Saxophonist/composer Shabaka Hutchings’ projects range from meaty, beat-fuelled EDM and left-field, high-energy jazz to the acoustic joys of his South African collaboration Shabaka and the Ancestors. All have existed for a number of years, and have multiple releases, nominations and awards to their name.
Tuesday’s EFG London Jazz Festival gig celebrated Hutchings’s latest venture, the record label Native Rebel Recordings, with a pulsating showcase featuring four of the label’s acts. The eclectic mix included south London rap and spiritual jazz while the South African connection continued with The Brother Moves On, the headline act. Label-boss Hutchings occasionally joined the fray and pointed politics, fiery rhythms and strong emotions were a common thread.
The evening opened with Kofi Flexxx, a signing so new that neither album nor songs had been named yet. Hutchings, now in the producer’s chair, conducted a fair-sized ensemble that included saxes and brass alongside a chorus of flutes. Established pianist Alexander Hawkins showed rhythmic finesse and drummer Jas Kayser focused sonic power; flautist Biscuit soloed throughout. The project aims to capture the energy of school bands with simple written charts. But overlapping rhythms, accuracy and ensemble warmth deliver much more than that.
Hutchings conducted an ensemble that included saxes, brass and flutes © Roger Thomas
Saxophonist Chelsea Carmichael’s quartet followed, playing compositions from her debut album The River Doesn’t Like Strangers. The core approach combined strutty themes, spiritual jazz and sharp beats while Nikos Ziarkas added a battery of beeps and grungy low-note sustains from the effects pedal of his guitar. A thrumming wall of sound opened the set and a township bounce bought the showcase to a close. In between, Carmichael, a powerful presence, delivered syncopated phrases and phonics with intent and Mutale Chashi’s fast and firm bass solo also raised the crowd. But too often, the sound was over-egged by guitar.
CoN & KwAkE are rapper Confucius MC and Kwake Bass on drums. Here they were joined by pianist Hawkins for a set based on their album Eyes in the Tower — “I’m the eyes in the tower, you can’t see me” begins the title track. Smart rhymes reflecting on south London life and snappy hip-hop beats characterised this strong, atmospheric set. “Martin”, a track about a vampire, got horror movies down to a T and the duo’s young wise words included the line “we’re too busy living in the moment to see life passing by”.
No doubt as to why South Africa’s The Brother Moves On was the headline act. Frontman/vocalist Siyabonga Mthembu is a charismatic performer and he sung state-of-the-nation Zulu lyrics with a high tenor tone. The band was road-tested, the concept was clear. Two saxes riffed tightly and took on fiery solos. Label-boss Hutchings joined for a guttural, technically astute solo on tenor sax, but it was the vocalist’s voice vibrating on high that brought songs from their latest album, $/He Who Feeds You . . . Owns You, vividly to life.
Their performance opened with “Puleng”, introduced by rhythm guitar and acerbic alto sax. “Hamba the Reprise” came next, with a cappella vocal harmonies founded on guitarist Zelizwe Mthembu’s deep bass voice. Later, “Sphila” was fuelled by martial drums and concerned fights over land, while “Sweetie Love Oh” had glorious vocal harmonies and a lighter touch. The encore, “Bayakhala”, was hard-hitting and brief.