The Boundless Musicality of Shabaka Hutchings

Photo by Edwardx. License Creative Commons CC BY-SA 4.0

To say Shabaka Hutchings is at the forefront of developments in the UK music scene is to do the 36-year-old multi-instrumentalist a disservice. Take him away from the instrumental music community and suddenly Shabaka and the Ancestors, Sons of Kemet, and The Comet Is Coming (plus a whole host of side projects) are a force of nature lighter.

The British-Barbadian musician is primarily a clarinettist and tenor saxophone player, though much of his lockdown has been focused on rediscovering his further versatility. Videos of Bach played on bass clarinet sit happily alongside oscillating shakuhachi meanderings on his popular Instagram page. You can sometimes find him up a tree, playing the Martiniquan flute de la morne.

But these tranquil episodes are far removed from where Hutchings is perhaps more regularly found. The current UK jazz scene is a flavoursome mezze built around jam nights and packed gigs that actively welcomes a multitude of influences, stretching across dance music, club culture, and beyond. It's in these settings that you can find the roots of Sons of Kemet—Hutchings' skronking tuba / sax / double drum quartet—and trio The Comet Is Coming that sees electronic duo Soccer96 (Dan Leavers and Max Hallett) team up with Hutchings in a dubby, cosmic adventure. Both bands have been nominated for Mercury Awards, and both were robbed, arguably.

I chatted to Shabaka about gear and ideas, and how they inform his roles as a composer, curator, and highly valued leader of a growing community.

To learn more and keep up-to-date about Hutchings and his work, visit his website here or follow him on Instagram.

Sons of Kemet, live at Big Ears Festival 2019

Could you run me through your standard setup that you play with regularly?

I use a tenor saxophone that was built in Leeds by an instrument maker called Dave Walker. He started developing a prototype sax six years ago, which found its way to me through Pete Wareham—it's based on an old Conn bore and a Selmer Mark VI keywork. It's made in the old way, so as much of it as possible is hand finished. Dave started to give me the prototype sax to take on the road and I give him feedback; I played that sax for the past three years, before changing model just after visiting the factory last year. Before Dave's sax, I was a big believer in the old saxes—I was playing on a Selmer Super Balanced Action from the mid-'60s and before that a Conn 10M. But this horn gives me a modern approach to the ergonomics of getting around the saxophone whilst delivering with the big bore.

Being on the road a lot, having a sax that is sturdy is a priority. As it's bumped around in the back of the van, I need to take it out and know there are no leaks or faults.

In terms of mouthpieces, I play on a Morgan Fry mouthpiece (Morgan Fry are also based in Leeds). I'd been hearing about his mouthpieces for a while, but as a bit of a mouthpiece nerd, I told myself that I wasn't going to play on any more about four years ago. Then one day I went into Howarth Music Shop in London, and was told to try the new Andy Sheppard model of the Morgan Fry mouthpiece, and I fell in love—I knew that was the mouthpiece for me.

Could you tell me about your clarinets, particularly your bass clarinet?

The first bass clarinet I owned was from Courtney Pine, which was a Noblet student model. [Fellow bass clarinettist] John Surman was using them at the time, and when people were going out and buying expensive Buffets and Selmers, John's thing was these were really great, well-built instruments without too many fragile mechanisms. The bass clarinet is a very fragile instrument, so the less you have to worry about damage the better; as long as it can make a really good sound and is in tune from top to bottom, that's the priority for me.

This was until an advert came along—a big brewing company asked me to arrange the music for a short film. We got to the final stage of production on this big money project (that included Lianne La Havas on vocals) and at the last moment, it was cut! With the money I got from this project that never made it to air, I bought myself my first professional bass clarinet, a Buffet Tosca. When I was studying clarinet at Guildhall School of Music, you could borrow professional bass clarinets from the orchestra department, but they always seemed so out of reach for a working musician, so when the money came through, I decided to buy one as a big investment.

And what about your standard clarinets?

Largely because of my training, and what my teachers were into when I was at college, my go-to clarinet is a Buffet R13. Recently, I've bought a Buffet GreenLinE Légende that's wooden but with carbon fibre integrated within the wood, which means it's a lot less likely to split when you go under hot lights on stage, or if it gets cold where the wood might expand and split—so I got that for touring and travelling around. But in terms of a classical performance or recording, I'd always go for the R13.

Because you're using these instruments in new contexts, do you sometimes find limitations with the gear you're using?

A little bit, yes. I feel like my whole professional life has just been trying to find gear that works consistently. When you're in college and playing in smaller venues, a certain type of technique, equipment, and overall mindset works best, that prioritises a broader, warmer, more woody sound. But if you're playing on a big festival stage, you really don't need the warmth in the sound—all you really need is a clear signal between your mouthpiece and the microphone you play into. I feel I get drawn to a setup that's got more top-end in it. It's a lot brighter than I would have liked maybe 10 years ago, but the necessity of having to project on a big stage means you really need those top-end frequencies.

The Comet Is Coming's 2016 Boiler Room performance

In terms of your extras (pedals and extra mics), do you have any project-specific gear, or do you more or less stick to a similar setup across your gigs?

In general, I try to get a consistent setup between the three bands. Shabaka and the Ancestors is the only group where I'd potentially use a different setup because it's acoustic, but for Sons of Kemet and Comet Is Coming, I try to use the same, so that if I have a run of gigs with multiple bands, I don't have to change too much.

I use an SM58 which I put into the bell of the saxophone. This used to go out into a Memory Man effects pedal, until I bought a Strymon El Capistan about a year ago. I find the sound a bit cleaner and there's more vibe in the quality of the tape echo.

I think the reason for the mic-in-the-bell setup was to be able to go to every venue and get the same standard of sound. So if I go to a small, crummy venue in like, Manchester, it will be the same sound as in a festival stage in Lithuania. I want the same shitty sound everywhere and if you put the mic in the bell, you get the same grunge—there's no differentiation!

For the last Comet tour, we moved on to using in-ear monitors, and it was a big breakthrough on one level because there's a lot less feedback, but also because it meant I could actually hear myself on stage for the first time. Part of my playing had been moulded around trying to hear myself and blowing harder, trying to get above the ruckus on stage. Now I can trust that our sound guy is part of the band.

Do you find that the sound engineer is an increasingly integral part of your musical projects?

Yeah, completely. With all the bands, the thing that's been consistent in their development in the past five years is the inclusion of another player—the sound engineer. Five years ago, we didn't tour with a sound engineer, we'd just turn up at the venue and use their sound guy, which can be unpredictable. But when the sound guy is a member of the band, you as a musician can do your job interacting on stage and making sure what's happening is dynamic. Then what's happening in the audience is a completely new and produced sound-world, and you can have that conversation about what you want it to sound like specifically.

I've been enjoying your Instagram series Rites of Passage—could you tell me a bit more about your relationship with the shakuhachi?

My shakuhachi playing is a long work-in-progress project. It's a weird one, because although I play it in public on Instagram, the videos are really just me learning the instrument very slowly. At the moment, I play in the lower octave, because I want to be really comfortable there before I go up to another octave, and even if that takes a number of years, it's a long-term project.

I was told by [drummer in CIC] Max Hallett's dad (who just happens to be one of the best shakuhachi players in Europe) to visit a plastic shakuhachi maker in Brighton, which means that now, I can chuck one in my gig bag and practice the embouchure on the road. I really like the sound of them, and I have four in different keys and lengths.

Another flute I have is the flute de la morne from Martinique. I'm a big fan of Max Cilla, a Martiniquian flute player, and I've been trying to get it into my repertoire. I've never been able to play flute and I've always wanted to play it; there have only been a few flutes that I've ever been able to play easily over the years, so one of the things I've been working on in lockdown is trying to solidify how I blow the flute.

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Natural mystic

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How do you find transitioning between all your wind instruments?

Shakuhachi is the hardest in terms of how you blow the instrument. It took me a long time to get a sound out of it because the way the air flow is directed is completely different to reed instruments. On those instruments, it's more about pushing air outwards—more force equals more sound. With the shakuhachi, it's more about direct airflow to the whole instrument which then resonates to a massive degree—then, it's about controlling the velocity of that resonance. It's been a mental challenge going between tenor, clarinet and shakuhachi, but when I have a good sound on the shakuhachi, I have a better sound on all my flutes.

Lockdown has seen lots of musicians improving their video content on social media, which has required lots of upgrades to their home recording equipment. What's your setup like at home? Has it changed during lockdown, and how do you go about recording your different instruments?

One of the first things I did in lockdown was look at my whole setup. I realised that if people are only going to be listening to me through their phones or computers, then the music I have to put out has to be the same quality of sound as if they were at a gig.

So I bought myself an audio interface—an Apogee Duet (it's really small and I'll be able to take it on the road to get that consistency of sound when I'm back touring). And then I just use an AKG C414—it's mainly about the positioning of the mic, rather than using different ones per se.

Compositionally, what I like about your projects is that each has its own distinct focus. I wonder then, how does the process of creating music differ between each community of players?

Comet Is Coming is the most drastically different from everything else. We've always composed in the same way: We jam for a number of days, recording everything, and at the end, we try and find the tunes inside these sessions. All the while we're improvising in a compositional way (not necessarily freely), knowing that we're improvising songs or structures. We've always had a good sense of listening and intuit a lot of changes, so things that happen spontaneously almost sound planned out. Then we'll learn the jams that Dan and Max have cut up, and we'll plan a set and play them.

With Sons of Kemet and Shabaka and the Ancestors, it's a slightly different approach in that I'll write the music and give it to the guys who need it to learn. For the Ancestors, I usually write a number of horn and bass parts on Sibelius, with a set of instructions for some of the guys who just need to know where the sections are.

Sons of Kemet is similar. I'll give the drummers sketches of stuff to play, but nothing too descriptive—they're drummers, they know what to hit! I'll maybe tell them conceptually what to do, but I'll always do parts for me and [tuba player] Theon Cross.

For the most recent Kemet album, the studio date was getting closer and I didn't have any material, so I was getting stressed—I was also on a holiday the week before the studio date… Then, three days before recording, I realised that I had tunes I'd been jamming on my iPad for the past year without thinking about it. All I'd really written for the past year were melodies and bass lines, and putting GarageBand drums behind them. So, I transcribed them and filled them all out, and that's how we got it all together for the session.

Sons of Kemet - "My Queen Is Nanny Of The Maroons"

We recorded it in one session over four days—a surprisingly long period (I'm a fan of short recording sessions). I wanted a different approach from the previous Kemet albums in that I wanted the vibe to be set from before the recording. When you press record for the first time, that's often the best take, but often the energy of the band isn't there until four or five takes down the line. So I decided that we weren't going to play any tunes until 10 minutes into jamming it—I wanted to warm up into every song, so for a three minute tune, we might play for 20 minutes or longer. It meant we had fewer takes of tunes, but a lot more good and bad bits to choose from. It's a more produced album—we had a lot of material to choose from, and by the end of the session, there was just a big chunk of stuff!

The good thing about the lockdown is that I was then able to go through all this stuff, working closely with producer Dilip Harris to shape the album and then going in hard on overdubs. The album is ultimately a lot more composed—it sounds a lot different to what I imagine your idea of it all stemming from GarageBand might be!

When you're writing for the Ancestors or Sons of Kemet, do you ever start with a sound in your head that you try and aim for?

It's not necessarily a sound, more a function. We might need a fast tune, or need a specific tune for a part of the set. There was a point in the last Kemet set... in where you've just had the first big blast of energy, and you need a fast tune to keep the audience with you, but you don't want it to be too hectic because people need a little breather, so that function would tell me what to write—a bouncy, head-bobbing hipster tune, a you-can-dance-if-you-can't-dance sort of tune.

Sons Of Kemet's Live at Somerset House, Part 2

Watching back last year's Sons of Kemet gig at Somerset House, I was struck by the slogans projected on the back wall of the venue, particularly the one that reads: "Question the objectivity of structures / question the subjectivity of representations." Could you explain how that relates to your work?

It comes from ideas found in Critique of Black Reason by Achille Mbembe. In it, he talks about unpicking the ideas that structures are infallible or represented forever. One of the ideas that we have inherited from a hegemonic culture (in this case we're talking about broadly, European culture of the last 200 years) is that it makes its structures seem objective and unquestionable, whereas with other worldviews, there is not this level of objectivity.

In terms of the subjectivity of representation, art is a representation of a certain worldview, but there's a tendency to see art as purely individual, subjective, and ultimately less valuable than the objective universal. Where subjective is particular, objective is universal.

What the thinking is aiming for is to say that there is no objective: What we've been told is objective is part of a broader scheme or worldview, and what we've been told is subjective is as valuable as what we've been told is otherwise.

And how do you go about manifesting these ideas musically, through your projects?

"Less is not more; more is more and less is less. If I want more, I will give more."

It's in everything. It's in how I've become comfortable with performing and playing in a style that's different to what I was told was the orthodoxy was when I was in music college. There was a time when to be a jazz musician meant a certain thing, and there were structures that said you have to have. There's an old adage that "music is harmony, rhythm, and melody" and if you didn't have that, it wasn't music—I heard that so much in music college—and that's a structure of thought that hierarchically values music on what it has to offer.

For me, it's questioning those structures that we take for granted or are taught as given. Another of them is "less is more" as a structure of thought. I remember hearing "less is more" and thinking, "What are you talking about?!" That's just a way of relating to music to a single ideal born from a certain cultural viewpoint—it isn't universal.

Questioning those things meant I could come to different conclusions. With Sons of Kemet it was the conclusion that I'm not American and I don't need to be striving towards American ideals. I need to learn what I think is necessary, but if I'm going to play one pentatonic and then a whole load of chromatic shit for my whole solo that's completely fine if I think it is. Less is not more; more is more and less is less. If I want more, I will give more.

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