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Shabaka Hutchings' 'Black To The Future' Is A Showcase For Black British Music

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says the Black British jazz scene is going through a lively period lately, not least because of the efforts of London bandleader and reed player Shabaka Hutchings, whose bands include The Comet is Coming and Shabaka and the Ancestors. For a decade, he's also led a quartet with tuba called Sons of Kemet. Kevin really likes their latest.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONS OF KEMET'S "THINK OF HOME")

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: The London quartet Sons of Kemet - with Theon Cross on tuba, drummers Tom Skinner and Edward Wakili-Hick and leader Shabaka Hutchings on saxophones and woodwinds - their new album "Black To The Future" is very much a studio project. They laid down the basic tracks live, but with the pandemic and all, Hutchings had ample time to layer on more parts. He likes saxophone out front with choral clarinets in the background - also, masked flutes, which can sound cotton-candy fluffy or backwoods ragged or one and then the other.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONS OF KEMET'S "IN REMEMBRANCE OF THOSE FALLEN")

WHITEHEAD: Sons of Kemet, sounding at the end there like a Black Mississippi fife-and-drum band. Leader Shabaka Hutchings was born in London but partly raised in Barbados. He has a keen ear for the crisscrossing trajectories of African musical diasporas - West Africa to the Caribbean and the U.S., South Africa to the U.K. and the Caribbean to the U.S. and Europe. This social music reflects those deep connections, while vocalists on a few tracks offer perspectives on the realities of Black lives now.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HUSTLE")

KOJEY RADICAL: These peace signs are just a piece of the puzzle. Spit to the muzzle - silence the lambs - kiss and they cuddle, forget that they cut you. It's just part of the hustle. Born from the mud with the hustle inside me. Born from the mud with the hustle inside me. Born from the mud with the hustle inside me. Born from the mud with the hustle inside me. Born from the mud with the hustle inside me.

WHITEHEAD: Rapper-poet Kojey Radical - born from the mud with the hustle inside. On saxophone, Shabaka Hutchings may play a narrow range of pitches and staccato rhythm like he's mimicking speech. On "For The Culture," the London deejay D Double E meets him coming the other way with echoes of half sung, half spoken Jamaican dancehall toasting.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOR THE CULTURE")

D DOUBLE E: (Rapping) The way they body look it's like a dancehall dream. And she a-mash up the dancehall scene. See the gal there? You see what we mean. Jesus, you see what we mean? She's got ramp in the (unintelligible). She's got my back to the wall. She nearly made me fall. She made me nearly look a fool. You got to make her get low. You got to go with the flow. And make her wine down low. And make her wine down low.

WHITEHEAD: The double drummers bring their own island accents there. Sons of Kemet's guest helpers includes some Americans. Poet Moor Mother and multi-talent Angel Bat Dawid sing on one number. And tenor saxophonist Kebbi Williams joins in on one of those dense pieces built in layers called "Envision Yourself Levitating."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONS OF KEMET'S "ENVISION YOURSELF LEVITATING")

WHITEHEAD: Those sonic layers and collisions reflect the many cultural strata and confrontations that inform Black British music, which both embraces and stands a little apart from various Black and British traditions. The music is carefully constructed, but Sons of Kemet can sound mysterious too, delving into the inexplicable.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONS OF KEMET'S "LET THE CIRCLE BE UNBROKEN")

WHITEHEAD: Among Shabaka Hutchings' several bands, Sons of Kemet stands out for me, not least due to Theon Cross' earth-shaking tuba - tuba, with its own rich associations with early jazz parades and other social musics. Tuba helps bring out that ancient-to-the-future quality common to much Black art music. And it's got that beat.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONS OF KEMET'S "TO NEVER FORGET THE SOURCE")

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead is the author of the book "Play The Way You Feel: The Essential Guide To Jazz Stories On Film." And he's the recipient of this year's Lifetime Achievement Award in jazz journalism from the Jazz Journalists Association. He reviewed "Black To The Future," the new recording by the British jazz quartet Sons of Kemet.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about how cities in the South reckon with their relationship to the history of American slavery. My guest will be Clint Smith, author of the new book "How The Word Is Passed," in which he writes about plantations, prisons, cemeteries, museums, memorials and historical landmarks in eight cities. He was born and raised in New Orleans. He's now a staff writer at The Atlantic. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONS OF KEMET'S "TO NEVER FORGET THE SOURCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.