It’s difficult to argue with the notion that Shabaka Hutchings is anything other than the most intriguing and consistently exciting force currently at work in British music. Whether on his own (under the pseudonym King Shabaka) or performing as part of his trio of groups - The Comet Is Coming, Shabaka and the Ancestors, or Sons Of Kemet - his singular vision and unrelenting creativity somehow radiate from everything he touches. In the world of Jazz, and music more generally, forces like his don’t come along all that often, so best to make a big deal out of it when they do.
Of all the projects over the last few years that Hutchings has been a part of, Sons of Kemet’s 2018 album 'Your Queen Is a Reptile' is almost inarguably the most impressive. Garnering acclaim pretty much everywhere it was discussed, the album, which aimed to give name recognition to oft-overlooked figures of a global civil rights movement, was dynamic, fresh, and thoroughly well-executed. Returning to the moniker after three years was never going to be easy, but 'Black To The Future' lays any potential worries about a difficult fourth album to rest pretty early on.
It is, by some margin, the most musically diverse record that Sons or Hutchings have put out to date. Featuring more collaborators than anything the group has done before - from D Double E, to Lianne La Havas, to Moor Mother and beyond - the first thing to point out is just how well it manages all of those features, ensuring none of them feels redundant, whilst not moving too far away from the sound that has made Sons such an exciting outfit in the past.
Having released 'We Are Sent Here By History' with Shabaka and the Ancestors just over twelve months ago, where Hutchings messaging focused around the connection between indigenous ways of living and the climate recovery that we are (mostly) all working towards - before the global pandemic allowed us to see for our own eyes just how quickly nature can recover when modern human life comes to a standstill - 'Black To The Future' refocuses these objectives.
The calls, now centred around a cultural need rather than an ecological one to learn about, recognise and understand overlooked parts of (mainly) indigenous history, in the hope of preserving their cultural identities and incorporating them in a futuristic vision of harmony, come through more immediately and more forcefully than any Hutchings has previously shared with us.
It is an important messaging but one which, as you move through the album, actually seems to hit home more emphatically when the words retreat, and you’re simply left in the company of a phenomenal jazz band. Indeed, tracks like 'Pick Up Your Burning Cross' and 'In Remembrance Of Those Fallen Sons' invoke a similar response from their audience to that of Archie Shepp’s 'Attica Blues', Miles Davis’ ‘Round About Midnight', and Art Blakey’s 'Freedom Rider'. In this context, 'Black To The Future' can be seen as the latest in a long line of politically outspoken jazz, a concept that on paper sounds ridiculous, but, as any who have been moved by any of the aforementioned works will know, is some of the most evocative and emotive music out there.
To compare this to any of Hutchings’ previous records, with all of the above in mind, almost seems reductive. It doesn’t feel like as much of an instant classic as 'Your Queen Is A Reptile', but it has all the makings of a slower, more thought-provoking, ultimately more accomplished project, the likes of which will remain relevant for decades to come.
Words: Mike Watkins
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