London-based saxophonist and bandleader Shabaka Hutchings will launch his new album Wisdom of Elders in the city it was recorded in, Johannesburg, at The Orbit on Friday 19 and Saturday 20 August.
Tradition shapes your work. For Shabaka Hutchings, that’s something he’s long understood. After years spent on 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), who he’d flown here to play with over the past few years. Recorded across just 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.
Artists on the album are Mthunzi Mvubu on alto sax; Mandla Mlangeni on trumpet; Siyabonga Mthembu from The Brother Moves On (who recently returned from their European tour) on vocals; Nduduzo Makhathini on Rhodes and piano; bassist Ariel Zamonsky; percussionist Gontse Makhene and drummer Tumi Mogorosi. The album’s sleeve design was done by Mzwandile Buthelezi.
Hutchings' first encounter with the rich legacy of the South African jazz scene was with Bheki Mseleku's album Celebration. He explains: “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 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 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," he explains.
Unpacking 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.”
Hutchings’ first trip to South Africa was in 2008 to perform at Pan African Space Station festival, run by Cape Town-based organisation Chimurenga. 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, Hutchings moved to Barbados between the ages of six and 16. Since his return, his tenor sax has become a regular sight on stages around London and beyond. 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. Wisdom of Elders therefore comes from an artist interested in the indefinable gaps more than fitting into boxes.
Hutchings is looking forward to his upcoming Johannesburg shows at The Orbit in Braamfontein on Friday 19 and Saturday 20 August. “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 Joburg is set to be special since the music has had time to settle in our minds since the last time we played and recorded 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.”