extreme dynamic contrasts and the use of complex time signatures sometimes reminded me of the esoteric, often forbidding, kind of 70s prog played by the likes of Soft Machine and Henry Cow (of which I am a fan, I should stress). Along the way we heard extended guitar techniques, thunderous drumming and a couple of powerful and incisive tenor solos from leader Pietersen. However for me the most eye catching soloist was Lee who played with power, precision and astonishing technical prowess as he explored the conventional range of his instrument and beyond with the help of excellent support from the rhythm team of Muirhead and Jones with Ferris supplying shadowy organ textures. Pietersen was right, it was pretty “out there” but for me “out there” was a good place to be. I rather enjoyed this and the group’s album, a bargain at just a fiver, also impresses. It will be interesting to see where Pietersen takes the group after this. It would be intriguing to hear them play some of the leader’s original material.
All in all a highly enjoyable night of uncompromising, cutting edge, contemporary instrumental music, I’m not even sure if the word “jazz” is sufficient to describe the music that bands like Zwolfton and Sons Of Kemet are coming up with.
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