How England's jazz scene is changing the way we look at the genre

“A scene comes when you can put on music from very different artists and you get a room saying ‘we love everything’,” says Shabaka Hutchings

AUSTIN, TX - MARCH 13:  (L-R)  Danalogue The Conqueror, Betamax Killer, and Shabaka Hutchings of The Comet is Coming perform onstage at Verve Music Group during the 2019 SXSW Conference and Festivals at Bethel Hall at St. David's Church on March 13, 2019 in Austin, Texa  (Photo by Diego Donamaria/Getty Images for SXSW)
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In a converted auction house down a side street in Manchester, England, the music is pounding. The crowd dance, cheer and go absolutely wild. Given the scene, you might expect to see the latest hot indie band, or a hip electronica act. But there is a saxophonist taking centre stage. Look closer, and everyone from fresh-faced students to middle-aged dads – and even the odd grandparent – are grooving.

Later, the ringleader of this madness, playing his saxophone "like a hip-hop MC", admitted the energy in the room blew him away. This is Shabaka Hutchings's band The Comet Is Coming. This is jazz embracing the sound of South London's eclectic club culture, influenced by house, jungle, grime and dub. And it is genuinely changing the way we hear jazz in 2019. 

With two other projects alongside this band, Hutchings, 34, is at the beating heart of this new British jazz scene. As The Comet Is Coming, alongside drummer Max Hallett and synth player Dan Leavers, he released Trust in the Life Force of the Deep Mystery last month, a wild fusion of electronica, progressive rock and jazz. Hutchings describes it as an "anarchist approach to music".

Then there’s Sons Of Kemet, who have the somewhat unconventional line-up of Hutchings on saxophone, a tuba and two drummers. Their album was beaten to the Mercury Music Prize last year by Wolf Alice – but was far more than a token jazz nominee: Hutchings says it was less about trying to be sax legend John Coltrane than reggae artist Sizzla.

Meanwhile, his other musical venture, Shabaka And The Ancestors, vibrantly channels Sun Ra, Miles Davis and afrobeat. Every record contains somewhere within it a potential “eureka” moment for those put off by the more chin-stroking, serious elements of jazz – but will also delight those looking for evidence that the genre is just as unconventional and exploratory as it always has been.

“A number of years ago I had this conundrum,” says Hutchings. “I couldn’t work out why the people I’d talk to would tell me they didn’t like jazz – but the music they did listen to was the same music I liked.

A number of years ago I had this conundrum. I couldn't work out why the people I'd talk to would tell me they didn't like jazz – but the music they did listen to was the same music I liked.

“For me it shouldn’t be possible to say ‘I don’t like jazz’ because effectively jazz is about the approach, about bringing together different types of music. It’s a creative way of dealing with difference. So then there was this mission with my music; to find a point of reference, which let people see that the music they might consider to be behind a jazz ‘barrier’ isn’t so far removed from, say, Radiohead, Flying Lotus or Bjork.” 

Once he’d found those points of reference, not only in his own music but in the songs of contemporaries Moses Boyd – who is as much into grime’s Roll Deep as Duke Ellington – fellow saxophonist Nubya Garcia and tuba player Theon Cross, a scene of like-minded people started to grow at nights such as Steam Down and Steez in South London.

Hutchings curated a compilation of that scene this time last year for Gilles Peterson's label, and We Out Here is the perfect snapshot of the exciting music coming out of the British capital and, now, spreading its wings much further. "A scene comes when you can put on music from very different artists and you get a room saying 'we love everything'," he says. "That's the state we're in now."

At the centre of The Comet Is Coming’s album is a contribution from acclaimed poet and rapper Kate Tempest, and Hutchings says she joins the dots. “We’re all young British people from various diverse backgrounds trying to find a way to make music that we all love. Some of it takes off, some of us become acclaimed for doing it and some don’t. But the scene is everyone and everything.”

Hutchings certainly has a fascinating background. Born in London but raised in Barbados, he was named after King Shabaka – one of the last Nubian kings of what is today known as Egypt, who commissioned the famous Shabaka Stone, which depicted the spiritual and metaphysical teachings of the time. Admittedly, it is quite a long stretch to a bloke playing cutting-edge jazz in 2019, but the connection does seem to make some sense. 

“The stone was one of the principle texts used in forming Kemeticism [the contemporary revival of ancient Egyptian religion] so my band Sons Of Kemet does link up with the meaning of my name. But I’m interested in all this stuff because it has taught me how history shapes the present – and from there how it’s always possible to explore different layers of reality with music. 

"So if you look at the new The Comet Is Coming album, it starts off with this outburst of enthusiasm – and then becomes slightly more self aware and nuanced. With Trust In The Life Force Of The Deep Mystery, we wanted to explore this sense that there's something greater out there, try to figure out what the purpose of life is and allow that to reveal itself to us."

We're all young British people from various diverse backgrounds trying to find a way to make music that we all love. 

The gig in Manchester is genuinely more like a rave than a polite jazz concert – and Hutchings is wary of talking up jazz's spiritual function. Still, it is his love of artists such as famous Indian musician Bismillah Khan that reveals just how deeply he cares about music.

“Arun Ghosh [a British-Indian composer and clarinettist] first introduced me to Bismillah, and I admit I didn’t listen properly for many years,” he says. “But just recently I’ve realised how deep his improvisations are – and how you can connect the spirit of that to what jazz musicians are trying to aspire to. 

"That's the important thing for me; taking away the specifics of the musical language and concentrating on the intent of the performer. Once you take away what jazz is supposed to be musically, and get to the point where you understand what it's trying to express or communicate, then I think you can get to the point where everything connects a lot more."