Dean Van Nguyen knows what’s in the Pulp Fiction briefcase.
To anyone paying attention, the first record to bare Shabaka Hutchings’ name on the cover is a jazz event. The freewheeling saxophonist has spent the last few years traversing London’s underground scene in various bands, and cashing checks by writing compositions on demand. But for Wisdom of Elders, Hutchings set up in Johannesburg, soaked in the company of like-minded musicians on his level, and cut his most definitive piece to date.
Wisdom of Elders is so complete, so fully-formed, it’s tough to take in that the whole album was recorded in one day. Those sessions should go down in mythical folklore, like the Greek Trojan War, or Dr. Dre and Ice Cube’s Heltah Skeltah, which may or may not be buried somewhere in the Mojave Desert. All we need to know is that virtuosos like Mandla Mlangeni, Zim Ngquwana and Bheki Mseleku—credited as The Ancestors—found serenity in Hutchings’ doomed compositions. Wisdom of Elders is a gorgeous melting pot of sounds from a guy who came up in Barbados playing in reggae bands, and whose personal blog operates as a scrapbook of clips by Sun Ra, ScHoolboy Q, Oddisee, and DOOM.
This is music for mourning. Spiritual chants to banish any bad specters circling overhead. The album is bookended by “Mzwandile” and “Nguni,” powerful hymns with vocal chants that sound distant but powerful, delivered by voices that are cracked and weathered. These are musical mantras that could move the land from under you, or awaken your own ancient ancestors from their deep slumber.
Everything, though, is tied together by Hutchings’ saxophone. His play is smooth as satin on “Joyous,” while “The Observer” begins as a grim psalm before it’s led by the jazzman into something of significant bluster. “Give Thanks” is an immodest showcase. With backing only coming from Tumi Mogorosi’s scintillating drums, Hutchings sounds like a superhero fully wielding his powers. His sax serving as his brass blade.